Manufacturing & MEMS

M&Ms are a sweet solution with lots of tasty upside, but shrinking features for future nodes isn’t so easy.

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By Joanne Itow
There’s been a lot of attention focused on MEMS in the past couple of years, and rightfully so. In 2011 when total semiconductor revenues grew by only 1.3%, MEMS revenues grew by more than 34%. MEMS have been activating air bags in our cars and projecting images on DLP screens for years, but it wasn’t until the accelerometer in smartphones when mainstream semiconductor manufacturers decided they wanted a piece of the action.

No doubt, MEMS is still in its infancy. But will this market experience an inflection point that will trigger a meteoric rise in sales causing shortages and a market imbalance? And if so, when will that happen?

There are MEMS products available today that offer more efficient timing devices, displays, and microphones. MEMS also are opening the door to new applications with innovative developments in energy harvesting. Yet many of these products are still playing second string to the traditional solutions currently available. What will it take for all these products to enter the market in volume?

There are several variables that come into play, but the most important are cost and availability. Product cost and availability are highly dependent on manufacturing technology and capacity. MEMS are currently manufactured on highly specialized processes in mature fabs. MEMS products can take more than four years to move from product development to market introduction, hardly adequate for today’s consumer markets.

Semico believes things are about to change. There are more than 100 fabs in the Semico Fab Database that offer some kind of MEMS processing capability. There are 12 fabs that are either starting or are in the middle of major expansions. And there are many companies upgrading to 200mm wafer production.

The MEMS manufacturing landscape is comprised of large IDMs, small IDMs, large foundries and small foundries. Texas Instruments has the lion’s share of the MEMS display market with its DLP technology. However, Qualcomm recently launched Mirasol technology and appears to have big plans for this product line as it ramps capacity for displays. STMicroelectronics, Freescale and Kionix are three players successfully meeting the cost and capacity criteria in the cell phone market.

On the foundry side, the MEMS market traditionally has been served by niche providers such as Teledyne DALSA. X-FAB, mostly known for its mixed signal analog, has entered the market with a strategic goal to be a major player in the MEMS arena. Even the major suppliers such as GlobalFoundries and TSMC are working with MEMS customers.

Can all these players be winners? Probably not, but Semico has analyzed more than 20 different MEMS applications and forecasts MEMS growth at a 28% compound annual growth rate over the next 5 years. This growth will provide plenty of business and foster healthy competition to drive innovation and lower costs. The high volume products require multiple suppliers and low-cost manufacturing solutions with readily accessible capacity. And yet there are many MEMS products that still require a special combination of material and process steps. Integration or fusion is the buzzword for next generation MEMS. Companies like X-FAB offer expertise in combining a good signal conditioning process along with materials expertise in platinum, gallium nitride and other piezoelectric materials.

It’s no different with MEMS. Manufacturers that are accustomed to finding solutions to shrink silicon area, lower power consumption, shorten cycle times, improve reliability, simplify processes and reduce overall cost, will be the winners. Easy…right?