A Trillion Sensors? Not so unbelievable

There is no doubt that MEMS is an interesting market to watch within the semiconductor sector. Various market researchers forecast it to continue to outpace the growth of the overall semiconductor industry, expanding from its base of around $11 billion in sales to $22.5 billion within the next five years (source: Yole Development).

And there’s one school of thought that believes the opportunity for MEMS may be even greater than we might imagine. The Trillion Sensor Roadmap is a group of sensor industry visionaries and experts who predict that by 2023, the cumulative shipment volume of sensors will have reached one trillion. Some think the milestone will be reached even sooner. The group will explore this idea at its annual Sensor Summit event, held this year October 23-25 at Stanford University.

Considering that by 2012 only four types of sensors (microphones, accelerometers, gyros and compasses) had shipped around a billion units each, achieving the trillion-sensor milestone is not without its challenges. Among the issues that the group believes need to be addressed include:
• Increased funding by industrial organizations (perhaps following the model of Sematech)
• Manufacturing standardization to lower costs, enabling ultra high volumes.
• New manufacturing infrastructure
• New types of sensors will need to be developed

At Coventor we are focused intently on solving those challenges, through our software tools like MEMS+ and through our collaboration with device manufacturers and foundries. This is important as we help drive the evolutions in infrastructure and development processes required to leverage the MEMS opportunity.

Whether or not you agree that one trillion sensors is realistic (that figure would mean that there would be almost 150 sensors for every person on earth) – or even relevant – the fact is the opportunities for MEMS are real, particularly as they become more ubiquitous in consumer products and other dynamic application areas.

The shift from industrial to consumer
Once reliant on applications like ink jet printers and DLPs, the MEMS market has been given a huge shot in the arm over the last few years by the proliferation of ‘smart’ mobile devices such as phones and tablets, as well as the expansion of sensing and monitoring capabilities in cars.

Smartphones in particular are fueling MEMS growth and Semico Research predicts 40% of all MEMS shipped in the coming year will be destined for that type of device. Today’s smart phone will typically contain an accelerometer, magnetometer, gyroscope, pressure sensor, as well as MEMS in the microphone, camera and radio of the phone. It’s no surprise that each new Apple or Samsung device introduction is quickly followed by teardown reports, with excited analysis of the increase in number of sensors the latest model contains (the Samsung Galaxy S4 has eight, for example). Features that support touch, gesture, speech and image recognition are all fertile ground for MEMS (in all types of products).

Context awareness is a term often used when discussing the MEMS opportunity. For example, knowing when a phone is no longer moving or in use, will allow it to be automatically powered down to battery use that is not needed at that moment. In a car, greater context awareness can sense speed changes and potential hazards to determine when to automatically apply brakes or issue a signal to avoid a collision.

Home and automation is another area that holds much potential for sensors. Market researcher Semico counts 70 different types of devices, features and functionality that could be enhanced within a typical home, everything from lights, security and safety, heating and air conditioners as well as appliances.

Health and fitness and wearable computing are other areas that could expand the use of MEMS. At a recent industry conference put on by ST Microelectronics, “Shaping the Future of MEMS and Sensors,” several companies presented new and innovative applications in this area, including Preventice which has developed the BodyGuardian Remote Monitoring System, a device which attaches directly to the body with an adhesive strip, then transmits ECG, heart rate, respiration rate, and activity levels wirelessly to medical personnel 24/7.

In short, there are almost no limits to what MEMS can be used for in enhancing so many products that touch our lives every day. We believe the best is yet to come from MEMS as we continue to improve the cost, efficiency and reliability of producing all types of sensing devices. We may be a long way from one trillion sensors shipped, but there are plenty of exciting and life changing applications that we can help enable to make a run at that impressive milestone.

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