IoT needs new MEMS approaches
If the Internet of Things (IoT) is going to drive the next round of electronics industry growth, it will depend in large part on the MEMS and sensor technology that will enable all those smart objects to interact with the real world. But the ramp of new MEMS designs to volume production may take too long and cost too much to meet IoT market expectations, unless the industry figures out ways to accelerate MEMS development.
New applications for existing MEMS devices are driving healthy 12% annual growth in the MEMS sector, but the difficulty of ramping disruptive new products to volume production may slow down growth unless the sector figures out how to smooth the translation of mechanical devices to silicon, suggests Jean-Christophe Eloy, CEO and president of Yole Développement, who will speak on the future of MEMS at Semicon West 2015 in San Francisco on July 14.
Incremental innovation in smaller, higher performance, lower-cost devices has continued to spur strong growth both in the sensors and the systems they enable, by ever-wider adoption of established MEMS devices into more applications. Fastest MEMS growth last year came at Avago and Qorvo (formerly Triquint), as the wide adoption of LTE created big demand for BAW filters for multimode mobile phones. Similarly, strong demand for MEMS microphones and inertial sensors in more applications helped propel more sensor suppliers into the $200-$300 million revenue range for critical mass.
“This is really important because we now have multiple players that have the potential to grow into billion dollar companies,” Eloy said.
However, there may be a limit to how long new applications of existing types of devices can sustain double-digit growth of an $11 billion business. “A challenge is that the last totally innovative product was the Knowles microphone in 2003,” said Eloy. “Everything since then is incremental innovation in integration, better packaging, and the like. That’s very important innovation, but it’s not breakthrough new products. We’re still waiting for MEMS switches, autofocus, and speakers to make the hard transition into high volume production.”
The IC industry has found ways to collaborate on pre-competitive research, and has a well-developed commercial support infrastructure that has supported continued growth, he noted. “Some things need to happen in the MEMS industry to simplify and speed the process of design and ramp to volume.”
Getting these new devices into volume production with the fast time-to-market and the low cost that the market demands is pushing the industry towards some new approaches.
“People used to come to us with their own unique process flows that they wanted us to implement, but now more and more people come asking us to use a standard platform as much as possible, with only some modifications,” said Claude Jean, EVP and GM at Teledyne Dalsa’s MEMS foundry, who will also speak at the Semicon West program. “The one product, one process tradition isn’t dead yet, but people are increasingly looking to established platforms on which to develop products,” he added.
Dalsa is now offering an extended range of different platforms, for inertial sensors, microbolometers, optical MEMS, and piezoelectric devices, and extending its design and test support as much as possible.
New platform technologies are coming from R&D laboratories as well. CEA-Leti is aiming to collaborate with foundries to bring its piezoresistive M&NEMS platform to production for more users. The technology uses a thick (>10µm) layer for the moving mass, and a very thin (<500nm) layer for piezo–resistive gauges around its edges to sense its movement by compressing or tensing to change resistance.
“This technology offers an alternative for integrating multiple sensors very compactly, and helps new players, like perhaps systems or CMOS makers, that don’t have their own technology, to develop a product quite fast,” said Hughes Metras, vice president of strategic partnerships, North America, another speaker at the Semicon West event, noting the speed with which its first licensee Tronics got its 6 degree-of-freedom inertial sensor to market.
The maturing of the basic technologies may now also mean the MEMS sector is ready to begin finding benefit from some collaboration on common interests, in things like equipment requirements, or testing practices. There is no widely accepted standard way of measuring performance of inertial sensors yet, and no means like the ITRS roadmap for defining future needs for equipment makers, points out Dalsa’s Jean.
“There’s a big gap between the costs the MEMS market requires, and the advanced CMOS equipment available,” he said, noting the need for such things as simpler, lower-cost TSV processes than those developed for advanced CMOS.
Dalsa is working with Alchimer to develop a low cost wet-process copper via-last MEMS TSV approach. “We need closer collaboration between MEMS makers and equipment and materials suppliers to work on the lower cost approaches we’ll need going forward,” he said.
At Semicon West, the “What’s Next for MEMS?” program will be discussed by the above speakers. Other TechXpot programs at Semicon will look at the impact of the IoT on the semiconductor industry, the status of next generation non-volatile memory, and biomedical and automotive applications.
In addition, SEMI (the trade association formerly known as Semiconductor Equipment and Materials International) and the MEMS Industry Group invite interested parties to a participatory workshop at Semicon West on July 15 to explore potential collaborative options to help support sector growth going forward. “There are now compelling business reasons to develop standards for the MEMS sector,” noted Alissa Fitzgerald of AM Fitzgerald & Associates, who will keynote at the workshop.
Paula Doe is director of technology at the industry association SEMI. This article was first published on www.eetimes.com.