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MEMS – Enter with Care

By Karen Lightman, MEMS Industry Group

MEMS – enter with care. I think that will be my tagline for MEMS Industry Group’s third annual MEMS Executive Congress Europe 2014 recently held in Munich, Germany. The official theme of the conference was the “MEMS-Enabled Life,” and the keynotes and panelists did talk about how MEMS is currently and will continue to improve our quality of life. However, what struck me the most about this conference was how every panelist shared not only the “everything’s-coming-up-MEMS” perspective but also some real honest discussion about the remaining challenges of getting MEMS devices to market on-time, and at (or below) cost.

This was especially apparent on the consumer products panel – which makes sense.  Because nowhere else is the MEMS industry more competitive than in the consumer market. JC Eloy of Yole Développement characterized it best: “The MEMS consumer market is booming, but….” The “but” factor here is that it’s such a tough business that very few startups can enter the MEMS consumer market, the only exception being InvenSense. I’ve often said that MEMS is not for the faint at heart, but these days it really looks to be cutthroat in the consumer business as Bosch and ST duke it out for the #1 spot. My favorite quote from the Congress was a sign of that competitiveness – so coyly stated by Teemu Rämö of Nokia when he introduced himself on the panel: “Nokia, the phone you had before you switched to your iPhone or Samsung.” Yes, remember Nokia. Now the Lumia is best known for its (MEMS-enabled) camera, but alas, not for its mobile phone capabilities.

The perspective on the challenges and opportunities in this competitive field of MEMS was also well detailed by our morning keynote, Rudi De Winter, CEO of X-FAB Group, who spoke of the innovation and diversification of MEMS and how it compares to semiconductor and CMOS manufacturing. De Winter described the challenges this way: “In MEMS there are no elementary building blocks…the physical implementation is very different from CMOS and there is a huge potential for optimization (process, design architecture).” Clearly a leader like X-FAB that is expanding its MEMS capabilities sees the opportunity but is going in with open eyes and an appreciation of the challenges that lie ahead.

The automotive panel, ably moderated by Freescale’s Marc Osajda, also reflected on the challenges in the ever-changing world of automotive. The panelists gave a great overview of the changing landscape. As BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) countries are increasing their demand for cars, they are not necessarily increasing their demand for MEMS-/sensor-laden cars. In fact, Richard Dixon of IHS shared the statistic that only 8% of cars sold in BRIC countries have MEMS/sensors while the average American car has closer to 18. This market diversification is simultaneously creating both real opportunity andbig challenges. But as stated by Christoph Wagner of Analog Devices, “MEMS will always be an innovator in automotive.”

The MEMS in healthcare panelists also discussed the opportunities for MEMS – explaining that the biggest chance for a “killer app” in MEMS is in the health/wellness space. The panelists couldn’t help themselves by discussing the barriers to that killer-app-happy-place, with the biggest one being regulation (no surprise here). But they expressed overall optimism when describing a future where you “bring your own device” to maintain wellness and health, and I look forward to experiencing that world as I envision it — with fewer wait times at the doctor’s office. (A girl can dream, can’t she?)

My highlight of MEMS Congress Europe was definitely hearing the keynote from Klaus Meder, president of Automotive Electronics, Robert Bosch GmbH: “MEMS and our Connected World.” With his enviable-looking presentation slides (like seriously, who does his graphics? I want his/her contact info!), Meder painted an exciting world enabled by MEMS/sensors and truly smart Internet of Things and Services (IoTS). “Internet of things is about sensors everywhere, networks everywhere, analyze everything,” stated Meder. YES! I want that world because that world doesn’t intimidate me or frighten me with its regulations and privacy concerns. I can’t wait for that beautifully intelligent MEMS/sensors-everywhere world. Can you?

Exploring the MEMS-Enabled Life: A Preview of MEMS Executive Congress Europe 2014

By Karen Lightman, executive director, MEMS Industry Group

Munich, Germany is one of my favorite cities in the world. If you agree or if you’ve never been there, I have the perfect opportunity for you to join me:  MEMS Industry Group’s (MIG’s) MEMS Executive Congress Europe 2014 will be held at the beautiful Sofitel Hotel Bayerpost on March 10-11. The theme of our third European Congress is the “MEMS-enabled life,” and I don’t think there’s a more perfect city to exemplify an enhanced quality of life than Munich.

Congress attendees will get a rare inside look at the business of MEMS as they hear first-hand from (and interact with) keynote speakers, featured presenters and panelists. Plus we’ll have lots of time for networking, including an opening reception on March 10 and a fabulous dinner at the Augustiner Braustuben Biergarten on the night of March 11.

Our morning keynote speaker, Rudi De Winter, CEO of X-FAB Group, will share his thoughts on the commercial, technical, manufacturability, market and investment risks in developing MEMS business, detailing how to overcome them to reap rewards. Mr. De Winter will also provide examples of MEMS and 3D heterogeneous integration by sharing the investment story in two startups:  MicroGen Systems (energy harvesting) and X-Celeprint (mass micro-transfer printing technology). As a big fan of Rob Andosca and MicroGen, I am really looking forward to hearing Mr. De Winter’s perspective on energy harvesting and in particular, MicroGen.

Our afternoon keynote speaker, Klaus Meder, president of Automotive Electronics at Robert Bosch, will explore “MEMS in Our Connected World.” I am especially excited to hear Mr. Meder’s speech as he gave the keynote at our MEMS session at 2013 International CES, and he revealed some of Bosch’s plans to revolutionize the way we connect to our world. This is when the concept of the “Internet of Things (IoT) comes home, literally. With IoT-enabled home appliances, my Bosch dishwasher could talk to my clothes washer so they don’t take all my hot water before my teenager takes a shower. (God forbid she doesn’t have enough water!).  And I love the idea of an IoT-enabled car talking to other cars to warn them of icy roads ahead (which would really come in handy here in Pittsburgh where all our side streets are covered in two inches of ice). I look forward to that world, where my life will be enhanced in very simple ways, thanks to MEMS.

While many of us might be swept away by the amazing consumer-focused products that MEMS makes possible, there is a big world beyond consumer, in which industrial applications t will truly revolutionize we manage critical business functions. We have brought in a respected industry luminary, Dr. Jörk Habenstreit, managing director for Research & Development Technology Software, Testo, to share his perspectives on the role of MEMS and sensors in some of these industrial applications. From food processing, transport and storage to clean room integrity, building thermography, and gas leak detection, MEMS-based test and measurement instrumentation from companies like Testo are improving business operations in a variety of ways.

With the focus of the entire European Congress is on the business of MEMS, we’ll also include panel discussions to drill down into specific market areas, including consumer, health/wellness and automotive. We’ve worked extra hard this year to make sure we hear from a wide array of opinions and perspectives so you’ll see some folks from research sitting alongside industry veterans, giving us their thoughts on the future market potential for MEMS-enabling products. I think it’s important to get a diversity of opinions on panels and I am confident this year’s European Congress will not disappoint. You can check out the agenda for the full list of speakers and the descriptions of the panels.

MEMS Executive Congress Europe checks all the boxes: great content and speakers, networking time with MEMS industry execs and OEM users, and an unbeatable location in Munich. Hope you’ll join me there!

MEMS: An Enabler of the Next Internet Revolution

Micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS) and sensor fusion will play a critical role in enabling a more intelligent and intuitive Internet of Things (IoT)—one that will revolutionize the consumer space forever. The MEMS and sensor technology is here today and now is the time to harness it for your products and position yourself for this exciting future. I encourage you to read on and learn about some great examples of MEMS enabling IoT.

-Karen Lightman, Executive Director, MEMS Industry Group

MEMS: An Enabler of the Next Internet Revolution

Written by: Howard Wisniowski, President of HW Marketing Group.

The next internet revolution is shaping up and MEMS is poised to play an important role. Commonly referred to as the Internet of Things (IoT) or Machine to Machine (M2M) communications, this revolution consists primarily of machines talking to one another, with computer-connected humans observing, analyzing and acting upon the resulting ‘big data’ explosion it produces. While the first internet/web revolution changed the world profoundly, the disruptive nature of MEMS, M2M and the Internet of Things has the potential to change it even more as the big data machine will no longer be dependent on human data entry. The internet traffic will be automatically generated by millions of ‘things’ from which we can retool large parts of the world for better efficiency, security and environmental responsibility.

The enabling qualities of MEMS sensors quickly come to mind since they are increasingly becoming cheap, plentiful and can communicate, either directly with the internet or with internet-connected devices. Almost anything to which you can attach a sensor — a football helmet, an automobile, a smartphone, a cow in a field, a container on a cargo vessel, the air-conditioning unit in your office, a lamppost in the street — can become a node in the Internet of Things. Be it on location, altitude, velocity, temperature, illumination, motion, power, humidity, blood sugar, air quality, soil moisture… you name it, MEMS-based sensors will play an important role in gathering and/or disseminating data from millions of devices.

Deeper into the signal chain, however, is another class of MEMS devices that is evolving and will have a profound impact. At the heart of all the “connected” devices will be a component that provides the timing that enables all communication to occur.

In the past, timing components have typically been manufactured from quartz crystals, a nearly century-old technology unsuitable for integration into small, low power connectivity ICs. In contrast, a new generation of MEMS timing devices are appearing and are offered by companies such as Sand 9, Silicon Labs, IDT, and SiTime. Major advantages of MEMS timing devices include vibration immunity, shock resistance, power supply noise immunity, small package dimensions, and reliable operation at high sustained temperatures. Additionally, sourcing MEMS timing devices is significantly easier that quartz. Leadtimes are shorter, the ability to react to sudden upside is much faster, and the ability to leverage semiconductor batch manufacturing enables cost benefits as volumes scale.

For the IoT market, small size is a key factor. New timing devices are now available in ultra-small WLCSPs and can be co-packaged with Bluetooth Smart ICs. An example of this is

Sand 9’s MEMS resonators. Rugged, simplified Bluetooth Smart SiPs with the smallest dimensions and lowest power requirements are one of the factors driving Bluetooth adoption and IoT growth by enabling applications such as new industrial designs for wearable devices and tags.  With an ever increasing number of Bluetooth devices able to connect wirelessly, both the ecosystem and each device in it will increase in value and usefulness.

Speaking of smaller size, zero operate power, and higher performance, another MEMS technology is emerging that will also impact product designs serving the IoT trends. MEMS switches are now being introduced that require no power to switch while robust enough to  handle 300mW of ‘carry power’ performing as a sensor, high carry current switch or both. Announced earlier this year, Coto Technology’s RedRock™ MEMS-based magnetic reed switch is the latest example and is currently the world’s smallest single-pole, single throw (SPST) switch at only 2-by-1 millimeter (with an even smaller one on the way). It is activated or closed by a magnetic field of less than 25 milliTeslas while being highly directional, making it virtually immune to stray magnetic fields. Applications that benefit include ultra-small hearing aids, implantable insulin pumps, capsule endoscopes in-a-pill, and even devices that track birds, land animals and sharks off the coast of Chatham Massachusetts, all products connected for data logging and programming.

There’s many exciting market possibilities for MEMS-based products in the emerging world of the Internet of Things as products become smaller, increase in capability and machine-to-machine communication grows in importance. I’ve only touched the surface and I’m sure there are many more examples in this continually evolving landscape as suppliers continue to roll out products with greater capabilities and enable applications that were not possible before. Who is next? Share your thoughts.

Are Hardware Hubs Coming?

Guest Contributor: Bryon Moyer, Editor of EE Journal

Sensor fusion has been all the rage over the last year. We’ve all watched as numerous companies – both makers of sensors and the “sensor-agnostic” folks – have sported dueling algorithms. Sensor fusion has broadened into “data fusion,” where other non-sensor data like maps can play a part. This drama increasingly unfolds on microcontrollers serving as “sensor hubs.”

But there’s something new stirring. While everyone has been focusing on the algorithms and which microcontrollers are fastest or consume the lowest power, the suggestion is being put forward that the best way to execute sensor fusion software may not be in software: it may be in hardware.

Software and hardware couldn’t be more different. Software is highly flexible, runs anywhere (assuming compilers and such), and executes serially. (So far, no one that I’m aware of has proposed going to multicore sensor fusion for better performance.) Hardware is inflexible, may or may not depend on the underlying platform, and can run blazingly fast because of massive inherent parallelism.

Of course, then there’s the programmable version of hardware, the FPGA. These are traditionally large and power-hungry – not fit for phones. A couple companies – QuickLogic and Lattice – have, however, been targeting phones with small, ultra-low-power devices and now have their eyes on sensor hubs. Lattice markets their solution as a straight-up FPGA; QuickLogic’s device is based on FPGA technology, but they bury that fact so that it looks like a custom part.

Which solution is best is by no means a simple question. Hardware can provide much lower power – unless sensor hub power is swamped by something else, in which case it theoretically doesn’t matter. (Although I’ve heard few folks utter “power” and “doesn’t matter” in the same breath.) Non-programmable hardware is great for standard things that are well-known; software is good for algorithms in flux. Much of sensor fusion is in flux, although it does involve some elements that are well-understood.

Which suggests that this might not just be a hardware-vs-software question: perhaps some portions remain in software while others get hardened. But do you end up with too many chips then? A sensor hub is supposed to keep calculations away from the AP. If done as hardware, that hub can be an FPGA (I can’t imagine an all-fixed-hardware hub in this stage of the game); if done in software, the hub can be a microcontroller. But if it’s a little of both hardware and software, do you need both the FPGA and the microcontroller?

Then there’s the issue of language. High-level algorithms start out abstract and get refined into runnable software in languages like C. Hardware, on the other hand, relies on languages like VHDL and Verilog – very different from software languages. Design methodologies are completely different as well. Converting software to optimal hardware automatically has long been a holy grail and remains out of reach. Making that conversion is easier than it used to be, and tools to help do exist, but it still requires a hardware guy to do the work. The dream of software guys creating hardware remains a dream.

There’s one even more insidious challenge implicit in this discussion: the fact that hardware and software guys all too often never connect. They live in different silos. They do their work during different portions of the overall system design phase. And hardware is expected to be rock solid; we’re more tolerant (unfortunately) of flaws in our software – simply because they’re “easy” to fix. So last-minute changes in hardware involve far whiter knuckles than do such out-the-door fixes in software.

This drama is all just starting to play out, and the outcome is far from clear. Will hardware show up and get voted right off the island? Or will it be incorporated into standard implementations? Will it depend on the application or who’s in charge? Who will the winners and losers be?

Gather the family around and bring some popcorn. I think it’s going to be a show worth watching.

Design Enablement and the Emergence of the Near Platform

By Karen Lightman, managing director of MEMS Industry Group

I am pleased to bring you this blog by Silex Microsystem’s Peter Himes, vice president marketing & strategic alliances. Peter reflects on MEMS and while other might lament at the conundrum of the uniqueness of all MEMS process (you can hum it to the tune initially coined by Jean Christophe Eloy of “one process, one product”) Peter instead sees opportunity. Through this challenge, Peter sees opportunity for innovation and collaboration. And what pleases me the most about his musings on MEMS is that the basic thesis that is my mantra:  “to succeed in MEMS, you can’t go at it alone – you must partner.” In this example he describes Silex’s partnership with A.M. Fitzgerald and Associates and their Rocket MEMS program. Read on, plug in and share your thoughts on how you’ve creatively sparked innovation in your own company; especially if you come up with the same reflection: in MEMS, it takes a village; you can’t go at it alone.

Design Enablement and the Emergence of the Near Platform

What does it mean to enable a MEMS design? Is it enough to have silicon wafers, a clean room and some tools? What bridges the idea to product?

Traditionally it has meant a series of trials based on past experiences on conceiving of a process flow which results in the final desired structure. What steps are possible? What materials can be used? How will it react to the process and how will it perform after all processing is done? All of these questions need to be understood simultaneously. Being able to do this consistently over many different projects is how Silex helps the most innovative MEMS companies get their ideas to high volume manufacturing.

But in markets where MEMS is becoming mainstream, where acceptance of MEMS technologies is encouraging traditional and non-traditional customers alike to consider their own MEMS programs, is this enough to enable the rapid growth of MEMS going forward? Is every MEMS device trapped in a paradigm of custom process development and new materials development? Does everything require MEMS PhD expertise to engineer a perfect solution? In a market where customers are looking for customized MEMS devices AND rapid time to market, can they have both?

The core of MEMS still lies in the custom process integration and the universe of MEMS devices is still expanding, pushed by the dark energy of innovation. Our SmartBlock™ approach to process integration is why we can execute on these challenges in a consistent and high quality way. But it still takes the time and effort of customized processes to achieve full production qualification, so we also believe that another model is possible, and we are beginning to see it emerge.

Process integration into a foundry environment is something we also call Design Enablement, because a successful MEMS process enables designs to be turned into an actual product. But the power of design enablement is somewhat muted if the echo only rings once. The true power of Design Enablement is when the process can resonate over many products or many redesigns of the same product. This would break the “one product, one process” paradigm and is what we believe is the next phase in the MEMS industry.

Rocket MEMS

Alissa Fitzgerald of AMFitzgerald & Associates had a dilemma and an idea.  To her, the normal route for MEMS development was difficult from the start:  begin with an idea and use a university or research lab to get a prototype out.  Once it is successful, contact a production MEMS foundry to manufacture it – only to find out there are still months or years of process qualification ahead. What if she could collaborate with a foundry from the start and define a product design platform and a process flow simultaneously? Using known process capabilities of an existing foundry, build and characterize the product to that process, so that both the processing window and the product spec windows are defined simultaneously. Then you have a process platform that is solid, “de-risked,” and ready to take customers to market quickly.

This is the idea behind the AMFitzgerald RocketMEMS program and Silex’s support and partnership in the initiative. And it results in something which is not fully customized for each new product, yet is not completely and rigidly fixed either. Rather, it is a “Near Product Platform” made possible by the design enablement of the Silex process integration approach and AMFitzgerald’s product design framework and methodology. It allows for product specific variability without breaking the mold out of which the process was cast.

And it works.