Finding the NBT(s) in IoT at MEC

By David Cook

The MEMS Executive Congress (MEC) is always a great event to mingle with the most influential people in our industry, and get a finger on the pulse of where we are heading. There are insightful talks from the heavy hitters who supply and use MEMS, interesting observations from the key analysts who track and forecast the market, and eye-opening presentations from innovative start-ups introducing novel applications for sensors and MEMS.

The clear take away from this year’s event is that sensors are at the center of huge new trend in the electronics industry. The Internet of Things (IoT), a catch-all description for any number of devices or applications that sense, capture, analyze and transmit data, is on everyone’s lips – and in their press releases. We heard discussions of Smart Everything – Smart Wearables, Smart Cars, Smart Homes, Smart Cities. And anything that enables those sorts of functions is highly dependent on MEMS and sensors. That is why there are so many charts showing hockey sticks going quickly up and to the right, predicting billions trillions of sensors being in our world soon. As the astute technology writer Kevin Morris said in his recent article, “…the proliferation of those sensors…will absolutely transform the electronics landscape again…”

With that much growth, we have to wonder: how are all these devices going to be manufactured? Do we have the capacity to accommodate what would appear to be an incredible – and rapid – escalation in demand?

So it was no surprise that the keynote speech at this year’s MEC was given by TSMC, a dedicated semiconductor manufacturer and a pioneer of the foundry model for ICs. George Liu of TSMC gave a very thought-provoking talk about the MEMS industry and some of the gaps that exist today that are preventing wider adoption of MEMS. He talked about issues such as architecture, power, SOC integration, packaging…and of course, capacity (all of which have parallel challenges in the CMOS world). He reinforced that last point by noting that unlike previous inflection points in electronics that were defined basically by a single product – the PC, the smartphone, the tablet – the MEMS-based uptick we are seeing now with IoT will not have a single NBT (Next Big Thing). There will be breakthroughs and innovation in all sorts of areas, from health and medicine, to transportation, to agriculture, and those will require a very broad range of devices.

The fact that the world’s largest semiconductor foundry was talking at this event shows that MEMS have arrived in a whole new way. Previously, MEMS’s manufacturing was the bastion of captive, integrated manufacturers who controlled the processes and progress of MEMS. One design, one process was the engrained approach. Now, with the proliferation of MEMS-enabled applications and the accompanying spike in demand, the big foundries – TSMC and GlobalFoundries notably – are showing a genuine interest in MEMS. Not only do they see an opportunity to service a rising class of fabless MEMS companies (most of the start-ups presenting at MEC are embracing that model), they also see a way to continue to derive revenue from existing manufacturing facilities that are no longer competitive for CMOS logic chips.

The involvement of foundries is a good thing for our industry and will help take us to the next level. There are valuable lessons to be learned from how foundries enabled the fabless IC era, which resulted in great technological and economic progress for the semiconductor industry.

From Coventor’s perspective, this sea change should include the use of more automated and sophisticated modeling tools to help designers and manufacturers collaborate more efficiently and reduce time-consuming build-and-test cycles that have slowed the pace of MEMS development in the past.

CoventorWare and MEMS+ focus on the specific challenges of MEMS device design and MEMS+IC co-design, offering advanced simulation, analysis and modeling capabilities. With the rapidly increasing variety of sophisticated MEMS-enabled applications, these tools will play an even larger role in meeting the complexity and time-to-market requirements of MEMS in this era.

Tools like our SEMulator3D can dramatically streamline the development cycle, allowing “virtual fabrication” of MEMS devices, catching design errors and ensuring better yield when they roll off the production lines. In addition to its benefits for modeling manufacturing processes, SEMulator3D is often used as a documentation and communications tool to enable more efficient technology transfer. For example, MEMS developers can evaluate different foundry options quickly and understand the subtleties in various processes before committing to one. For example, with SEMulator3D a MEMS developer can evaluate issues related to IP, versioning, model fidelity and other variables from fab to fab.

In addition, foundries are starting to communicate results with their end customers by using visualization and rule checking from SEMulator3D. We also anticipate that foundries will assist in jumpstarting their fabless MEMS customers, most importantly by providing MEMS process design kits (PDKs) that will make the handoff between design and manufacturing smoother.

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