MEMS Industry Group Blog

Monthly Archives: May 2013

Who’s Driving the MEMS Evolution Revolution Now? (Part 3 of 3)

Who’s Driving the MEMS Evolution Revolution Now? (Part 3 of 3)

It is my pleasure to present the conclusion of the guest blog trilogy on the MEMS Evolution Revolution, written by my colleague, and long-time MEMS industry insider, Howard Wisniowski.  So far in this series, Howard has taken us with him to "visit" member companies Qualtré and WiSpry, taught us about bulk acoustic wave (BAW) solid state MEMS gyroscopes, radio frequency (RF) MEMS, and an innovative application called "Tunable Antennae."  In part three, we will be introduced to one of the many new MEMS-based technologies coming to the forefront, MEMS timing devices.  We will also take a look at Sand 9, another start up and MIG member that has developed a truly disruptive timing device.

I hope you are as excited as I was to read this the final installment to the series, and I welcome you share your stories of other MEMS start ups that are breaking out in their own markets.  Whether it be in agriculture or acoustics, healthcare or helicopters,  MEMS truly is everywhere and it’s likely the innovative smaller companies who will spread it further, faster and for longer.  Viva la Revolution!

Who’s Driving the MEMS Evolution Revolution Now?
Part 3
Howard Wisniowski, Freelance Editor

Although MEMS inertial sensors received most of the attention during the first and second waves of MEMS technology adoption in the 1990s and 2000s, many new MEMS-based technologies are going to be taking center stage during the current decade. Micro-electromechanical system (MEMS) timing devices are one good example.

MEMS Oscillators

MEMS-based oscillators are an emerging class of highly miniaturized, batch manufacturable timing devices that are more rugged, use less power and are more immune to electromagnetic interference than the well-established quartz-based oscillators. They also play an important role by enabling synchronicity and stable operation in complex electronic devices, from smartphones and tablets to industrial test and measurement systems and communications infrastructure equipment — for applications such as ethernet timing, network timing and cellular base stations. Users not only benefit from better performance in smaller geometries, these MEMS timing products can be integrated / co-packaged with standard semiconductor IC’s to enhance performance, simplify end system design, and optimize board real estate.

Sand 9 (Cambridge, MA), another startup and MIG member, has developed a MEMS timing-device platform that is truly disruptive. The company’s technology is the industry’s first to achieve the stringent phase noise and short-term stability performance requirements for wireless and wired applications where mobile devices are susceptible to malfunctions when a device is dropped and the quartz is dislodged. The spurious-free resonator design – which can enhance network efficiency due to reduced packet loss – can also result in fewer dropped calls. Mobile devices also can easily lose GPS lock and may drop calls due to the limitations of quartz. Also being addressed are earlier MEMS challenges including high power consumption, large phase noise, strong jitter, frequency jumps and strong spurious output. While previous solutions were OK for low-end timing solutions, they are less acceptable for precision timing requirements of 3G, 4G or GPS applications. Sand 9’s spurious-free resonator design can enhance network efficiency due to reduced packet loss – resulting in fewer dropped calls. Combined with high immunity to noise, shock and lead-free reflow temperatures, the Sand 9 high-precision platform also addresses temperature compensated crystal oscillator (TCXO) weaknesses that system designers have been forced to work around for decades.

From a process innovation standpoint, Sand 9 is developing piezoelectric MEMS products which are roughly 100x more efficient at converting electrical energy to mechanical and back to electrical energy again than electrostatic. This means better performance in smaller geometries while improving quality (no moving plates = no stiction). These developments are aimed at overcoming disadvantages of quartz-based devices that include manufacturing cost, longer procurement times, scalability and susceptibility to shock damage.

Industry watchers and analysts have taken notice. According to Semico Research, the MEMS oscillator market is still at a nascent stage, representing less than one percent of the total timing market of $6.3 billion.  By offering drop-in replacement – and technical benefits over established silicon quartz crystal timing devices – MEMS companies have already begun to capture market share from the legacy suppliers: quartz crystal manufacturers. According to their estimates, the global market for MEMS oscillators was $21.4 million in 2010 and is expected to reach $312 million by 2014, with consumer products representing nearly half of the market. With disruptive MEMS technologies like MEMS oscillators getting traction, the third wave of MEMS adoption is off and running.  

Who’s Driving the MEMS Evolution Revolution? (Part 2 of 3)

I am pleased to bring you the second part of a three part series on the MEMS Evolution Revolution, written by my colleague, and long-time MEMS industry insider, Howard Wisniowski.  So far in this series, Howard has taken us with him to "visit" member company  Qualtré, and taught us about bulk acoustic wave (BAW) solid state MEMS gyroscopes.  In part 2, we will begin to learn about radio frequency (RF) MEMS, an innovative application called "Tunable Antennae," and a start up who is pioneering the advances of this new technology.

I hope you are as excited as I am to read this series, and I welcome you share your stories of other MEMS startups that are breaking out in their own markets, whether it be in agriculture or acoustics; healthcare or helicopters. MEMS truly is everywhere and it’s likely the innovative smaller companies who will spread it further, faster and for longer. Viva la Revolution!

Who’s Driving the MEMS Evolution Revolution Now?

Part 2 of 3
Howard Wisniowski, Freelance Editor
What’s most exciting about MEMS technology is watching how it is evolving. As a participant in the MEMS industry for over 15 years, I have witnessed much of the evolution and revolution take place. In Part 1, I highlighted an innovative and disruptive inertial MEMS technology referred to as bulk acoustic wave (BAW) technology. This new class of solid state stationary gyroscopes is opening up many new application possibilities by being able to meet the performance, size, cost, and reliability requirements for many emerging MEMS inertial sensor applications.

Part 2 focuses on radio frequency (RF) MEMS and a very innovative and disruptive application referred to as tunable antennae. It is hard to believe that one of the most important parts of a mobile phone is the antennae, which is very low-tech. With today’s smartphones that incorporate very sophisticated technology from gazillion-transistor CPUs controlling everything to state-of-the-art retina display on the front ends, the antennae for GSM, LTE, WiFi, and Bluetooth, are simply pieces of metal.

We all can recall when devout iPhone followers were outraged by the fact that an Apple device could be defeated when water-filled, fleshy fingers touched the metal antenna, it attenuated (weakened) the signal and resulted in dropped calls. The fact of the matter is that every smartphone has similar issues. Fortunately, for every mobile device maker, there’s an alternative to normal antennae: RF MEMS.

RF MEMS, as the name suggests, are semiconductor chips that can alter their physical (mechanical) state with the application of movable structures. When applied to an antenna, RF MEMS can be used to make antennae that automatically tune and re-tune themselves to both incoming and outgoing signals. For example, if one should put a finger on an RF MEMS antenna it can automatically re-tune itself so that no calls are dropped. What’s more, this is an emerging application where IHS iSuppli has reported that sales of RF MEMS devices are could reach $150 million by 2015.

RF MEMS Antenna Tuners

At WiSpry, a start up in Irvine, CA and another MIG member, they are pioneering advances in the field of tunable RF technology and addressing the emerging needs of modern smartphones.  Today’s smartphones have a number of radios to deal with — GSM, 3G, CDMA, W-CDMA, LTE, Bluetooth, WiFi, and even FM and TV radios in some cases. Each one has its own silicon circuitry and usually its own antenna too. Additionally, there are now a burgeoning number of frequency bands needing to be supported for 4G LTE cellular – ranging today from 700 Mhz to around 3700 Mhz. What’s more, the 3GPP standards are now allowing more than 43 different frequencies and there is an emerging demand for "Carrier Aggregation" in LTE – Advanced, the newest set of standards, which will have simultaneous "aggregation" of multiple frequencies on a single phone, allowing huge bandwidth improvements.

WiSpry’s RF MEMS-based antenna tuner technology will play pivotal roles in these advancements by potentially enabling devices with just a single antenna and transceiver. By reducing the number of necessary components in a handset while allowing the radio front-end to be programmed to work in any frequency band and with any radio standard using the same set of hardware, a "World-Phone" architecture is possible and truly disruptive. Finally, thanks to MEMS, the antennae on mobile devices will actually function more efficiently as they were initially intended – to carry and convey data and yes, even your phone calls.