MEMS – Enter with Care

Written by: Karen Lightman, Executive Director, MEMS Industry Group
First appeared on Solid State Technology, March 27, 2014

MEMS – enter with care. I think that will be my tagline for MEMS Industry Group’s third annual MEMS Executive Congress Europe 2014 recently held in Munich, Germany. The official theme of the conference was the “MEMS-Enabled Life,” and the keynotes and panelists did talk about how MEMS is currently and will continue to improve our quality of life. However, what struck me the most about this conference was how every panelist shared not only the “everything’s-coming-up-MEMS” perspective but also some real honest discussion about the remaining challenges of getting MEMS devices to market on-time, and at (or below) cost.

This was especially apparent on the consumer products panel – which makes sense.  Because nowhere else is the MEMS industry more competitive than in the consumer market. JC Eloy of Yole Développement characterized it best: “The MEMS consumer market is booming, but….” The “but” factor here is that it’s such a tough business that very few startups can enter the MEMS consumer market, the only exception being InvenSense. I’ve often said that MEMS is not for the faint at heart, but these days it really looks to be cutthroat in the consumer business as Bosch and ST duke it out for the #1 spot. My favorite quote from the Congress was a sign of that competitiveness – so coyly stated by Teemu Rämö of Nokia when he introduced himself on the panel: “Nokia, the phone you had before you switched to your iPhone or Samsung.” Yes, remember Nokia. Now the Lumia is best known for its (MEMS-enabled) camera, but alas, not for its mobile phone capabilities.

The perspective on the challenges and opportunities in this competitive field of MEMS was also well detailed by our morning keynote, Rudi De Winter, CEO of X-FAB Group, who spoke of the innovation and diversification of MEMS and how it compares to semiconductor and CMOS manufacturing. De Winter described the challenges this way: “In MEMS there are no elementary building blocks…the physical implementation is very different from CMOS and there is a huge potential for optimization (process, design architecture).” Clearly a leader like X-FAB that is expanding its MEMS capabilities sees the opportunity but is going in with open eyes and an appreciation of the challenges that lie ahead.

The automotive panel, ably moderated by Freescale’s Marc Osajda, also reflected on the challenges in the ever-changing world of automotive. The panelists gave a great overview of the changing landscape. As BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) countries are increasing their demand for cars, they are not necessarily increasing their demand for MEMS-/sensor-laden cars. In fact, Richard Dixon of IHS shared the statistic that only 8% of cars sold in BRIC countries have MEMS/sensors while the average American car has closer to 18. This market diversification is simultaneously creating both real opportunity andbig challenges. But as stated by Christoph Wagner of Analog Devices, “MEMS will always be an innovator in automotive.”

The MEMS in healthcare panelists also discussed the opportunities for MEMS – explaining that the biggest chance for a “killer app” in MEMS is in the health/wellness space. The panelists couldn’t help themselves by discussing the barriers to that killer-app-happy-place, with the biggest one being regulation (no surprise here). But they expressed overall optimism when describing a future where you “bring your own device” to maintain wellness and health, and I look forward to experiencing that world as I envision it — with fewer wait times at the doctor’s office. (A girl can dream, can’t she?)

My highlight of MEMS Congress Europe was definitely hearing the keynote from Klaus Meder, president of Automotive Electronics, Robert Bosch GmbH: “MEMS and our Connected World.” With his enviable-looking presentation slides (like seriously, who does his graphics? I want his/her contact info!), Meder painted an exciting world enabled by MEMS/sensors and truly smart Internet of Things and Services (IoTS). “Internet of things is about sensors everywhere, networks everywhere, analyze everything,” stated Meder. YES! I want that world because that world doesn’t intimidate me or frighten me with its regulations and privacy concerns. I can’t wait for that beautifully intelligent MEMS/sensors-everywhere world. Can you?

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