Today, quartz crystals provide the heartbeat for nearly every electronic system, with annual volumes approaching 10 billion units.
Electronic circuitry alone cannot generate the precisely spaced pulses that keep gates in synchronization in digital systems, or the rock-solid oscillations that keep analog frequencies tuned. In this sense, microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) represent the final frontier in microminiaturization--downsizing this necessary mechanical reference signal from the millimeter scale of quartz crystals to the nanoscale of integrated circuits.
Industrial giants such as Epson Toyocom Corp. (Tokyo)--the world's largest supplier--provide quartz-crystal timing chips. Two upstart makers of MEMS timing chips, SiTime Corp. and Discera Inc., think there certainly is room for them in this sector, with its mammoth volumes. But Epson and the other large timing chip companies are not going to sit still while the MEMS competitors carve out chunks of their lucrative markets. Epson is already offering "QMEMS" technology--downsized quartz-crystal timers that descend into the submillimeter-size regime.
Startups will have only a few years' head start before Epson and the other behemoths respond to the popularity of MEMS timing chips with MEMS offerings of their own. SiTime and Discera have the biggest lead in the race to downsize mechanical timing references to the nanoscale. Both companies have invested several man-years of research and development effort into matching the precise timing signals of quartz crystals (which are based on the principles of physics governing piezoelectric materials), deploying tiny silicon mechanical structures--silicon "tuning forks"--with an equal measure of stability and precision.
However, if SiTime and Discera do not carve out niches of their own soon, they risk being crushed by the deeper pockets of the established quartz-crystal chip makers.
MEMS represent the final frontier in microminiaturization. Expect a battle between startups' MEMS chips, like this SiTime device, and those of quartz-crystal vendors. |
For now, SiTime (Sunnyvale, Calif.) and Discera (San Jose, Calif.) are running neck and neck in microelectromechanical-system chips for timing applications. Both companies went into volume production last year with chips that are pin-for-pin compatible with the quartz-crystal oscillators that today sell in the billions of units annually. Besides having compatible parts shipping in the hundreds of thousands per month, both companies are also well-funded fabless CMOS chip makers using foundries: SiTime uses Jazz Semiconductor for the SiT8002, and Discera uses Dalsa Semiconductor for the MOS1.
When you compare the investors and distributors that both startups have attracted, you find more similarities than differences. And when you compare their technologies--SiTime's Bosch-licensed Deep Reactive Ion Etching (DRIE) and Discera's more-conventional surface micromachining approach--you find pluses and minuses to both.
"SiTime's device is the most innovative, and I believe it's better positioned for future improvements, scaling, integration and cost reductions," said John Boyd, technology manager at Semiconductor Insights. "However, removal of the encapsulant and subsequent cleaning [fluid] is challenging, and may involve some expensive process techniques that minimize surface tension and allow removal of the etching and cleaning fluids from the channels remaining after encapsulant removal."
The Discera approach, by contrast, "forms the MEMS structure more conventionally, resulting in a device that needs to be packaged [hermetically sealed] separately after singulation of the die, and then integrated with the control circuitry in a flip-chip module or something of this sort," Boyd said. "This results in a much larger package size, but it is known technology, using CMOS-compatible processing."
The startups also differ in their strategic alliances. SiTime has allied itself with Micro Crystal, a quartz-crystal division of Swatch Group Inc. that specializes in consumer chips. Discera, meanwhile, has allied with Vectron International, a U.S. quartz-crystal maker specializing in high- precision, avionic and military-specification chips.
The differences in business alliances are also reflected in the companies' different business strategies. SiTime recently ousted its technology-oriented chief executive officer--MEMS pioneer Kurt Peterson--for a business-oriented veteran, Rajesh Vashist. The new CEO's self-proclaimed aim is to differentiate SiTime with a "home run" strategy that signs up major customers in the consumer market for high-volume sales of lower-priced parts.
Discera's CEO, Tom Willey, on the other hand, intends to build the business on multiple "base hits" by addressing the specific needs of niche markets in military, avionics and other high- precision applications--demanding a higher price, but for lower volumes per customer.
Home-run sluggers often surge ahead of base hitters in the beginning, only to be surpassed later in the game. That could happen here.
Then again, Boston's stable of sluggers prevailed over Colorado's base-hit kings in last year's World Series.