Sharply Falling MEMS Prices Spur Rising Demand

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Sharply Falling MEMS Prices Spur Rising Demand

By Paula Doe, SEMI Emerging Markets

The MEMS market is poised for 24 percent unit growth this year, and for continuing steady 23 percent average annual growth though 2015, as demand explodes for an increasing variety of MEMS sensors in mobile phones and other consumer products — and as a whole portfolio of new MEMS applications finally starts to hit volume production. But increasing competition in the cost-driven consumer market also means prices are plummeting, holding sales revenue growth to some 13 percent this year, to boost the MEMS market to some $7.9 billion in 2010, according to the latest forecast from Yole Développement. Growth will pick up a bit to average about 16% through 2015 as more of the new applications ramp volume, creating a $17 billion MEMS market by 2015.

“Price pressure is really big — some prices are dropping close to 4-5 percent per quarter,” says

Yole Développement CEO Jean-Christophe Eloy. Eloy notes that a 3-axis accelerometer that cost $3 in 2007 now sells for only $0.65, almost a five-fold plunge. A 1-axis automotive gyroscope cost about $15 four years ago. Now a 2-axis gyro is $1.80, almost a 10X drop. These falling prices have spurred major market growth. “It’s crazy but it does open up new markets of tens of millions of units, in a big leveraging effect,” he adds.

Lower costs, and improved technology, will also propel a new generation of MEMS applications into commercial markets over the next few years, generating an additional $2.2 billion in annual MEMS sales by 2015, according to Yole’s recent study of emerging applications, starting with infrared sensors, digital compasses and silicon oscillators. Other new products likely to reach significant commercial volumes in two to three years include integrated MEMS auto-focus units for cameras, energy harvesters, etched micro structures for watches, etched micro tips, MEMS ID, ultra-low power displays made in LCD fabs with MEMS on glass, and speakers that use digital sound reconstruction to potentially cut speaker size and power usage by a factor of ten.

Demand for MEMS microbolometer devices for infrared sensing is currently increasing 20-25 percent per year in units as prices drop, creating a growing commercial market for everything from thermal scanners for checking for water leaks in roofs or plumbing to night vision systems for security cameras and boaters.

Digital compasses are also seeing fast growing demand, and will likely see 40 percent average annual growth over the next five years for mobile phone applications. Improved accuracy and lower costs are driving more applications, as is progress on integration, as the introduction of monolithic 3-axis magnetometers now allows GPS systems to accurately locate and orient the user on digital maps. Yole projects digital compasses will be included in 75 percent of smart phones within two years.

A third MEMS application poised for accelerating growth is, at last, the silicon oscillator, now established as a viable alternative to quartz in applications that need its smaller size and better ruggedness. Here again, decreasing costs will propel demand for the MEMS devices in more applications over the next two to three years.

Maturing Sector Moves towards Smarter, Integrated Devices

Maturity across all parts of the MEMS value chain is also driving the sector towards smarter and more integrated sensor modules, notes Jay Esfandyari, STMicroelectronics manager of market development for MEMS. MEMS suppliers have gotten good at making more sensitive, more reliable devices — at lower cost and smaller size — but consumers have also gotten used to using sensor-based applications. Systems makers have come to look for sensor-enabled functions as key to their competitive advantage, and have grown more experienced and confident that they can develop the necessary software in a timely fashion. Independent software companies are now offering these functions as well.

“Now that the technology is more mature, MEMS is moving beyond supplying single devices,” says Esfandyari. “The first step is to add more intelligence to the ASIC, by incorporating a microcontroller that can take processing load off the host. Then next will be adding multiple axes of motion sensors on the same die.” He points to ST’s latest gyroscope, where rotation sensors for all three axes are made on one die. These smaller integrated modules will put more demands on the packaging solutions needed to prevent the smaller mechanical structures from stress.

These more functional sensor modules with microcontrollers will now calculate the distance walked from the step motion sensed by the accelerometer in a pedometer, or calculate a compensation for tilt to correct the magnetometer data using input from the accelerometer. The main driver currently is richer GPS information, or location-based services, where pointing a smart phone at an object displays information about the object, from the price of an item in a shop, to the history behind a monument.

InvenSense is now moving towards integrating smarter motion processing functions in a single unit, to enable devices that not only sense motion, but that can quickly and accurately recognize specific and complex gestures. It recently announced a module with a 3-axis gyro, processing unit and software that takes input from a 3-axis accelerometer and outputs a 6-axis solution. Coming next is integration of a 3-axis accelerometer in the unit, and then integration of input from 3-axes of magnetometers to tell which direction the movement is in.

The company expects demand from smart phone makers anxious to differentiate their products from the rest with new features — and to generate more revenues with more engaging applications from their app stores — enabling things like scrolling through screens with a flick of the wrist, and turning off the phone with a shake.

More IC makers are also looking seriously at the MEMS market to add sensor features to their portfolio, as these devices move to large volume integrated devices, increasingly made on eight-inch wafers. But Eloy notes that the real opportunity for both IC players and equipment suppliers is to apply MEMS technology to advanced 3D packaging, to use front-end processes for back-end packaging. Yole expects logic to memory integration with TSV to start in 2012 and ramp to volume in 2013, and present a 50 percent annual growth opportunity for equipment suppliers. MEMS remains a small business to the IC world, plus building the technology inhouse takes too long, and the options for acquisitions are quite limited. “Some of the IC players are really looking at MEMS technology for re-use in advanced packaging, and that’s a big business,” says Eloy.

Eloy and Esfandyari will discuss these developments at SEMICON West 2010 in the Tuesday, July 13 morning session on “Opportunities in MEMS.” Joining them will be Steve Nasiri, CEO of InvenSense, discussing how to bring innovative MEMS products to directly to the consumer market, and how to push the product design requirements to meet market needs on size and cost. Peter Hartwell of HP Labs will report on HP’s new generation of inertial sensors and the new performance goals and applications they may enable. And a panel of executives from Analog Devices, Micralyne and IMT will discuss the issues of making these complex integrated devices in high volumes at low cost.

Other MEMS and MEMS-related events at SEMICON West include:

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July 6, 2010