MEMS is moving. Here’s where.


The Nintendo Wii’s use of a MEMS-enabled motion controller and the Apple iPhone’s use of accelerometers to change the display from horizontal to vertical are examples of how MEMS are creating new ways for people to interact with electronic devices. They illustrate the continued expansion of MEMS technology from its beginnings in the automotive and industrial markets to applications that include energy harvesting, wireless communications, “smart homes,” and biomedical.

Big numbers

According to the analyst group Yole Développement, the market was worth $5.8 billion in 2006 and will grow to $10.7 billion by 2011. The leading MEMS application, inkjet heads, is followed closely by sensors for airbag deployment and tire inflation monitoring. Texas Instruments (TI) makes Digital Light Processing (DLP) MEMS for computer displays as well as for digital projection. Wicht Technologie Consulting says that TI was the top MEMS manufacturer in 2006, with $905 million in revenues. TI has reportedly shipped more than 10 million DLP sub-systems since 1996.

While MEMS technology is about more than high-volume production, others have been similarly successful with mass production. ST Microelectronics’ 3-axis accelerometer is the enabling force within Nintendo’s Wii, and Analog Devices says it has shipped more than 250 million MEMS accelerometers for automotive, consumer, and industrial applications.

VTI Technologies Oy reports sales of more than 25 million MEMS structures per year, and the company claims more than 50% market share in automotive low-G sensors and medical cardiac rhythm management (CRM). Robert Bosch GmbH, which many consider to be the leader in MEMS sensors, has an annual output of more than 130 million of the units.

Growth markets, application examples

The MEMS Industry Group (MIG), which has more than 70 member companies, expects the market to change considerably over the next four years-for several reasons. At less than $1 each, MEMS devices are becoming cost-competitive for mass-market consumer electronics. Also, MEMS meet demands for flexible, reliable sensors for consumer products, known for increasingly rapid design-to-deliver cycles. Thus, MEMS are successfully replacing both off-the-shelf semiconductors and custom ASICs in applications in which those other two options were once dominant.

MIG foresees strong growth in accelerometer-based motion sensing for consumer and automotive applications and in combination accel-gyro units for a new generation of accurate, blur-free, global positioning systems and gesture-based navigation.

MIG also anticipates significant growth in silicon microphones, which are shipping in the millions in mobile phones and PC laptops.

Radio frequency (RF) MEMS are also gaining ground as companies such as WiSpry offer products to “create revolutionary wireless architectures enabled by the cost-effective integration of reconfigurable RF front-ends in cellular phones.” RF MEMS offer advantages over conventional (mechanical and semiconductor) technologies, such as low loss; high isolation; linearity; and large, fast, and reliable bandwidth.

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MEMS are also penetrating wireless networks: Micro-optoelectromechanical systems (MOEMS) are expected to grow, recovering from slow growth in previous years as more telecom companies, including British Telecom and Verizon, are investing in fiber-optic networks.

MEMS are increasingly used in biomedical applications, too, for instance in wireless systems that enable disease detection. MicroCHIPS Inc. is working to revolutionize the way drugs are delivered and monitored.

Fuel-cell technology and vibration-based energy harvesting are among the emerging technologies for people around the world who are thinking green and creating a market for smart homes and buildings. General Electric (GE) Sensing is successfully selling and using MEMS devices that claim considerable energy efficiency and reliability. According to Brian Wirth, who is global product manager, microstructures, MEMS, and nanotechnologies, at GE Sensing, the company’s energy solutions promote the efficiency and most cost-effectiveness. “MEMS is found as a core technology for many of the critical sensing applications-from fuel transmission to distribution [GE Energy Oil and Gas] to actual power generation, control, and conservation,” he explains.

Veteran voices

MIG recently asked several MEMS industry veterans for their perspectives on the future of the technology, which it published in MIG’s Five Year Anniversary Report. Opinions varied widely, but overall this group of experts believes the industry is well-positioned for growth.

Dr. Kurt Petersen, CEO and chairman of SiTime, believes there will be huge applications in bio/fluidics: “However, there is a slower development and commercialization mindset and many of these companies are currently under the radar.” Petersen also sees promise in MEMS for power generation and energy scavenging. The biggest potential for MEMS will be in consumer products, Petersen says, because there are so many features that can use RF MEMS filters, switches, and resonators. He identified displays as continuing to dominate new and expanded MEMS applications, stating: “The potential for large square acres of silicon is going to continue to attract semiconductor suppliers to projection as well as direct-view MEMS displays.”

Dr. Cleopatra Cabuz, CTO of Honeywell Life Safety, says, “The MEMS industry is ready today to embrace the new developments happening in nanotechnology with excitement and wisdom...but MEMS is the right connection into the macro world. The two will create an entire platform of small-scale machines able to interact with cells, molecules, and other bio particles on one side, and with the human senses and/or macro-scale machines on the other.”

The “grandfather of MEMS,” Dr. Harvey Nathanson, chief scientist Emeritus, Northrop Grumman Science and Technology Center, believes “MEMS has a great future” as it is already creating spin-offs. Nanotechnology started with NEMS, he says, adding that “MEMS/NEMS remains the key fertile area for today and for tomorrow’s innovation to occur.”

Nathanson talked about the “limitless” possibilities: “What could we do with 1,000 tuned cantilevers across the human speech band to decode precisely cell phone voice imprints, including mood and intent? What about the startling revolution into micro-gaseous MEMS devices as the DARPA chip scale atomic clock, miniature chemical analyzers, gaseous gyros, etc.?” All “are opening up new frontiers.”

Want to hear more? The future of MEMS technology and its commercial applications will be the focus of the MEMS Executive Congress ( taking place November 4-5, 2007.

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KAREN LIGHTMAN is managing director of the MEMS Industry Group. She can be reached at