MEMS Coming of Age

By Tom Flynn

NAPA, California – It’s always difficult to know exactly where you are at any given moment in a dynamic industry like MEMS. While our meetings with MEM designers who are building the next generation of devices gives us at Coventor a unique perspective, it’s just one point of view. It’s critical we see many views of the industry and that’s why the MEMS Executive Congress, an annual event put on by the MEMS Industry Group (MIG) is something we look forward to every year.

This year the MEC was held in Napa. It seems appropriate because, like a fine wine, MEMS is coming of age. Presentations from people with perspectives from around the entire ecosystem of MEMS confirmed that, and the record number of attendees all were left with a sense of excitement about the future of MEMS.

We all know the industry has changed significantly as new markets have come to dominate the landscape. Most notably, as pointed out in a previous post, mobile is driving MEMS. I found it particularly interesting that while mobile is driving MEMS, MEMS has given birth to a new class of CMOS devices called MEMS controllers. Apparently, these new CMOS chips have been created to provide power to the MEMS sensors in the latest iPhone, even when the device is turned off. In addition, both Jeremie Bouchard and his counterpart from Yole Development Laurent Robin agreed that mobile will continue to be a driving force in MEMS, led by the two-horse race of Apple and Samsung. Robin predicted a 13% annual growth rate over the next fives year for the industry, a much higher trajectory than the overall semiconductor market.

Besides mobile, there are other potentially big market opportunities for MEMS that were talked about at the MEC. The term “Internet of Things (IoT)” was used early and often throughout the event, and that type of connectivity clearly has huge potential for MEMS applications. These include auto-focus modules, micro-speakers, energy-harvesting chips and thermal sensors. In fact, IHS’ Bouchard noted that we may not even know what the next ‘big things’ are as innovative companies come up with new ways to leverage the power of MEMS. While device makers are no longer putting MEMS and sensors with no specific application in mind into their product, as they once did, they are working with application developers to define the functionality first and then designing in the new MEMS devices.

China calling
Another trend everyone seemed to agree on was the growing opportunity in China. The China effect is being felt throughout the industry, in both positive and negative ways. On the plus side, many new MEMS players are getting their first market entry point in China, so that fuels innovation and start-up activity. On the other hand, Chinese companies; traditional cartel-like buying practices can severely impact prices and margins for suppliers.

In any case, the analysts agreed that if there is anyone who is going to take on the Big Two mobile providers, they will likely come from China.

The foundry point of view
Perhaps my favorite presentation was from Greg Bartlett, the CTO of GLOBALFOUNDRIES. The pure play foundries are just now really focusing on the MEMS market, which makes sense for a number of reasons. For one, they have the type of capacity MEMS developers need. Secondly, they understand the market dynamics of consumers and fast-paced industries that MEMS companies now need to serve. And most importantly, GLOBALFOUNDRIES is developing a process-based, platform-based approach for specific MEMS applications and planned improvements in design enablement that will help reduce the costs and problems associated with the traditional ‘one design, one process” approach.

While I enjoyed the discussion about the difference and similarities between traditional CMOS IC manufacturing and the requirements of MEMS, I especially liked the part when Greg talked about how his company is “working with companies like Coventor”.

MEMS – Changing lives
The potential of MEMS resonated most for me when listening to Donald Jones, who heads up Qualcomm Life, a subsidiary of the communications chip giant that is focused on opportunities in healthcare. Donald talked about ways in which ‘always on’ connectivity can improve the efficiency and insight of medical professionals. Examples of this include biometric and remote monitoring devices that can be worn or connected to smartphone apps. This type of connectivity will provide professionals with better, more accurate, and real-time information about their patients, and potentially lower costs and allow people to better manage their own health. Looking at these new MEMS applications and how they can improve and potentially save people’s lives is pretty heady stuff.

I left the MEMS Executive Congress with a sense of optimism and excitement about our industry. I believe there is a ’perfect storm’ of market forces that are driving the MEMS industry forward, and that MEMS is truly coming of age.

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