Predicting the Future of MEMS

Technology market analysts have a long and storied history of making bold predictions and eye-opening forecasts for growth in the industries they follow. Many, if not most, of these tend to quietly get swept under the rug when unforeseen macro-economic events or truly disruptive technology innovations interrupt the smooth ‘up-and-to-the-right’ growth lines that analyst like to paint. This is especially true in long-range forecasts, where blue-sky predictions of double, even triple, digit growth can be made for several years hence, with little chance that there will be any long-term accountability held against the forecaster if and when the numbers fall short.

The MEMS industry has fallen into that trap over the years. For those of us in the MEMS business, we’ve grown accustomed to cheery outlooks of long-term growth. And in fact, the MEMS industry does continue to grow at a healthy enough rate, perhaps just not at the pace some would have predicted.

It was interesting, however, to have a look at a recent presentation from a SEMI event by market watcher Yole Development, which counts MEMS among its areas of expertise and typically does offer good insights into trends driving the market. The folks at Yole took a moment away from gazing into the crystal ball of the future to take a look back at the past at some of the predictions they had made. Most interesting – and relevant to the current state of the MEMS industry – was their view of the mobile industry 10 years ago, which is forever in technology terms, and certainly was a vastly different era in terms of the market presentation and functionality of mobile devices.

In 2003 Yole highlighted accelerometers and gyroscopes as two “possible high growth markets appearing” as a result of the mobile/consumer market that was still in a relatively nascent stage. At that point, gyros and accelerometers in any kind of consumer or mobile app represented just a tiny fraction of the total market for those devices, which was dominated by their use in industrial and automotive applications. (Note that the report also pointed to silicon microphones and RF MEMS as two other potential beneficiaries of the growth in the mobile industry.)

The report went on to predict that the growth in mobile would require the imminent development of 2 and 3-axis sensors, and that the price point would have to be under $3.50.

Flash forward ten years: According to Yole, the consumer/mobile space is now the number one market for inertial MEMS – gyros and accelerometers. Driven mainly by smartphones, but also pulled along by tablets, gaming devices and cameras, this category of sensors has flown past traditional stalwart markets in automotive and industrial. And Yole believes that trend will continue, predicting that the market for all types of MEMS devices in mobile to be worth $6.4 billion in 2018 (with inertial sensors representing the majority of that).

In terms of technology, we’ve obviously gone way beyond the 2- and 3-axis prediction Yole made ten years ago, with 6-axis devices well into production, and even 9-axis combination solutions are imminent. Price-wise, finding a competitive 3-axis sensor for under $3 is not a major challenge.

Ok, so in retrospect, anyone should have been able to see that mobile was a huge opportunity in general, and held a lot of potential for MEMS, right? Well, hindsight is 20/20 so let’s give Yole their due for calling it correctly in this case. More importantly, what do they see for the future?

According to their presentation and other research, consumers are demanding such a variety of new functions in the in mobile devices that it will open up other big markets for MEMS. And, with the market’s insatiable appetite for new form factors and lower prices, there is a need for innovation in how MEMS are packaged and combined. The definition of “mobile” is also expanding and now includes dynamic areas such as sports, health and wearable technology.

This is all good news for MEMS actuators and sensors, which play a role in key areas consumer are demanding, including:

  • Navigation & environmental sensing
  • Improved sound quality
  • Better communication performance
  • Improved visual experience + new tactile interface
  • Increased battery life
  • Infrared sensing

One technology area that Yole is especially bullish on is the market for combo sensors, which they predict will reach $1.7 billion in sales by 2017, up dramatically from less than $100 million just last year. Underpinning this trend is the drive toward devices offering up 9 and 10 DOF (degrees of freedom), which Yole predicts will be mainstream within 5 years.

Anything to do with external sensing is also a big opportunity for MEMS. Environmental sensing, pressure sensing, and humidity sensing are all finding their way into the mobile application area. Yole also points to opportunities in the area of HD voice (e.g. adding a third microphone to existing dual microphone applications).

Progress with sensor fusion and data fusion networks will boost MEMS as well, as functionality like indoor navigation and greater context awareness requiring more ubiquitous connectivity and sensing capabilities.

As with most predictions, we should take all this with a grain of salt. But the general trends are undeniable and Coventor is lucky enough to have a front row seat to help drive much of this innovation and growth. We are proud of the role we play in helping developers of MEMS and MEMS-enabled products deliver new functionality, lower prices, and improve the overall user experience – and make the analysts look good in the process.

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