PORTLAND, Ore. After years of research, development and manufacturing capacity build-up, micro-electro-mechanical system (MEMS) oscillators appear to be taking off. SiTime Corp. (Sunnyvale, Calif.) and Discera Inc. (San Jose, Calif.) have each been steadily building market share by displacing bulky quartz crystals with compact MEMS chips.
Now Silicon Laboratories Inc. (Austin, Texas) has purchased MEMS startup Silicon Clocks and plans to begin integrating MEMS timing modules atop otherwise standard CMOS chips, eliminating even the need for a separate timing chip package at all, spurring the MEMS oscillator market into high gear.
"Discera and Sitime are just replacing existing quartz crystals, but they do not leverage all the potential of MEMS in term of integration--explaining their limited penetration of the oscillator market," said iSuppli analyst, J?r?mie Bouchaud. "Now 2.5 years after market introduction, MEMS oscillators are still only shipping about 9-to-10 million units a year."
SiTime, for instance, recently made a big to-do about shipping its 20 millionth MEMS oscillator, but according to iSuppli, quartz crystals are shipping at billions of units per year, exposing the limited market penetration of MEMS oscillators so far. However, with the entry of long-time mixed-signal chip leader Silicon Labs into the market, with oscillator products it promises to introduce starting in 2011, MEMS oscillators may finally start approaching the billion unit level.
Yole Development predicts that the MEMS market will continue to rise (click on image to enlarge).
"The acquisition of Silicon Clocks by Silicon Labs is excellent news for the MEMS oscillator market," said Bouchaud. "The MEMS oscillator market has been driven until now by small startups which did a great job on the resonator and its packaging but had limited resources to design timing ICs. One of the most challenging parts in the MEMS oscillator is not the resonator but the IC--especially the temperature compensation which is very tricky to control while not compromising other performance issues like phase noise and power consumption. SiLabs has all resources in house required to bring MEMS oscillators to the next level with a better timing IC."
Besides Silicon Labs, Sand9 announced last year that it would also be building MEMS oscillators that for the first time match the high-precision temperature compensated quartz crystals (TCXO), allowing them to compete in mainstream markets for 3G/4G handsets, GPS navigators and WiFi hubs. With Silicon Labs entry into the high-precision market too, all bases will be covered for the mass market migration to MEMS oscillators, according to iSuppli.
"It's a very exciting time for MEMS timing--Sand9's announcement that they have TCXO performance, against XO for current MEMS oscillators, opens a larger market segment than Discera and SiTime can address," said Bouchaud.