Issue



2008: A watershed year for consumer and mobile MEMS sensors


01/01/2009







by Jérémie Bouchaud and Richard Dixon, iSuppli Corp.

For the first time in its history, the MEMS market will fail to generate any growth in 2008. Global MEMS revenues of close to $6.5 billion are expected in 2008, down 0.1% from 2007. The market will recover in 2009 and is expected to reach pre-2008 growth levels in 2010, when global revenue hits $7.3 billion.

Several factors explain this quick recovery. The reverse in MEMS’ fortunes was already underway before the current economic crisis. Markets for inkjet heads and digital light projector (DLP) chips, which accounted for more than 50% of MEMS revenues, had begun to stagnate in 2007 and continued their slide in 2008. Superimposed on this, 2008 was one of the worse on record for the automotive industry, a sector that currently contributes over 20% of MEMS sensor revenues. By comparison, medical and industrial applications generally have been diverse and relatively stable markets, but not the major driver for MEMS. In fact, 2008 could have been much worse for MEMS, but multiple applications of sensors in consumer electronics and mobile applications underpinned the flat market and will help it grow tremendously in the next 3-4 years.


Figure 1. Dramatic expansion in applications for MEMS in the consumer and mobile space market will drive the MEMS market in the future. (Source: iSuppli)
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Now, consumer and mobile applications represent the new growth furnace for MEMS. Finally delivering on long-promised potential, shipments of MEMS sensors such as accelerometers, gyroscopes and microphones will more than quadruple to top 4.6 billion in 2012–an impressive five-year growth rate of 37%. This deluge of sensors will be accompanied by commoditization and high price erosion, but nevertheless the market will attain a very robust 19% growth to reach $2.5 billion in 2012, up from $1 billion in 2008.

Applications for consumer and mobile MEMS

MEMS sensors and actuators are present in an incredible number of consumer devices around us. iSuppli has referenced over 300 examples of mobile handsets and consumer products that use MEMS–everything from sport watches to laptops to camcorders and remote controllers that manage TV content.

A list of major end applications for MEMS sensors comprises:

  • Cell phones and smart phones
  • Laptops and hard disk drives
  • Game controllers
  • Digital still cameras
  • Camcorders
  • MP3 players and portable media players
  • Personal navigation devices
  • Remote controllers
  • Rear-projection televisions
  • Mini standalone projectors
  • Sports equipment
  • White goods, e.g., washing machines
  • Others: Toys, headsets, USB sticks, weather stations, etc.

The relative magnitude of these various applications on sensors is shown in Figure 2. By 2012, mobile phones and smart phones will dominate the demand for sensors with 50% of the total market against just over a quarter of the market five years previously. Motion sensors in the form of accelerometers will by far be the main contributor to revenue–with close to $1 billion in sales–ahead of gyroscopes and microphones.


Figure 2: Consumer and mobile MEMS market by end products in revenue, 2006-2012. (Source: iSuppli)
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Age of the accelerometer

Accelerometers are interesting for a number of motion-related measurements in consumer or handheld products, because relatively small accelerations can be easily detected. The sensor element itself usually comprises a movable mass whose movement is recorded compared to a fixed element. The signal is extracted using one of several methods, turned into a voltage and processed. Today these devices are provided with the ability to measure three axes of acceleration. In portable appliances, accelerometers typically measure accelerations in a range from 1-2g for simple tilting to 8-10g for games.

Suppliers of inexpensive 3-axis accelerometers today include market leader STMicroelectronics, Analog Devices, Kionix, Bosch Sensortec, and Freescale, and Hokuriku, MEMSIC, Hitachi Metals, etc. in Asia. VTI is expected to join the consumer accelerometer market shortly.

For several years now, accelerometers have made steady inroads in diverse applications such as pedometers, robotic toys, and projectors to protecting a HDD from a drop in a laptop or MP3 player. Accelerometers gained prominence recently as a motion sensor for Nintendo’s Wii game controller.

However, the latter half of 2008 saw seen an explosion of interest in accelerometers for both feature phones and smart phones including Apple’s iPhone 3G, the HTC Google G1 and Samsung’s Omnia. In 2008, we project penetrations of 10% of the 1.29 billion phones sold, compared to 3% the year before. And as the ASP falls quickly toward $0.50 for 3-axis accelerometers, these devices will become standard in many phones over the next five years.

Cell phone motion sensors are not a new phenomenon, though. So what is different? The mobile phone is turning into a hotbed for MEMS sensors, and the market finally seems to have moved away from years of technology push. As a result, high penetration rates allow economies for large-scale deployment. MEMS accelerometers in consumer electronics are in a “virtuous circle” today with lower prices stimulating the market and vice-versa.

Why image rotation was so important

What triggered this phenomenon? Apple’s first version of its iPhone featured some novel implementations of a large touch-screen and used a sensor to detect the device orientation to maximize its use. Specifically, this means rotating the large screen onto its longer axis for viewing script in a larger format, highly useful for reading Internet web pages, for example.

This use of a sensor to enhance content proved so compelling for users that other mobile phone manufacturers quickly followed suit. Nokia, Samsung, LG, Sony Ericsson, HTC, et al. now feature sensor-driven portrait-landscape orientation in their phones, demonstrating a (unashamedly) “me-too” attitude that ignites the market.

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Figure 3: Image rotation from Vodaphone in 2004 (top) and 3 years later in the Apple iPhone (bottom).
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Like most new trends, this is actually not new. Image rotation was offered by Vodaphone in 2004, but the phone had a small, almost square screen that did not impress per se. Today’s sensor implementation successfully marries the sensor application with the content, and the technology push model of the last 3-4 years gave way to market pull.

Importantly, Apple’s success has refocused interest on using motion sensors for other features such as simple position determination involving vertical or flat detection for power saving modes, shake mode for menu or MP3 track search, tap mode for muting, and so on. One of the most important applications for cell phones is for power-saving functionality.


Figure 4: Guitar Hero (top) and Lips (bottom) for Xbox 360.
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Another knock-on effect is the resurgence of accelerometers in MP3 players, now present the fourth-generation iPod Nano and Touch models. Accelerometers were previously used to protect the hard disc drives of high-capacity-storage MP3 players, until flash memory all but squeezed this format out of the market. Accelerometers now enjoy use in the interface as well as stimulate renewed interest for suppliers of games that benefit from motion sensors.

Play your heart out with MEMS

Gaming is another hotbed for sensors. The Nintendo Wii platform is to gaming what the iPhone is to the mobile phone world. MEMS motion sensors have been successfully deployed as a central part of a game and also its marketing strategy, and Nintendo has been successful in accessing a new demographic beyond its hard-core fan-base.


Figure 5: Nintendo’s Wii plus includes a plug-in gyroscope module to improve motion input.
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Recent TV commercials advertising Microsoft’s Xbox 360 gaming accessories such as Guitar Hero and the Lips microphones attest to the increasing interest in for example accelerometers to improve games. MEMS accelerometers are now central to many of these products, and amount to an interesting change of strategy at Microsoft, which eschewed accelerometers in its earlier games. The company now appears to have changed tactics since rival company Nintendo so successfully plumbed the untapped market for so-called “casual gamers” with its Wii.

Gyroscopes improve gaming experience

iSuppli believes the future of motion-based game controllers is not with single accelerometers, but combinations of accelerometers and gyroscopes. Together, these sensors will provide a much fuller representation of the movements of the players–as when flipping the wrist, for example.

Cost is the constraint. Today, discrete accelerometers and gyroscopes are purchased from companies including STMicroelectronics and Analog Devices and Murata, Epson Toyocom and InvenSense, respectively for the Wii and Sony’s Playstation 3.


Figure 6: Microphone on RIM Blackberry phone.
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Clearly, an IMU chip solution combining the gyroscope and accelerometer in a package in a single next-generation remote console would offer a lower-cost solution, and several companies possessing both technologies are chasing this goal.

Removing blur from your snaps

Digital still cameras have increased their pixel count significantly in recent years, partly driving the replacement market. Cameras costing as little as $200 now have more than 5 million pixels resolution, and large optical zooms to boot. But higher resolution has a downside. A larger number of pixel counts increases the potential for image blurring in low light conditions, where fast movement occurs or any situation dictating slow shutter speeds–in these new cameras, more pixels are available to detect any shake if it is present.

To remove this error at its source, MEMS gyroscopes sense the shake and stabilize the image by applying an equal and opposite correction to the lens motors. This represents the best solution to mitigate the effects of shake on images, and requires gyroscope measurements in two axes. This is performed using either two single-axis MEMS gyroscopes (usually piezoceramic or quartz type from Asian suppliers like Murata or Epson Toyocom), or with a single 2-axis silicon gyroscope (available today only from InvenSense).

Image stabilization has proved a popular differentiator for manufacturers in the past 1-2 years. More than 70 million units shipped in 2008, models from the likes of Sony, Canon, Panasonic, and others. A few million accelerometers also shipped for image stabilization, mostly for low-cost applications in camera phones. This is a compromise; for example, it is sometimes used to allow a photograph to be taken only when the camera is still.

Microphones

MEMS microphones are also emerging fast in cell phones and laptops for VoIP. This device performs better and is easier to implement than current ECM microphones–e.g., offering higher reflow temperatures and pick-and-place processes for high-throughput manufacturing.

As a result, the number of MEMS microphones on the market will grow rapidly to reach 1.3 billion units in 2012, up from 320 million units in 2008. The vast majority of these devices will find their way into cell phones and smart phones, but also laptops with VoIP, camcorders, headsets, toys, and any other device requiring an audio input.

Shipments could be much higher–but the market is being held back by the lack of a reliable second source. The main supplier to this market is Knowles Acoustics, with over 90% share. Cell phone OEMs are understandably wary of placing responsibility for production in the hands of just one main supplier.

On the other hand, the expected price dumping war has not taken place. The price of MEMS microphones–about 30%-50% higher than the average ECM today–is outweighed by gains in performance, size, and pick-and-place manufacturing and use of solder reflow processes. Using several MEMS microphones also enables beam forming and noise reduction.

After Knowles, Akustica and Sonion are names to watch, and 2008 saw two new suppliers enter: Analog Devices and Wolfson Microelectronics, both of which supply audio codecs to an existing customer base. As these companies flourish, prices will start to fall and OEMs will lose any hesitation over relying on a single source. iSuppli expects this factor will accelerate the penetration of MEMS microphones in the 2009-2012 timeframe.

Conclusion

These examples illustrate that the MEMS market is in more than just a healthy state, with at least five years of very robust growth ahead. Despite changes in fortunes for suppliers, products and economic woes, the diversity of the MEMS field allows it to continually reinvent itself and grow to new levels.


Jérémie Bouchaud is responsible for the MEMS service area for iSuppli. He founded and led MEMS research for Wicht Technologie Consulting, acquired by iSuppli in April 2008. Prior to WTC he oversaw technology transfer for sensors and MEMS at the German office of CEA-LETI. Email: jbouchaud@isuppli.com.
Richard Dixon is senior analyst for MEMS at iSuppli, and was a senior MEMS analyst at WTC, where he led commercialization and road-mapping activities on European Commission-funded technology projects, including detailed MEMS chip cost analysis studies. Email: rdixon@isuppli.com.