What’s Up With MEMS?

New technologies and different ways of integrating more intelligence are generating new opportunities in the MEMS market.


New sensor technologies, and smarter ways of integrating more intelligence, continue to generate unexpected opportunities in the changing MEMS business.

Changes needed for sensors for context awareness
If digital assistants are ever going to be really useful, they’ll need some particular sensor capabilities to understand emotion, suggests Lama Nachman, head of Intel’s Anticipatory Computing Lab, who will give the keynote at the SEMI|MSIG MEMS & Sensors Executive Congress. “What we’re trying to do is change the way we assist people by having a deeper understanding of their needs. So far the assistants that try to be proactive don’t work very well, because they don’t understand the context well enough.”

One problem is that the existing sensors designed for other applications don’t quite measure the right things for these applications. Nachman notes the problems of trying to detect pupil dilation, which correlates with alertness and attention, with the typical camera or image sensor that’s designed for taking a nice picture, or of trying to identify what’s happening in the background with a phone that wants to get rid of the background noise. “It would be very helpful if there were APIs for sensors so developers could set them to do particular things,” says Nachman. “With cycles of innovation moving so fast and machine learning emerging, sensors are not changing fast enough to keep up.”

The real game changer for context awareness will be the ability to recognize emotion, such as with a sensor that measure heart rate variability very accurately, in a form factor that people would actually be willing to wear, she notes. “Recognizing emotion is even more interesting for systems that learn, since emotional reaction is fantastic feedback for an assistant to learn to be useful and not make you want to throw it out the window.”

Plenty of opportunity still for growth in traditional MEMS sensors
One might think that the development of MEMS sensor technology would be slowing down, but it turns out there’s still plenty of opportunity for innovation. “You’d think the world doesn’t need a better pressure sensor — that the ones developed so far are already more than good enough,” says Infineon’s head of sensor segment Roland Helm, who will speak at the SEMI|MEMS & Sensors Industry Group (MSIG) event. “But it turns out that higher performance pressure sensors or microphones, when combined with radar or other 3D sensors, and with smarter algorithms or machine learning, open a range of unexpected new applications. Things we never thought about turn out to be possible.”

He points to a new generation of ultra-sensitive capacitive pressure sensors and microphones, such as those with a second backplate that push the physics of capacitive sensing, enabling new use cases. Combined with other sensors and improved software, better pressure sensors are stabilizing the altitude of drones in flight, or sensing the opening or closing of doors or handset covers, or detecting the number of people in a room for energy control. The new generation of microphone systems are enabling voice controlled devices to appropriately distinguish both where the sound is coming from, and who is speaking.

Successful volume manufacturing of graphene biosensors enables drug development applications
Nanomedical Diagnostics and MEMS foundry Rogue Valley Microdevices are producing commercial biosensors from graphene on 6-inch silicon wafers for a unique drug development platform. The electrical conductivity, high surface area, and unique biocompatibility of graphene enable a wider detection range and compatibility with more complex samples than currently available technologies. Organizations including the CDC, Stanford, Johns Hopkins, and Merck are using the tool in their research. Nanomedical aims to introduce a high-throughput version next year.

The company has developed an efficient system for transferring CVD graphene to silicon, and has worked with the MEMS foundry to develop photolithography and etch processes for patterning the single-atomic-layer film. “We needed a MEMS foundry that was willing to work with unconventional materials,” notes Mitchell Lerner, Nanomedical Diagnostics VP of production, another speaker. “Now that we’ve run more than two million transistors, we’ve reached the volumes needed to improve yields.” This graphene fabrication technology could potentially be applied to other applications as well, such as photodetection, magnetic sensors, and thermal control for ICs.

Emerging opportunities in volume markets for biomedical sensors
The $3.3B biomedical MEMS and microfluidics markets looks poised for major growth over the next several years, suggests Yole Développement analyst Sébastien Clerc, who will update on these biomedical opportunities at the event. The BioMEMS market has seen strong ~16 percent annual growth over the last four years, according to Yole’s 2016 market report, but it’s about to see an order of magnitude increase as it moves beyond specialty niche devices into some high volume products, says Clerc. The markedly improving quality and sophistication of consumer health and fitness sensors means they’re getting close to medical grade performance, opening a real volume market for monitoring chronic conditions like heart disease.

Demand for microfluidics point-of-care devices may also jump to a billion units/year in the midterm future, as technology matures for molecular diagnostics that can quickly test for cancer cells from a simple blood test. “A lot of companies are looking at this, and it’s potentially a big market with possibilities for annual screening of patients in the future to detect cancer at early stages,” says Clerc. “The challenge in microfluidics has been to figure out how to integrate and manufacture the chips with the chemistry, especially the sample preparation steps, which are still very challenging today.” Every different test needs different sample preparation, as well as a reacting process flow, and the universities and startups who develop the detection chemistries and start designing the cartridges often do not have the expertise to design the systems for volume manufacturing, though they should think about it very early in the process to avoid costly and time-consuming redesign steps.

These and other speakers — including Jérémie Bouchaud, IHS Markit; Rudy Burger, Woodside Capital Partners; Alissa Fitzgerald, AM Fitzgerald; Marcellino Gemelli; Bosch Sensortec; Peter Hartwell, TDK/InvenSense; Wen Hsieh, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers; and Lars Reger, NXP — will discuss the technologies and applications driving the next growth of industry at the annual gathering of sector leaders, the MEMS & Sensors Executive Congress, Nov. 1-2 in San Jose, California. To register, click here.


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