MEMS makers’ efforts bear fruit as Apple embraces sensor

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Mar. 28, 2005 — If there is any one company whose use of a new technology signals that innovation’s arrival in the mainstream, it is Apple Computer. Apple’s use of the computer mouse and the graphical user interface 20 years ago catapulted those technologies into homes and offices as other computer makers adopted them in a rush to compete.

In more recent years, Apple has done the same with wireless networking and devices like the MP3 player, signaling the market that such technologies and devices are ready for prime time.

So it ought to be with great fanfare that the MEMS fabrication sector views the latest news from Apple: all new PowerBook laptops come standard with a sudden motion sensor, which integrates a tri-axis accelerometer to help protect a spinning hard drive if the computer is accidentally dropped.

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Apple’s not the first computer maker to use MEMS sensors. IBM has made the feature available in its ThinkPad line since 2003. But for a vendor of component technology, selling into Apple is like getting your product on the Wal-Mart shelf: You’ve arrived.

Precisely who has arrived, however, remains a mystery. Apple does not reveal the names of any of its component suppliers as a matter of policy, said a company spokeswoman. Major vendors of tri-axis accelerometers declined to comment.

“It’s not likely a foundry,” said Bruce Alton, vice president of marketing and business development at Micralyne Inc., in Edmonton, Alberta. His MEMS foundry does not supply tri-axis accelerometers. “Apple would more likely deal with an established player who has existing and proven manufacturing capacity for that particular product.”

Regardless of who supplies Apple, its motion-sensing PowerBooks and a flurry of MEMS makers ready to serve it and other portable electronic products are a clear sign that the move into so-called “low-G” applications is gaining traction.

Low-G applications require an extremely sensitive sensor. The sensor must be able to respond immediately to the subtlest changes in direction, speed and acceleration. In such a manner, a cell phone’s display can react instantly — changing its content, for example — when the user tilts the phone one way or the other. Or a hard disk can instantly clamp down on its read/write head when the sensor detects a fall, preventing damage to sensitive components. A single chip that senses motion in three axes is required to fit into small spaces and is less expensive than using multiple chips.

Although no one owned up to supplying Apple, manufacturers have hardly been shy about announcing tri-axis accelerometer news. On Jan. 31, the same day as Apple’s announcement, Analog Devices issued a release stating the company is expanding its MEMS technology to tri-axis sensing. Among the applications it played up were mobile phones and other portable devices that could respond intelligently to movement as well as protecting hard drives. A company spokesman said a specific product announcement wouldn’t be made until later in the year.

A week later, Kionix Inc. announced it had shipped what it claimed was the smallest tri-axis accelerometer yet, the KXP74. The ultrathin sensor, which measures 5 x 5 x 1.2mm, is intended to serve cell phones, MP3 players, handheld computers and hard drives.

Another Kionix tri-axis accelerometer has been in volume production since early 2004 and, the company says, is used in applications such as laptop drop detection, cell phone gesture recognition and other areas. Kionix said it would release additional tri-axis products during the year.

Analog Devices and Kionix are hardly alone. ST Microelectronics and Oki Electric Industry Co. Ltd. have also released tri-axis sensors. And a bevy of competitors — including Mems Technology and Freescale Semiconductor — is working on tri-axis products. Freescale plans to launch one as early as the second quarter, according to a company spokeswoman.

The momentum could push low-G sensors more quickly into other product categories, like high-end MP3 players with built-in hard drives that could spell real volume for suppliers. But that opportunity is easier for some to capitalize on than for others.

“I suspect it’s even an off-the-shelf product or an existing volume product that is modified for an Apple computer,” said Micralyne’s Alton. As a result, expect this trend to benefit the bigger players with existing volume manufacturing capacity rather than the smaller custom fabrication outfits.

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