LONDON – The consumer electronics industry is going to continue being a driver for rapid expansion in MEMS volume shipments with established equipment being loaded with more sensors and actuators even as equipment sales expand and new equipment comes on to the scene. That's according to the final panel discussion at the MEMS Executive Congress Europe held in Zurich, Switzerland, on Tuesday March 20.
In the mobile phone and tablet computer expect to see silicon MEMS being used for camera autofocus mechanisms, for tunable RF circuits, audio speakers and chemical sensors, creating increasing opportunities, said panelist Jean-Christophe Eloy, founder and president of market research organization Yole Developpement,
Tehro Lahtinen, innovation manager at sports watch maker Suunto, was excited by the opportunities for MEMS of many types in sports equipment, in clothes, in the Internet of Things and wireless sensor networks. Andre van Geelen, general manager at Epcos Netherlands BV said his company will be looking to offer RF and timing circuits based on MEMS to help maximize bandwidth in mobile phones.
Eloy argued that whatever mechanical devices could be rendered into silicon would be, and hence the imminent take off of RF MEMS, MEMS for cameras and audio speakers. On top of that automotive penetration would continue and medical applications, with notoriously arduous qualification cycles, were starting to come through, creating a happy situation for MEMS makers and MEMS users alike. The "big bang" in MEMS consumer applications is generating a wave that is washing back into automobile infotainment and sports and well-being applications have similarities to medical without some of the stricter testing and clinical trials requirements.
But Sauli Palo, principal specialist in component quality at Nokia Oy, revealed the other side of the coin, pointing out that as the volumes go up the price must come down and requirements can become tougher. "MEMS have become commoditized. The key is to find the good applications. It is up to the apps developers to sort out what can be done," he said. He also argued that MEMS components, both inertial sensors and microphones are too fragile and that companies that could address these issues would do well.
A second topic picked up by the panel was whether a fabless-foundry could become successful in the MEMS sector where the technology base is so diverse. "Helping the fabless to success [in MEMS] is the most important thing we can do," said Eloy.
Jean-Christophe Eloy, founder and CEO of Yole Developpement
Eloy argued that two types of MEMS foundry would co-exist. The higher volume offerings would come from IC foundries such as TSMC, UMC and Globalfoundries, while the traditional MEMS specialist foundries, such as Dalsa and Micralyne, would act as development partners and support lower volumes. "They are different supply chains that are not competing. You could start with one before moving to another one."
From the floor the observation was made that startup companies cannot afford to invest in a wafer fab and that foundry services were clearly in demand but that it remains unclear whether MEMS companies yet have the discipline to work within strictly delineated process limitations.
For van Geelen it was clear that each application usually requires a unique process, something that also works against multiproject wafer runs.
Nokia's Palo was asked how the mobile phone maker felt about using fabless suppliers "We started with IDMs [integrated device makers] but we have gone to fabless in other areas [apart from MEMS]. It does raise questions," he said.