Author Archives: MEMS Industry Group

MEMS Industry Group® (MIG) is the trade association advancing MEMS across global markets.

Guest Blog: Tale of a Very Long Tail

Submitted by: Bryon Moyer, Editor of EE Journal.

I cut my engineering teeth on programmable logic and circuit design (bipolar, ECL). Nothing happens in those fields without tools, and so we have a massive EDA industry. OK, not as massive as they might like, given their constant kvetching about how the market never seems to grow, but it’s sizable and well established.

So I’m used to an environment dominated by a few big companies. The little companies around them mostly act like quantum fluctuations to feed the big guys. You start a company, and if you’re successful, you’re sucked into a big guy. If not, you blink out of existence like so much energy dissipating back into the ether. Those few companies that never manage to disappear, but keep trundling along, run the risk of being treated as walking wounded.

Having spent a couple years now trying to parse the MEMS industry for EE Journal, I’ve found a very different dynamic. And any stroll through the Sensors Expo (this year’s edition just finished up) will reinforce that fact. Just when you thought you knew the players, you find out how many more there are that you had no idea existed.

It feels to me like this is a result of the long years of slogging that has characterized the MEMS industry. Until recently, there has been no hockey stick. A very few relatively recent high-volume applications like airbag accelerometers have given hope to the stalwart that their efforts can achieve commercial success, but it’s been hit and miss, and not all boats have been lifted by the rising tide of visibility for the industry.

My sense of the structure is that there are three categories of MEMS merchant. There are a couple big guys – you know who they are – and their message tends to be, more or less, “We do it all; you don’t need anyone else.”

Next are some companies that managed to strike it rich in smartphones or Wii or some other specific application that took off. Guys like Kionix and InvenSense. They’re visible at conferences and they put a fair bit of energy into the marketing of their technology. In fact, to my mind, that’s one of the things that sets them apart: aggressive marketing.

Then there’s a long tail of companies that have been doing yeoman’s work deep in the caverns, with no IPOs or champagne sales conferences and scarcely a pat on the back. Each one has a particular niche or angle or variant on the technology. You might look at them and think they could do with a bit more sophistication, but the fact is, they’ve been scrambling for years on a shoestring, and fancy ad campaigns just haven’t been in the budget.

These are going to be make-or-break times for such companies, in my opinion. It’s like they’ve come up from the caverns, blinking in the sunlight, realizing that there’s a whole new environment in which to work, full of both promise and challenge. As MEMS gains legitimacy and becomes mainstream, the pressure is likely to grow on everyone to perform more like the more visible folks. Marketing becomes more important as messages get refined and cast farther afield. Granted, it’s a bit Catch-22, since you need the success to fund the marketing, but you need the marketing to achieve the success.

If this were EDA, everyone would be predicting the imminent demise of most of the little guys. But it’s not EDA, it’s MEMS, and MEMS seems to play by its own rules. But as more visible companies have their day in the sun, they’ll cast their shadows over the smaller folks, and so the managers in the long tail will have to work harder to prove their value.

As if they didn’t already have enough to do…

Guest Blog: New board from element14 features Xtrinsic sensors

(Originally posted by Michael E Stanley in The Embedded Beat on Jun 18, 2013.)

I returned from Sensor’s Expo last week to find a new toy waiting for me. element14 has released a new board for the Freescale Freedom development platform featuring Xtrinsic sensors. For those of you who may have been hiding under a rock for the last year or two, these development boards duplicate the header pinout of the popular Arduino hobbyist boards, but are based upon industry standard ARM technology-based MCUs. The new sensor shield by element14 (pictured on top of the FRDM-KL25Z Freescale Freedom development platform) includes three Xtrinsic sensors:

I have blogged on the first two sensors before (Xtrinsic pressure sensor/altimeter: Part 1, Xtrinsic pressure sensor/altimeter: Part 2 and Magnetic sensor makes electronic compass design easy).  I haven’t talked about the MMA8491, so it’s about time since it’s a really neat part. Unlike most other accelerometers, this little guy is designed to measure acceleration on demand, NOT based on some internal timer. The original target application was tamper detection. The device has 3 output pins which provide tilt detection at 45 degrees. Just toggle the EN enable line, and the X/Y/Z output signals are automatically updated. At 400nA per sample, this device has amazingly low power demands. And if your application does have a microcontroller, then just use the I2C port to read 14-bit sampled accelerometer values. That works out to be1mg/LSB sensitivity.

MMA8491 Block Diagram

element14 provides a 27-page user manual to take you through the paces of setting up and talking to your board. The board connects to your PC via a cable adapter from standard to mini USB. The board enumerates as a mass storage device, and element14 provides a precompiled command interpreter that can be downloaded to the Freedom development board via drag-and-drop from your PC desktop. The demo utilizes a virtual serial port over the USB line. You should be able to use almost any terminal emulator package to communicate to the board. My contact at element14 has used Termite and Teraterm Pro.  I used RealTerm.

Demo app streaming altimeter data

The screen dump above shows a sequence of MPL3115 altitude and temperature readings. You will notice 3 “altitude levels” at approximately 398, 397 and 396 meters. These correspond to me holding the board above my head (while seated), on my desktop, and on the floor of my office.  In other words, we’re seeing about two meters difference in height, as expected.

The MMA8491Q accelerometer can be sampled up to 800 times a second, and the MAG3110 has a max sample rate of 80Hz. So you’ve got enough bandwidth to implement an eCompass.  But the combination of sensors on this board work out really nicely for tamper detection, smart grid and smart metering applications as well.

The kit includes both sensor shield and KL25Z Freescale Freedom development platform and cost only $26.99.  You can order it now at

Guest Blog – MEMS new product development, The first prototype

The following is a guest blog entry from David DiPaola from DiPaola Consulting, LLC.  This post first appeared on Solid State, and has made its way to MEMSblog!  This is the second guest post from David, as he will be submitting monthly, focusing on MEMS new product development.  The monthly series will discuss critical aspects of developing new MEMS products for commercialization.  For more information on David or Dipaola Consulting, LLC, please visit:

MEMS New Product Development, Importance of First Prototype
David DiPaola, DiPaola Consulting, LLC,

In the second article of the MEMS new product development blog, the importance of the first prototype will be discussed.  Theoretical work is valuable and a necessary step in this process but nothing shows proof of principle and sells a design like a working prototype.  Its something people can touch, observe and investigate while distracting them from doubt associated with change.  Building multiple prototypes in this first phase is equally important to begin validation early and show repeatability or provide evidence to change design and process directions.

The first prototypes should include both non functional and function samples.  The non functional samples are used to test one or more characteristics such as burst strength of a pressure sensor element.  Fully functional samples can be used to test multiple performance interactions.  An interaction is likely to include how the packaging of a MEMS device influences its accuracy or how exposure to environmental conditions effect sensor performance over life.  Lets look at a few examples of how prototypes can influence proper decision making and expedite new product development.

When working with an OEM on the development of a MEMS sensor, the team hit a road block with the customer pursuing one design direction (for very specific reasons) and the sensor team trying to make a change to improve sensor performance in fluid drainage.  The sensor package had two long, narrow ports of specific diameter and the customer was resistant to change because of envelope size constraints and the need to retrofit legacy products in the field.  However, the diameter of the ports was the most important factor in improving drainage.  Engineers on both sides threw around theories for months with no common ground achieved before a prototype was made.  Then a prototype was built with several different size ports and a drainage study was completed.  A video was made showing visual evidence of the test results.  It turned out that making a 2 mm increase in port diameter resulted in full drainage with gravity where the previous design held fluid until it was vigorously shook.   When the customer saw the results of the prototype testing in the video, a solution to open port diameter was reached in just a days including a method to retrofit existing products in production.

For another application, the engineering team needed to develop a method to prevent rotation of a MEMS sensor package.  The customer requested that rotation be eliminated with a key feature added at the end of a threaded port.  One method to achieve this is through broaching.  This method involves cutting a circular blind hole, using a secondary tool to cut the material to a slightly different shape such a hexagon and then removing the remaining chip with a post drill operation.  When the idea was first introduced, most experts stated it was crazy to attempt such a feature in hardened stainless steel and no quoted the business.  However, the team built a prototype to test the idea.  Our first prototype successfully broached 3 holes and then the tool failed due to a large chip in the tool’s tip.  The team examined the failure and learned that the chip in the tool resulted from a sharp cutting edge.  The material was also suboptimal for this broaching process but it was obtained quickly.  Learning from these mistakes the team choose a more robust material and slightly dulled the cutting edge.  These changes improved tool life from 3 to 92 broaches. This was a significant improvement but not to the point of a robust manufacturing process.  Again learning from the prototype the team saw evidence heat was playing a role in the failure.  This led the team to change to a more robust lubrication (something similar to the consistency of honey).  This single, additional change improved tool life from 92 to over 1100 broaches and it was learned that increased tool life could be obtained with periodic sharpening and dulling the edge slightly.  With further development, over 12,000 broaches were obtained in a single sharpening with tool life lasting over 96,000 broaches.  Hence a prototype quickly showed proof of concept but also led to process and tool design changes that provided a successful solution.

The last example is of a fully functional, prototype MEMS pressure sensor.  Prior to building a prototype, analytical tools such as finite element analysis were used to predict interactions between the packaging and sense element when large external loads were applied to package extremities.  These models are highly complex and often misuse of the tool by non experienced users results in team skepticism of the results.  Colleagues may refer to work of this nature as “pretty pictures” but not very meaningful or doubtful at best.  However, when performed properly with attention to meshing, material properties, boundary conditions, applied loads and solvers accurate results can be obtained.  This allows for multiple design iterations analytically prior to the first prototype to ensure the sensor has the highest probability of achieving the desired performance.  After finding a design solution where the packaging had less than 0.1% influence on the MEMS sense element performance, prototypes were built to validate both the optimized (slightly higher cost, better predicted performance) and a non optimized design (lower cost, lower predicted performance).   Upon validation of both prototypes the team found over 90% correlation between experimental and theoretical results.  In addition, the first prototype (although having some flaws) was very functional and performed well enough to be used in a customer validation station.   With high correlation between theory and experimentation, the once questionable results were validated as trustworthy and further FEA could be performed for design optimization.

In each of the case studies reviewed above, it was seen that early prototypes led to a wealth of information for the engineering team and proof of principle.  In some cases, proof of principle is not obtained and design / process direction needs to change which is equally valuable information.  The first prototypes can also be extremely valuable for influencing colleagues, customers and managers to pursue a particular design or process direction when theory can be disputed at length.  In the next article of the blog, critical design and process steps that lead to successful first prototypes will be discussed.

Author Biography:

David DiPaola

David DiPaola is Managing Director for DiPaola Consulting, a company focused on engineering and management solutions for electromechanical systems, sensors and MEMS products. A 16 year veteran of the field, he has brought many products from concept to production in high volume with outstanding quality. His work in design and process development spans multiple industries including automotive, medical, industrial and consumer electronics. Previously he has held engineering management and technical staff positions at Texas Instruments and Sensata Technologies, authored numerous technical papers and holds 5 patents. To learn more, please visit

Big Mother Gets Street Smart

By Karen Lightman

Originally posted as a guest blog on Design News.  


You have probably heard of the concept of Big Mother as coined by Julie Ask of Forrester Research. Though it is not as ominous as Big Brother — which smacks of scary omniscience — there is still some interplay between technology and personal behavior.

According to Julie’s definition of Big Mother, sensor data is integrated into applications to guide us gently into better behavior. We are reminded to sit up straight by our LUMOback waistbands, or we work out smarter thanks to our FitBit wristbands and BodyMedia armbands. These are cool and compelling, but how is my mobile device going to guide me to the nearest exit of an over-Yankee-Candled indoor mall or help save the battery on my smartphone by powering down when its inborn intelligence infers that I am at the movies? When and how is my mobile device going to get to know me and help me in my world? When is Big Mother going to get street smart?


Pedestrian navigation, anyone? Movea’s data fusion solutions, which include data and processing models, engines, and ecosystem-enabling tools for rapid prototyping, development, and integration, may be just the thing for context-aware applications.

Well, the answer is nigh, because MEMS is enabling smartphones to deliver information to the user that is more personalized and more contextually aware. But to understand the capabilities of MEMS context awareness, we must start with the basics: the MEMS hardware in the mobile devices that will capture the data. The market for MEMS accelerometers, BAW filters, gyroscopes, magnetometers, microphones, microdisplays, and pressure sensors in mobile devices is expected to exceed $5.4 billion by 2017, according to Yole Development. Combine that growth with the push toward cloud computing and the increased pervasiveness of public data (GPS location, transit schedules, electronic billboards, etc.) and personal information (like location and purchasing habits). Now just imagine how much data can be captured.

Yes, this is when you truly have to believe in Big Mother, who, though inherently benevolent, raises privacy concerns of her own. You can’t argue with the fact that technology is trending toward pervasive sensor-provided data. Now what do we do with all that rich data that MEMS sensors are providing?

Context awareness is the MEMS industry’s new frontier for both consumer and personal healthcare/quality-of-life applications. Want to personalize your smartphone so it rings only when it’s face up? That’s possible today. How about navigating multiple floors inside the Mall of America or enhancing the decision-making ability of a person with Alzheimer’s? That’s coming soon, I hope.

Though we have only scratched the surface of context awareness, we already have examples of contextually aware smartphones, the latest of which is the new Samsung Galaxy S4. It is chock full of MEMS and sure looks smarter than then the average smartphone. According to a March 14 Samsung press release, the Galaxy S4′s “combination of sensors built within the device systematically and automatically monitors your health, surroundings and so much more to help improve your quality of life. Also, users can easily check their health conditions using [the] food diary, exercise diary and sleep monitor to stay fit and healthy.” It certainly seems like Samsung is leveraging the power of context awareness. Google and Apple can’t be far behind in announcing their own versions of context-aware smartphones.

I am also confident we will see context awareness in applications beyond smartphones. Wouldn’t you want a context-aware car or a context-aware home? I imagine that, in the next five to seven years, we will start to see smartphones that contextually connect our automobiles to roads and to home. A true Internet of Things world will begin to happen only when we have context awareness, and yes, it is made possible by MEMS. That’s what I would call a street-smartphone.

FXLC95000CL Xtrinsic Intelligent Motion-sensing Platform – More than just a Smart Sensor

The following guest blog post, written by Freescale’s Michael E Stanley, originally appeared in The Embedded Beat on May 28, 2013.

FXLC95000CL Xtrinsic intelligent motion-sensing platform – More than just a smart sensor

Almost three years ago, I introduced you to the MMA955x intelligent 3-axis accelerometer (Evolving Intelligence with Sensors, June 2010).  Several weeks ago, Freescale announced the next product in that line, the FXLC95000CL Xtrinsic intelligent motion-sensing platform (henceforth referred to as the “95K”).  More than just a smart sensor, we’ve beefed up the design in a number of ways.  That is most obvious in the device’s 3x5x1 LGA package. This is a bit larger than that of its older sibling (at 3x3x1).  But you’ll see we need that extra space for extra GPIO, master SPI port and 8X the flash and RAM content.

Contrasting the two devices you get:





32-bit ColdFire V1 with hardware multiply-accumulate

32-bit ColdFire V1 with hardware multiply-accumulate

Maximum CPU clock



Flash memory

16K bytes

128K bytes


2K bytes

16K bytes


4K bytes

16K bytes

slave ports

I2C / SPI (2 Mbit/s max)

I2C / SPI (4 Mbit/s max)

master port(s)

I2C (400 Kbit/s max)

I2C (400 Kbit/s max)

SPI (4 Mbit/s max)


1.8V 1.8V core, 1.72 to 3.6V I/O





frame interval

programmable delay block

2 general purpose TPMs

1 modulo timer

frame interval

programmable delay block

2 general purpose TPMs

1 modulo timer


Light-weight Scheduler




If you compare the 95K block diagram (below) with that of the MMA955x, you’ll see a LOT of similarities.  It’s basically the same design, just WITH MORE.


If you attach a MAG3110 magnetometer to the master I2C port and drop in Freescale’s free eCompass software, you’ll have everything you need for an electronic compass.

The development board for the 95K is shown below.  The master I2C is brought out on connector J8.  The master SPI is brought out on J12.  The board includes a dedicated MCF51QE128CLH which acts as a bridge between your PC’s USB port and the slave port of the 95K.

A26538_KITFXCL95000_trio3_LRWhen it was introduced three years ago, the MMA955x was the first of its kind. There were no other products like it. We designed that device for drop-in compatibility with the standard 3×3 accelerometer packages of the time. That constrained memory to 16K bytes flash, which is fine for numerous applications, but limiting for others.  The 95K blows the lid off those constraints by increasing the amount of flash and RAM by 8X, and doubling the clock speed of the MMA955x.  I am really looking forward to seeing what kind of creative products get built using the 95K.

You will find 95K details at the Freescale FXLC95000CL product page.  Development board details are available at KITFXL95000EVM product page.

Over 40 MIG member companies will be featured at Sensors Expo!

From June 4-6, 2013, much of the MEMS supply chain will convene in Rosemont/Chicago for the 2013 Sensors Expo & Conference, the premier industry event in North America for designing sensors and sensor-integrated systems.  From the MIG-organized pre-conference symposium and MIG member happy hour (sponsored by Bosch and Akustica) on June 4, to the MEMS conference sessions, MEMS Lounge (sponsored by EV Group) and MEMS Pavilion on June 5-6, MEMS Industry Group (MIG) members will be everywhere.

This is your comprehensive guide to make the most of your interactions with MIG members:

For complete details, please visit the Sensors Expo web site at  Make sure that you stop and say hello to the MIG team in booth 309 and pick up your MEMS stickers!  We look forward to seeing you there!

Guest Blog – MEMS New Product Development, A Sellable Plan

The following is a guest blog entry from David DiPaola from DiPaola Consulting, LLC.  This post first appeared on Solid State, and has made its way to MEMSblog!  David will be submitting monthly guest blog posts, focusing on MEMS new product development.  This monthly series will discuss critical aspects of developing new MEMS products for commercialization.  For more information on David or Dipaola Consulting, LLC, please visit:

MEMS New Product Development, A Sellable Plan

David DiPaola, DiPaola Consulting, LLC,
New product development is an extremely rewarding area of engineering and business.  It often brings innovation to unmet needs that can improve quality of life and be extremely profitable for entrepreneurs and large corporations alike.  With MEMS technology exploding with new business opportunities, this blog will discuss the critical factors needed for success in the early stage of new product development.

New product development starts with an idea.  A product to enable the blind to see is very appealing to consider.  However, without a viable business and technical plan to show the path to commercialization, the idea is not worth very much and its impossible to influence investors or managers to support it.  Hence the first step is to identify an application and a lead customer that a business plan can be developed around.  Equally important are a favorable competitive landscape, no or limited patents surrounding the area of interest and a large impact to society.

Applications that are driven by legislation or regulations are excellent because they have a high likelihood of fruition with definitive timelines.  Legislation in automotive resulted in the development of MEMS based occupant weight sensors that provided feedback in systems used to deploy air bags with different force levels or not at all to better protect passengers in the event of an accident.  Even better are applications that give consumers what they want.   The Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System is a device that partially restores sight for specific blindness.  This device provides electrical stimulation of the retina to elicit visual patterns of light that can be interpreted by the brain.  Hence users can recognize doorways and windows and gain greater independence; a highly desired quality with significant impact.   Over 1 million people in the US may benefit from this device and the lead customers are people with profound retinitis pigmentosa.

The Argus II will be the first device to hit the market and hence the competitive landscape is extremely favorable.  Second Sight also benefits from large barriers to enter this market due to the rigorous FDA approval process.   However, competition is on their heels.  Nano Retina is developing another device that is smaller, fits uniquely in the eye alone and promises to provide greater number of pixels enabling recognition of humans.  Second Sight is also developing the next generation device to be smaller, places the video camera in the eye and provides improved vision with greater number of electrodes.

Timing is another important aspect of new product development.  There are limited windows in which a product can be developed and launched.  When products are developed without an underlying customer demand, they rarely make it passed the R&D phase into commercialization.  Often times technologies are developed in universities 15 – 30 years before they become mainstream commercialized products.  Conversely, if the product comes to market too late, OEM’s have already picked development partners and are reluctant to change suppliers.  The application space may also be saturated with competitors making it difficult to win market share.  Depending on the industry, these windows vary in size considerably.   A typical cycle in automotive can range from 2 – 5 years.  Consumer electronics can be as little as 6 months and class III biomedical applications can see cycles greater than 10 years.  Hence it is important to fully understand market opportunities and have a detailed schedule to demonstrate the product can be launched within this defined window.  Equally important, some core technology elements of the design must be developed to a functional point with limited areas needing major development or it will be challenging to meet the defined schedule.

For the occupant weight sensor, there was a limited time to engage with OEM’s and show proof of concept before production suppliers were chosen after the legislation came into law.  The sense element and conditioning electronics were proven in another automotive sensor and the packaging was a major development piece.  The required compliance with government legislation dictated the schedule for aggressive product development, validation, launch and ramp cycle.

An often mismanaged portion of new product development is the team behind the innovation.  A team with robust chemistry, passion and a single leader are key to success.  Multiple team leaders and poor chemistry only leads to infighting and redundant efforts.  It is also important to limit team size to a critical few to expedite decision making and keep focused on what’s important.   Larger teams tend to get distracted with items outside of the core focus and can miss critical details and deadlines causing product failure.  Self assembled teams starting at the grass roots level more times than not have excellent chemistry.  They begin with an idea generated by 1 – 2 people and an additional 1 – 3 trusted colleagues are brought in as support roles to help manage the work load that often occurs after hours.   This natural selection process brings people with similar passions together and weeds out less motivated people as they do not want the added work load.

An extremely important attribute of successful teams is to keep a low profile and minimize negative influences from external sources.  At a project’s beginning, it seems the vast majority of people are against it or have an opinion on why the project will not be successful.  In reality, it is a fear of risk and the unknown.  Hence those teams who understand this and maintain a high risk tolerance yet work to minimize it, have a definite advantage.  Once early project successes are achieved, there will be plenty of time to tell others about the latest innovation.  Having an advocate at the vice president level in this early stage is also extremely helpful because it can channel much needed funds to the project and keep middle managers without similar vision from halting activity.

Speaking the language of investors and business leaders is critical to get the financial backing to make the development happen and commercialization a reality.  Hence the product’s business plan must show that target profits can be achieved with a reasonable payback time of investment dollars.  It is recommended that the plan include low, medium and high production volume estimations, product costs, product selling price and gross revenues.  Operational costs, taxes, equipment depreciation, travel, engineering, marketing and overhead costs all need to be captured as accurately as possible.   Concluding the analysis with return on investment, net present value and initial rate of return provide a good financial overview for the project.

New product development is an exciting area with many opportunities in MEMS applications.  Identification of your lead customer and application, knowing the competitive and patent landscape, creating high impact products, being sensitive to timing, having small, focused teams, and developing a robust business plan can make a large difference in the success of product commercialization.  Please stay tuned for future articles that explore additional aspects to achieve success in new product development.



David DiPaola is Managing Director for DiPaola Consulting a company focused on engineering and management solutions for electromechanical systems, sensors and MEMS products.  A 17 year veteran of the field, he has brought many products from concept to production in high volume with outstanding quality.  His work in design and process development spans multiple industries including automotive, medical, industrial and consumer electronics.  He employs a problem solving based approach working side by side with customers from startups to multi-billion dollar companies.  David also serves as Senior Technical Staff to The Richard Desich SMART Commercialization Center for Microsystems, is an authorized external researcher at The Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology at NIST and is a Senior Member of IEEE. Previously he has held engineering management and technical staff positions at Texas Instruments and Sensata Technologies, authored numerous technical papers, is a respected lecturer and holds 5 patents.  To learn more, please visit

Who’s Driving the MEMS Evolution Revolution Now? (Part 3 of 3)

It is my pleasure to present the conclusion of the Guest blog trilogy on the MEMS Evolution Revolution, written by my colleague, and long-time MEMS industry insider, Howard Wisniowski.  So far in this series, Howard has taken us with him to “visit” member companies Qualtré and WiSpry, taught us about bulk acoustic wave (BAW) solid state MEMS gyroscopes, radio frequency (RF) MEMS, and an innovative application called “Tunable Antennae”.  In part three, we will be introduced to one of the many new MEMS-based technologies coming to the forefront, MEMS timing devices.  We will also take a look at Sand 9, another start up and MIG member that has developed a truly disruptive timing device.

I hope you are as excited as I was to read this the final installment to the series, and I welcome you share your stories of other MEMS start ups that are breaking out in their own markets.  Whether it be in agriculture or acoustics, healthcare or helicopters,  MEMS truly is everywhere and it’s likely the innovative smaller companies who will spread it further, faster and for longer.  Viva la Revolution!


Who’s Driving the MEMS Evolution Revolution Now?

Part 3
Howard Wisniowski, Freelance Editor

Although MEMS inertial sensors received most of the attention during the first and second waves of MEMS technology adoption in the 1990s and 2000s, many new MEMS-based technologies are going to be taking center stage during the current decade. Micro-electromechanical system (MEMS) timing devices are one good example.

MEMS Oscillators

MEMS-based oscillators are an emerging class of highly miniaturized, batch manufacturable timing devices that are more rugged, use less power and are more immune to electromagnetic interference than the well-established quartz-based oscillators. They also play an important role by enabling synchronicity and stable operation in complex electronic devices, from smartphones and tablets to industrial test and measurement systems and communications infrastructure equipment — for applications such as ethernet timing, network timing and cellular base stations. Users not only benefit from better performance in smaller geometries, these MEMS timing products can be integrated / co-packaged with standard semiconductor IC’s to enhance performance, simplify end system design, and optimize board real estate.

Sand 9 (Cambridge, MA), another startup and MIG member, has developed a MEMS timing-device platform that is truly disruptive. The company’s technology is the industry’s first to achieve the stringent phase noise and short-term stability performance requirements for wireless and wired applications where mobile devices are susceptible to malfunctions when a device is dropped and the quartz is dislodged. The spurious-free resonator design – which can enhance network efficiency due to reduced packet loss – can also result in fewer dropped calls. Mobile devices also can easily lose GPS lock and may drop calls due to the limitations of quartz. Also being addressed are earlier MEMS challenges including high power consumption, large phase noise, strong jitter, frequency jumps and strong spurious output. While previous solutions were OK for low-end timing solutions, they are less acceptable for precision timing requirements of 3G, 4G or GPS applications. Sand 9’s spurious-free resonator design can enhance network efficiency due to reduced packet loss – resulting in fewer dropped calls. Combined with high immunity to noise, shock and lead-free reflow temperatures, the Sand 9 high-precision platform also addresses temperature compensated crystal oscillator (TCXO) weaknesses that system designers have been forced to work around for decades.

From a process innovation standpoint, Sand 9 is developing piezoelectric MEMS products which are roughly 100x more efficient at converting electrical energy to mechanical and back to electrical energy again than electrostatic. This means better performance in smaller geometries while improving quality (no moving plates = no stiction). These developments are aimed at overcoming disadvantages of quartz-based devices that include manufacturing cost, longer procurement times, scalability and susceptibility to shock damage.

Industry watchers and analysts have taken notice. According to Semico Research, the MEMS oscillator market is still at a nascent stage, representing less than one percent of the total timing market of $6.3 billion. By offering drop-in replacement – and technical benefits over established silicon quartz crystal timing devices – MEMS companies have already begun to capture market share from the legacy suppliers: quartz crystal manufacturers. According to their estimates, the global market for MEMS oscillators was $21.4 million in 2010 and is expected to reach $312 million by 2014, with consumer products representing nearly half of the market. With disruptive MEMS technologies like MEMS oscillators getting traction, the third wave of MEMS adoption is off and running. 

Who’s Driving the MEMS Evolution Revolution Now? (Part 2 of 3)

I am pleased to bring you the second part of a three part series on the MEMS Evolution Revolution, written by my colleague, and long-time MEMS industry insider, Howard Wisniowski.  So far in this series, Howard has taken us with him to “visit” member company Qualtré, and taught us about bulk acoustic wave (BAW) solid state MEMS gyroscopes.  In part 2, we will begin to learn about radio frequency (RF) MEMS, an innovative application called “Tunable Antennae”, and a start up who is pioneering the advances of this new technology.

I hope you are as excited as I am to read this series and I welcome you share your stories of other MEMS start ups that are breaking out in their own markets, whether it be in agriculture or acoustics; healthcare or helicopters. MEMS truly is everywhere and it’s likely the innovative smaller companies who will spread it further, faster and for longer. Viva la Revolution!

Who’s Driving the MEMS Evolution Revolution Now?

Part 2 of 3

Howard Wisniowski, Freelance Editor

What’s most exciting about MEMS technology is watching how it is evolving. As a participant in the MEMS industry for over 15 years, I have witnessed much of the evolution and revolution take place. In Part 1, I highlighted an innovative and disruptive inertial MEMS technology referred to as bulk acoustic wave (BAW) technology. This new class of solid state stationary gyroscopes is opening up many new application possibilities by being able to meet the performance, size, cost, and reliability requirements for many emerging MEMS inertial sensor applications.

Part 2 focuses on radio frequency (RF) MEMS and a very innovative and disruptive application referred to as tunable antennae. It is hard to believe that one of the most important parts of a mobile phone is the antennae, which is very low-tech. With today’s smartphones that incorporate very sophisticated technology from gazillion-transistor CPUs controlling everything to state-of-the-art retina display on the front ends, the antennae for GSM, LTE, WiFi, and Bluetooth, are simply pieces of metal.

We all can recall when devout iPhone followers were outraged by the fact that an Apple device could be defeated when water-filled, fleshy fingers touched the metal antenna, it attenuated (weakened) the signal and resulted in dropped calls. The fact of the matter is that every smartphone has similar issues. Fortunately, for every mobile device maker, there’s an alternative to normal antennae: RF MEMS.

RF MEMS, as the name suggests, are semiconductor chips that can alter their physical (mechanical) state with the application of movable structures. When applied to an antenna, RF MEMS can be used to make antennae that automatically tune and re-tune themselves to both incoming and outgoing signals. For example, if one should put a finger on an RF MEMS antenna it can automatically re-tune itself so that no calls are dropped. What’s more, this is an emerging application where IHS iSuppli has reported that sales of RF MEMS devices are could reach $150 million by 2015.

RF MEMS Antenna Tuners

At WiSpry, a start up in Irvine, CA and another MIG member, they are pioneering advances in the field of tunable RF technology and addressing the emerging needs of modern smartphones.  Today’s smartphones have a number of radios to deal with — GSM, 3G, CDMA, W-CDMA, LTE, Bluetooth, WiFi, and even FM and TV radios in some cases. Each one has its own silicon circuitry and usually its own antenna too. Additionally, there are now a burgeoning number of frequency bands needing to be supported for 4G LTE cellular – ranging today from 700 Mhz to around 3700 Mhz. What’s more, the 3GPP standards are now allowing more than 43 different frequencies and there is an emerging demand for “Carrier Aggregation” in LTE – Advanced, the newest set of standards, which will have simultaneous “aggregation” of multiple frequencies on a single phone, allowing huge bandwidth improvements.

WiSpry’s RF MEMS-based antenna tuner technology will play pivotal roles in these advancements by potentially enabling devices with just a single antenna and transceiver. By reducing the number of necessary components in a handset while allowing the radio front-end to be programmed to work in any frequency band and with any radio standard using the same set of hardware, a “World-Phone” architecture is possible and truly disruptive. Finally thanks to MEMS, the antennae on mobile devices will actually function more efficiently as they were initially intended – to carry and convey data and yes, even your phone calls.

What is Healthcare without MEMS?

I might have a problem.  My heart rate is 150 BPM, which means I might be suffering from tachycardia according to WebMD.  Or maybe I’m just exercising and am well within my heart rate range.  Without the context, that 150 BPM number is absolutely worthless.

To understand what the number really means, a doctor is going to have to rely on the information I tell her.  And let’s be honest; I’m a liar.  We all are when it comes to our physical fitness.  We all omit that chocolate cake we had for breakfast while exaggerating that nightly run around the block into a full mile.  It’s called the Hawthorne effect, and it means we’re generally useless when it comes to providing context for any of our biological metrics.

That’s where MEMS comes in.  In general, MEMS sensors track motion within a 3D space.  The figure below shows a 10-axis frame of reference, which means that by using four different MEMS devices (Accelerometer, Gyroscope, Magnetometer, and a Pressure Sensor), this device could potentially track motion along the XYZ axis along with the up and down pressure sensor.

Source: Freescale

This ability to track motion is revolutionizing our healthcare.  We don’t even need to add all these sensors, though each one does provide an extra layer of context.  By combining something as simple as an accelerometer (the average cost for a MEMS sensor is between $1 – $2) with a heart rate monitor, we automatically know the context for someone’s heart rate and can determine if that 150 BPM mentioned earlier is spiking when we’re sleeping or if we’re in the middle of a five-mile run.

In order to make a system like this work, we are also going to need a low power MCU to aggregate the data the sensors are collecting.  Right now the most popular part is a 16bit MCU that costs about $0.60.  Manufacturers are liking this part because of its low cost and low power consumption, while having just enough memory to not be overkill.  These wearable appcessories are then going to send this aggregated data to a tablet or smart phone, where a more complex sensor fusion could take place.  TI has a popular low cost Bluetooth chip (CC2540) that is under $2, so all together, this is a very low cost system that aggregates a ton of personal data and transmits it to a dashboard for our consumption (smartphone or tablet).

Texas Instruments is one of the vendors behind these types of systems.  They have relationships with several MEMS vendors in order to off their SensorTag development kit and reference design for Bluetooth low energy sensor applications.  The figure below uses TI’s CC2541, a 2.4GHz Bluetooth low-energy SoC combined with the Sensirion SHT21 humidity sensor, InvenSense’s IMU3000 Gyroscope, the Kionix KTXJ9 accelerometer, Freescale’s MAG3110 magnetometer, and the Epcos TS400 barometric pressure sensor.  A product like this would take in the aggregated data from a healthcare appcessory and create a context-rich dashboard for the consumer or doctor.

Texas Instruments
Source: Texas Instruments

This is how easily MEMS is changing people’s lives for the better.  On a larger scale, MEMS has the potential to change entire societies.  Through fitness and health apps, the industry can aggregate everyone’s personal health stats and translate those into actionable items for communities.  Imagine a community where everyone is wearing a Fitbit and the entire town knows who has the best walking rates.  What if neighborhoods had their own fitness competitions?  Towns can take these stats and compare them with national rates of obesity or illness and decide to take more relevant action like creating more walking and biking paths.  In this manner local communities could choose to divert funds to the areas where the data tells them they are falling behind the curve.

When we talk about Big Data, this is what we’re talking about, and none of it is possible without the context MEMS provides.  To find out just how large this market is going to be, read Semico’s recently completed Mobile Healthcare Study (hint: over 270 million units by 2017).


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