The panel ended up more or less back at the one fact that has dominated MEMS and has both enabled it and hindered it. The first law of MEMS is: “One product, one process, one package.” But the panel also highlighted the potential risk of MEMS oversupply either from over-exuberant established manufacturers or possibly from Chinese entrants into the field.
The panel pointed out that the 3Ps rule of MEMS is a double-edged sword; it favors customization and fragmentation rather than standardization and scaling but it has created a rich garden of exotic sensors and actuators based on a wide variety of transduction principles.
However, the panel discussion did raise the possibility of an incipient equivalent to Moore’s Law based around packaging and how the awareness amongst the members of industry bodies such as MEMS & Sensors Industry Group, organizer of the conference, could help drive standardization.
The session was moderated by Peter Merz, MEMS business unit manager at X-Fab Silicon Foundries AG and the panel comprised Dave Monk, general manager of the motion sensors business unit at NXP Semiconductor, Markus Sonnemann, vice president of engineering at Robert Bosch GmbH and Yannick Pilloux, business development manager for MEMS at manufacturing equipment supplier PlasmaTherm LLC.
Their task was to enable another decade of MEMS industry growth, if they could.
The Internet of Things (IoT) would certainly appear to be boon to MEMS vendors with the enormous volumes of simple machines that are expected to be connected to the Internet in 2025, 50 billion devices according to Cisco.
Projections showed by Merz put the demand at 12 MEMS per person across the globe in 2025 or 105 MEMS per “industrialized” person with the majority shared between the automobile, the public environment, in the home and in wearable/mobile equipment.
But to achieve such volumes at average selling prices (ASPs) that are affordable to the public AND motivating to industry players appears difficult. Not least, the panel agreed, because the MEMS sector does not scale the same way that CMOS and digital semiconductors have done.
Next: A Moore’s Law of MEMS?
The long trajectory for process development, a decade or more, has left strategic cooperation as an exceptional practice in the sector. NXP’s Monk said: “The supply chain is adequate but not enabling. Standard processes are still fairly limited.”
Bosch’s Sonnemann added: “We are hopeful of IoT but we don’t see the volume yet. The barriers are a lack of interface standards and the many RF protocols, security and software. We’ve made a start on software with sensor fusion but it is not yet clear how much software MEMS providers must offer with the hardware.”
Although not mentioned in the discussion there is also the risk that MEMS vendors will be expected to provide software for free as part of the sale of piece parts priced at a few cents. The “free software” phenomenon has already struck at suppliers of digital chips.
A speaker from the floor with the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) pointed out that the semiconductor industry has come to the end of its roadmap as organized by the International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors (ITRS), but that it had served semiconductors well for 40 years. “Perhaps a MEMS & Sensors Industry Group roadmap is needed,” he asked. The debate continued on the floor as to whether such roadmaps generate impetus or merely orchestrate progress that is driven from elsewhere.
The panellists noted that the Trillion Sensors initiative created by serial MEMS entrepreneur Janusz Bryzek and now administered by the MEMS & Sensors Industry Group is the closest the MEMS and sensors sector has to a roadmap.
Bryzek was moved to create the TSensors initiative after reading the book “Abundance” authored by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler. That book looks at exponentially advancing technologies – such as semiconductors, smartphones – and their markets and extrapolates that it will soon be possible to meet the basic needs of every man, woman, and child on the planet (see www.abundancethebook.com).
However, an audience member took a darker view when he suggested that the survival of the human race may depend on the TSensors initiative as the means to head-off an Armageddon that will otherwise be created by climate change and water shortages. “This may obviate the need for privacy and security as we move from a “wants” based society to a “needs” based one,” the audience member said.
A Moore’s Law of MEMS?
Coming back to the idea of a Moore’s Law for MEMS, Monk pointed out that since 2006 the physical size of the three-axis accelerometer component has decreased by 50 percent every 18 months and it is driven by economics just as the original Moore’s law was. “The economics of scale will be solved by the supply chain,” he said.
While Monk’s observation was at the packaging level it is also notable that the tiny area taken up by MEMS die make it hard for the sector to move manufacturing up from 6-inch and 200mm-diameter wafers
Bosch’s Sonnemann said he could see no need for moving production of MEMS to production on 300mm-diameter wafers any time soon but that roll-to-roll production of low-cost, low-performance of some sensors had attractions. “In five years silicon will still be the number on MEMS technology. But who will have come from China? That will be the interesting question.”
X-Fab’s Merz was left to wrap up a panel session that had solved no problems but provided plenty of food for thought, especially in the area of roadmaps and standardization. “In five years we may have overcapacity in MEMS. I hope not and meanwhile I hope we work on a roadmap and standardization,” he concluded.
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