Portland, Ore. -- Fujitsu's use of a U.S. startup's MEMS microphone in a low-end tablet PC and Swatch's MEMS crystal deal with another startup signal a new energy in the market for microelectromechanical systems.
Akustica Inc. (Pittsburgh)--the world's only digital MEMS microphone maker--put a second notch on its belt recently when it announced that Fujitsu Computer Systems Corp. will use its MEMS mics in an entry-level model of the LifeBook tablet PC line. The LifeBook has two AKU2000 CMOS MEMS microphone chips in its display bezel--one for horizontal operation and one for vertical.
For its part, SiTime Corp. (Sunnyvale, Calif.) recently said it had signed up European quartz crystal maker Micro Crystal (Grenchen, Switzerland)--a division of Swatch AG--as a partner. Micro Crystal not only supplies quartz crystals for Swatch watches, but also sells timing solutions to manufacturers of cell phones and devices like hearing aids.
Earlier this year, Akustica nabbed the contract to supply digital microphones for Fujitsu's high-end RoadWarrior tablet PC, but now the PC maker has confirmed its commitment by extending digital microphone use downward into its less expensive laptops.
"New features and new functionality always begin on the high-end machines, like the Fujitsu Q2010 Road Warrior, which was a $4,000 machine when it first came out," said Davin Yuknis, Akustica's vice president of marketing. "But our most recent design win--the Fujitsu LifeBook T4215 Tablet PC--starts at under $2,000."
Two other MEMS microphones are being marketed worldwide, pushing the silicon microphone market to more than 100 million units, with predictions that it will grow to 800 million units by 2010, according to the market research firm Yole Development (Lyon, France). Akustica has the only digital entry; most of the MEMS mics are analog models for cell phones, supplied by Knowles Electronics LLC (Itasca, Ill.) and Sonion MEMS A/S (Roskilde, Denmark).
In contrast, Akustica's silicon microphone has the analog-to-digital converter on the same chip, simplifying integration into devices that are already digital, such as notebook PCs, as well as enhancing voice-critical applications like voice recognition and voice-over-Internet Protocol.
"The LifeBook T4215 is a voice-centric platform used by professionals not only for voice-over-IP, but also for voice recognition and voice dictation," said Yuknis.
Akustica promises to announce several more design wins for next-generation PCs in 2007, after Intel Corp. officially unveils its next-generation chip set. "Right now all the PC manufacturers are developing new motherboards for the Intel Centrino Pro chip set, and our digital microphone will be designed into a number of those platforms," said Yuknis.
Akustica is designing its second and third generation of microphones at present. The second generation, which is in the pipeline right now, offers improved performance and will probably be announced in the middle of next year. Its third generation, slated for a 2008 debut, will offer new features and be configurable for a specific sound-processing application, such as noise cancellation.
Akustica also reports that it has other, nonmicrophone MEMS chips in the works, including accelerometers, gyroscopes and RF switches.
Quartz to MEMS
Meanwhile, quartz crystal makers are scrambling to keep up with the MEMS trend, with several manufacturers hedging their bets by jointly developing MEMS oscillators with startups like SiTime Corp. That company's deal with Micro Crystal involves the cooperative development of MEMS timing chips, initially for cell phone customers. "Micro Crystal sells hundreds of millions of quartz crystals each year, mainly into the cell phone industry," said Kurt Peterson, CEO at SiTime.
SiTime's MEMS oscillator chips are also being sold by quartz crystal maker Ecliptek Corp. (Costa Mesa, Calif.) under its "EMO" label. Ecliptek too will be jointly developing new MEMS-based oscillators using SiTime's deep-reaction ion-etching technique, licensed from Bosch Sensortec.
"Ecliptek has a multimillion-unit purchase order agreement with us, because they understand how our MEMS oscillators fill in some of the voids that have existed in quartz crystal lines for quite some time," said Peterson. "And since our current parts are pin-for-pin compatible, Ecliptek tests our MEMS oscillators with the same equipment on which it tests its quartz crystal oscillators--testing thousands of parts per day. Ecliptek appreciates our highly manufacturable process, too."
SiTime uses 8-inch wafers and an 0.18-micron process, "so we have a smallish die," he said. "But the process is mature enough to give us very low cost that will just go down with volume, and we have already built millions of parts."
SiTime is currently adapting its process technology to a new type of timing chip that has multiple oscillator frequencies. Today, cell phones and many other electronic devices have to use multiple quartz crystals to provide various frequencies (see Dec. 18, page 40). But in the future, multiple frequencies on a single MEMS oscillator chip will be commonplace, according to SiTime and MEMS startups Discera Inc. (San Jose, Calif.) and Silicon Clocks Inc. (Fremont, Calif.).
"We plan to be the first company to provide multiple-frequency timing solutions," said Joe Brown, SiTime's manager of strategic alliances. "For instance, we have on the drawing board timing chips with two resonators--a megahertz resonator and a 32-kHz real-time clock."
Discera has also been busy of late signing up new distributors for its MEMS oscillators, which, like SiTime's part, are pin-for-pin compatible with popular quartz crystals. Just this month, Discera signed up two distributors in Japan: M-RF Co. Ltd., a distributor of microwave devices, components and subsystems, and TecStar Co., a distributor of semiconductors, electronic equipment and software.
"We now have distributors in Korea, Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, Singapore, India and two in Japan," said Venkat Bahl, vice president of marketing at Discera.
Discera too is working hard on its next-generation oscillators, which will feature multiple frequencies on the same chip. They will also be able to perform signal-processing functions not possible with quartz crystals.
"We believe that our 'MEMS-last' process is the best way to accommodate multiple frequencies on a single CMOS chip," said Bahl. "We plan on creating whole banks of resonators that can be used as filters and other signal-processing devices."
The newest MEMS oscillator maker, Silicon Clocks, said that it will stick to using quartz crystals until it too can put multiple frequencies on its first MEMS-based oscillator chips. The company will skip making pin-for-pin compatible oscillator chips for fear that the current makers of quartz crystal chips will simple cut prices, thereby making the pin-for-pin compatible market unprofitable.
Instead, Silicon Clocks will introduce next year a unique high-speed quartz crystal-based oscillator that runs at up to 650 MHz (today's highest speed for quartz crystals is 150 MHz). Its patented CMOS circuitry will wring out the extra speed, according to Silicon Clocks founder Andrew McCraith. Then, in 2008, Silicon Clocks plans to mate that patented circuitry to its first MEMS-based oscillator chip, which will feature multiple frequencies on the same CMOS die.