By Debra Vogler, SEMI
The demand for smartphones and other portable devices that need efficient power management is driving the analog IC market. Additionally, growth is fueled by the Internet of Things (IoT) and the MEMS/sensors devices that enable it. To explore the supply chain opportunities within the analog sector, including MEMS/sensors, SEMI introduced the Analog and New Frontiers Program at SEMICON West 2016. This program — part of the Extended Supply Chain Forum — will feature four, hour-long sessions, each focusing on a different supply chain challenge or area of interest within the analog sector. One of the featured speakers will be Dr. Peter Hartwell, senior director of Advanced Technology at InvenSense. Dr. Hartwell’s pre-show interview provides a provocative look at supply chain challenges facing MEMS/sensors manufacturers.
Perhaps the most significant challenge facing manufacturers of MEMS/sensors is commoditization of sensors and where the profits end up. “The windfall is going to the people enabling the applications at the top,” Hartwell told SEMI. “Especially with mobile devices and IoT.” He pointed out that if there isn’t a way for value capture at the lowest levels – i.e., the companies that enable the systems and devices that create the IoT experience – he predicts a plateau of innovation. “We won’t have the resources to push technology forward, so as a sensor company, we are trying to find ways to move further up the value chain to extract some of that value.”
Moving up the value chain, however, requires sensor companies to become more aware of system considerations. Design convergence is one way to accomplish this. “We think of design convergence as SiPs (System in Package) or SoCs (System on a Chip),” said Hartwell. “We start to put together our sensors with other capabilities, whether that means having processing power in our package or looking at different kinds of sensors that come together.”
He speculates about a time when there will be a single-chip IoT device, i.e., a one-chip device comprising sensors, storage, radio, power management, and perhaps even energy harvesting. “Maybe that’s where the convergence goes.” Still, in the end, the challenge becomes how the industry gets the money back to the bottom of the supply chain. “We’re inching up towards where that money is by building those systems and understanding what it takes to make them.”
The fabless model for MEMS/sensors
Aside from the commoditization conundrum, Hartwell sees another supply chain opportunity arising if the industry embraces a truly fabless business model. Such a model would be based on companies that only design the devices with the process kits arising from different companies. The fundamental question with that scenario, Hartwell notes, is how the various MEMS/sensors houses differentiate themselves.
Hartwell noted that InvenSense embraces the fabless model — the company has a Shuttle program with its foundry partners, TSMC and GLOBALFOUNDRIES. The InvenSense Shuttle gives MEMS developers the opportunity to fabricate their designs on the patented InvenSense Fabrication MEMS-CMOS integrated platform. Though competitors are not able to take part in the Shuttle program, it is available to universities and start-up partner companies. That said, Hartwell noted that the company keeps its ‘cards pretty close to the vest.’ So the challenge is how to open up that model while retaining differentiation when fabs and foundries tend to want to wring out cost from process development by using as much standardization as possible.
“The million dollar question,” said Hartwell, “is could we ever get to the point where the foundry tells the sensor companies what to do — the EDA companies would love to see this happen because it would lead to standardization of design tools and simulators.”
Opportunities for test and the digital interface
Test and packaging are two more opportunity areas for the supply chain. Hartwell pointed out that most MEMS/sensors companies do their own testing using their own test infrastructure. “It’s one differentiator that we haven’t been willing to give up,” said Hartwell. “So this is an opportunity for someone to come in and turn over the apple cart.”
With the proliferation of sensors that need to interface with a multi-chip system comes the challenge of having to connect using more and more pins. And though the industry has solutions for a digital interface to the sensor world, additional work needs to focus on making that interface robust. Hartwell explained that multiple interrupts and digital lines are needed and it gets complicated when you have five, six, or seven sensors in a system. “There are just not enough pins,” said Hartwell. “So we’re seeing a change in the wiring and the interface will have to be something new to solve the integration problem, which has become nontrivial.” He further observed that IoT is driven by four attributes: size, cost, power, and performance. “To get to the promise of IoT, it will take breakthroughs to get to a trillion sensors. You will have to reduce size, cost, power and performance, and some of those by one or two orders of magnitude.”
Wringing out costs with packaging (or, “no” package)
Hartwell minces no words when it comes to tackling size and cost in MEMS: packaging is MEMS. “This is the biggest opportunity to take out size and cost,” Hartwell told SEMI. “The influence of packaging on the transducer can’t be ignored. Packaging hurts the size, it hurts performance, and it’s something for which I don’t want to pay. It’s a huge opportunity for a shift.”
For Hartwell, the crux of the challenge is how to take a single piece of silicon that has a 6-axis sensor system, and then test it, trim it, ship it, and put it into whatever system it’s going into without changing its trim. While chip-scale packaging could be the opportunity the MEMS industry needs, he wants to keep the options open for other ways to break the paradigm.
What’s clear is that ample business opportunities exist for the supply chain within the MEMS/sensors sector to get rid of cost and size, address the test challenge, get rid of the package, and finally, new ways to handle and assemble parts.
To learn more, attend the Analog and New Frontiers Forum (part of the Extended Supply Chain Forum) at SEMICON West. The forum will be held on Wednesday, July 13, in four, hour-long sessions on the Keynote Stage, North Hall, Moscone Center. Check the SEMICON West 2016 website for more details and a list of confirmed speakers for each of the sessions.