Who’s Driving the MEMS Evolution Revolution? (Part 1 of 3)

I am pleased to bring you part one of a three part series on the MEMS Evolution Revolution, written by my colleague, and long-time MEMS industry insider, Howard Wisniowski. Howard takes us with him to “visit” three exciting MEMS startups that are breaking new ground in the mobile/consumer market. In part one, we learn about bulk acoustic wave (BAW) solid state MEMS gyroscopes and meet MIG member company Qualtré. In parts two and three we journey to find out what companies are driving the MEMS evolution revolution with their exciting nascent disruptive technologies. I hope you are as excited as I am to read this series and I welcome you share your stories of other MEMS startups 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 1

Howard Wisniowski, Freelance Editor

Like the transistor and the microprocessor, MEMS are often described as a disruptive technology, as in change-the-world, turn-it-upside-down, rewrite-the-rules-of-the-game. You can forget about this kind of incremental change, however, fitting easily into corporate business plans. Few, if any, roadmap processes are available to accommodate new innovative disruptive technologies that either have the potential to radically change the way products are currently being produced or are the foundation for products that might create entirely new industries, nascent disruptive technologies. Within many established corporate environments, roadmaps all too often focus on sustaining existing technologies with a mature sales base and use variations of tried and true processes that exist in their fabs. Start-ups don’t have these types of investments enabling them to build on the shoulders of their predecessors and develop products that take a fresh look at what benefits product design engineers are seeking for new and existing end applications.

Today on the “revolution” side, the demand for MEMS technology is still booming thanks to not only to the continued growth of high volume automotive and consumer applications where MEMS sensors have become mainstream, but also to the continued development of emerging applications in robotics, energy harvesting, and healthcare. On the “evolution” side, however, there are even more exciting and disruptive things going on with MEMS technology that is poised to drive the next wave of MEMS enabled products and applications. There are hundreds of companies, universities, and thousands of researchers around the globe working on MEMS projects. Many have the underlying technology that is well beyond the laboratory, ready for deployment, and are now seeking funding.

Highlighting this very active sector, Yole Development reports on the continuing growth of emerging MEMS products and applications. Alongside many of the old timers, their reports cite as many as 50 startups designing emerging MEMS devices that have the possibility to ramp up to large volumes quickly with growing access to contract foundries.

Within this large field, several new “disruptive” MEMS devices will be highlighted in this three part series beginning with bulk acoustic wave (BAW) MEMS technology. This new and disruptive MEMS technology is now being applied to innovative MEMS gyroscopes.

 

Bulk acoustic wave (BAW) solid state MEMS gyroscopes

According to analysts at IHS iSuppli, the MEMS gyroscope market displaced accelerometers as the revenue champion in consumer and mobile MEMS applications when revenue grew 66 percent from $394 million in 2010 to $655 million in 2011. While engineers now design systems that include MEMS gyros as essential components, particularly designers of mobile devices, suppliers are scrambling to meet their needs for low power, small size and low cost.

Qualtré, Inc. (Marlborough, MA) is one MEMS start-up and MIG member that is addressing these issues with an innovative MEMS technology referred to as bulk acoustic wave (BAW) technology. BAW technology is now being used to pioneer a new class of solid state stationary gyroscopes that not only meet power, size and cost requirements, but also add high performance to the mix. Unlike older MEMS gyro technologies that use moving masses vibrating at low frequency range of 5 to 50 kHz (I don’t want to get too technical here), BAW MEMS gyros operate in the megahertz frequency range (1‐10MHz), several orders of magnitude higher. This is enabled by the very stiff nature of the BAW technology. This stiffness not only results in MEMS gyros that are insensitive to vibration in the environment but also prevents stiction both in manufacturing and during operation in the field, thus removing a major yield and reliability problem found with the vast majority of other MEMS devices. These features results in improved performance in real world applications where vibrations are present and degrade the operation of current gyros.

By combining these performance advantages of the BAW sensor design and the scalability of Qualtré’s proprietary HARPSS™ process (High Aspect-­Ratio Combined Poly and Single-­Crystal Silicon), BAW MEMS gyros have also demonstrated very stable signals (aka low drift) which is important for pedestrian navigation, improved noise density for better resolution and more accurate measurements, and a wider dynamic range that expands detectable signals. This kind of innovation is what will drive the next wave of end-product product designs for new and existing applications.

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