MEMS panel outlines opportunity and threat
The message seemed to be that while the good times are here and should be enjoyed the MEMS sector should not get seduced into believing its own hyperbole: equipment opportunities and volumes are increasing but average selling prices are under pressure. At the same time multiple sensors are getting integrated into fewer packages and some could start getting omitted from smartphones to minimize cost. Finally while wearables is the hot market today but is not necessarily a long-lived one and much bigger Internet of Things (IoT) market could take a many years to mature.
The panel, moderated by Roland Helm, head of microphone and reliability at Infineon Technologies AG, started by asking panelist Jean-Christophe Eloy, president and CEO of market research firm Yole Developpement to outline the how many devices are in smartphones today and in the future.
Eloy actually enumerated the seven principal types as seven although the number of MEMS sensors is likely to be higher. There are about seven types of sensor in most smartphones, he said: microphone accelerometer, gyroscope, bulk acoustic wave (BAW), magnetometer, pressure and humidity sensor.
Jean-Christophe Eloy, president and CEO of Yole Developpment speaking during the panel discussion on MEMS in consumer applications.
However, Eloy then pointed out the strong trends in sensor fusion with acc/gyro/magento being packaged together as inertial measurement units and pressure, humidity and temperature being linked as an environmental unit.
"What’s next is gas chemical sensors for the next mobile phone and IR imaging. IR is a very interesting development because it allows, gesture and facial recognition and nightvision," said Yole.
But within these categories some sensor counts are increasing. So microphones are going from one up to as many as five to help with noise cancellation and improved audio. At the same time Eloy described the trend towards sensor hubs with local processing. "The sensor hub microcontroller is a coming trend. The calculation was all done on the apps processor. Now Bosch, ST, InvenSense have launched hubs," Eloy told the audience.
Teemu Ramo, senior manager of audio hardware at Nokia Lumia, now part of Microsoft, agreed saying that Nokia sees interest in "Kinect-style" gesture recognition and also in microphone arrays.
Yannick Levy, vice president of corporate business development at French consumer electronics company Parrot SA, took the role of the MEMS user on the panel and started with a demonstration of a Parrot quad-copter drone. "A drone is a flying moble phone. We ended up with ten sensors to locate the drone in space; a mix of gyros, acceleromaters and pressure sensor as barometer."
Teemu Ramo, senior manager for audio hardware at Nokia Lumia.
Moderator Roland Helm then asked the panellists to get more specific about whether there would be one hub or multiple hubs inside mobile equipment. The consensus was that multiple hubs would develop around sets of sensors; So optical functions close to the CMOS image sensor will naturally group together and manipulated with an image processor; pressure, temperature and humidity form an environment cluster, inertial sensors form a motion cluster.
Nokia’s Ramo said: "I like hubs it allows modular solutions that can be bought from the market. We don’t know all the opportunities [there are to make applications] so it makes sense to have hubs."
Eloy from Yole, was clear that wearables are the near term opportunity and that the IoT needs more time for markets and market-enabling standards to emerge. "What is IoT? It is a big name for many things that are not well defined. We need more time for that."
Parrot’s Levy made the point that while wearables that talk to the smartphone are a hot topic and a likely opportunity for many MEMS component vendors in the near term any individual device could be short-lived. If it finds success in the market it will likely be swallowed up into a next-generation smartphone.
From left to right: Moderator Roland Helm of Infineon; Jean-Christophe Eloy, CEO of Yole Developpement; Yannick Levy, vice president of corporate business development at Parrot; Teemu Ramo, senior manager of audio hardware at Nokia Lumia
Levy made the point that right now there are lots of fitness wearables that communicate with a smartphone but such functionality could be easily added to the smartphone just as camera functions have. He offered a statistic to illustrate the growing influence of the smartphone in the chip market; two or three years ago the smartphone was responsible for 12 percent of the semiconductor market and it is now responsible for about 24 percent, he said. For this reason Parrot is looking at the wider Internet of Things domain where cannibalization by the smartphone is not possible because of a link to the physical world. Levy gave the example of domestic usage such as sensor networks for house plants.
To this point the discussion had essentially been focused on continued growth focusing on the additional depth and breadth of opportunities coming for MEMS in consumer applications. Helm then asked the intriguing question: "What is disappearing?"
Nokia’s Ramo: "It used to be that we chucked everything in. We are seeing a move back to ‘less is more.’ For example indoor navigation has not panned out as planned. So the pressure sensor may get dropped from the mobile phone. We have to ask what is the added value for any given sensor, so the air pressure sensor may go."
Eloy gave a reminder that along with high volumes come competition and pressure towards low profit margins: "What is disappearing is the margin for the MEMS manufacturer."
In a question and answer session at the end the panellists were asked if security – frequently mentioned in other forums as key – is an opportunity for MEMS component vendors. From Eloy’s point of view "security is essentially a software function although fingerprint sensors are one option." Ramo said that vendors would try and re-use sensors that are already in place. So inertial sensors might be used for signature recognition along with audio subsystem for voice recognition.
A second question touched on energy harvesting and whether that would start to gain traction. Eloy provided a sobering reminder that technology is not enough in any electronics market. "Theres lots of interest and it is a huge R&D market but when you have to choose between energy harvesting and a battery people often choose the battery. EH only provides very low power and if you only need very low power than the battery will last years and it usually means the battery is enough."
The MEMS Executive Congress Europe was organized by trade body MEMS Industry Group.
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