Printed Cars, Smart Stints, Personal Breathalyzers

Innovation heats up, but so does debate over MEMS capacity.

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The MEMS and sensor market continues to be a hotbed for innovation, new opportunities and, as with most new frontiers, there are also some disparate views on market dynamics and strategies. All this was evident at the 2016 MSIG Executive Congress last week in Scottsdale, Arizona.

First, I’ll cover the pioneering and fun subjects. In addition to the Technology Showcase demos and member presentations, there were a couple of “outside-the-box” topics such as 3D-printed cars. Co-create was the buzzword on Day 2 and was used by Local Motors General Manager Philip Rayer as he showed off several 3D-printed vehicle designs, which reduce manufacturing time while integrating a totally digital process and open sourcing options such as an OS battery management system. The company is co-creating an autonomous electric car with partners such as IBM Watson, Siemens, NXP and Meridian. Rayer challenged the audience to consolidate the MEMS and sensors into a simplified suite of assemblies and reduce the necessary wiring.

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Figure 1: Local Motors Strati 3D-Printed Car. Source: Local Motors.

Another “outside-the-box” presentation was given by Robert Giasolli, co-founder, CTO and vice president of R&D at Innovasc, a developer of minimally invasive vascular treatment tools. He reminded us that if we eat that jumbo-sized order of french fries, we may get a firsthand demonstration of Innovasc’s Serranator angioplasty balloon technology or their new stint, which eventually will embed sensors, therapeutics, STEM cells and nanosystems.

Getting back to the nitty-gritty issues of manufacturing, one of the interesting disagreements among attendees was the availability of MEMS manufacturing capacity, the utilization of that capacity, and the impact on the market. Behrooz Abdi, CEO of Invensense, believes there is an excess of mature CMOS capacity at the major foundries that can be appropriated to MEMS and sensor production. That capacity is creating an environment that commoditizes MEMS, causing a downward pressure on ASPs (average selling prices).

MEMS devices have certainly benefited from the same scaling techniques of other semiconductor devices to improve the productivity of existing capacity. In 2009, the die size of a 3-axis gyroscope was in the range of 33mm². Today the die size is more likely to be in the range of 10mm² but innovators are getting the die size below 1mm². To be more specific, Qualtré has developed a BAW gyroscope with a die size of 0.5mm² and they are also obtaining navigation-grade solutions. Not only has the die size shrunk, but of course yields are up, dicing techniques have improved and the performance of the actual gyroscope has jumped.

The MSIG membership and the Executive Congress audience is dominated by innovators that are using product differentiation to fight against falling ASPs. In most cases, offering a more innovative solution also requires a proprietary manufacturing technology. Many of these companies do not accept the premise that there is an overabundance of MEMS capacity. These companies are finding it difficult to secure ‘appropriate’ capacity. And these same companies, as well as larger IDM vendors, are concerned about where they will go to expand their capacity in the future.

Finally, the top five Technology Showcase finalists provided insight into some new products on the horizon and also amused us with their demos and “pitch” delivery. Utilizing a Bosch Sensortec integrated environmental sensor unit, the i-BLADES modular smartcase was the 2016 winner. This snap-on unit will add more flexibility and functionality to our already essential smartphones.

Personally, I liked the IDT sensor technology that’s used in a breathalyzer to detect acetone to determine fat burning levels, sulfur for bad breath, or eventually glucose for diabetics. The breathalyzer is not a new idea, but the products keep improving, and one of these days it will be as ubiquitous as our phone cameras. Thanks to the Technology Showcase finalists for giving up your lunch to entertain us. And thanks to MSIG for putting on another informative and fun event.

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Figure 2: i-BLADES Smartcase.

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