MEMS breed a new batch of consumer-pleasing devices

MEMS breed a new batch of consumer-pleasing devices

R. Colin Johnson
EE Times

(11/12/2007 9:00 AM EST)

Microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) have revolutionized every industry that has adopted them, according to presenters at the MEMS Executive Conference earlier this month in San Diego. For instance, the MEMS accelerometer has greatly enhanced the safety of automobiles with airbags. Likewise, the Nintendo Wii's motion-based controller has changed the gaming landscape, while Apple's iPhone has set a new standard for cell phones. Now, MEMS chips, combined with the smart software that utilizes them, are being designed into cell phones at a pace reminiscent of camera phone adoption, enabling a new breed of consumer-pleasing electronic devices.

"I predict that there will be 10 billion MEMS chips in mobile phones by 2010," said keynote speaker Philippe Kahn, chairman of Fullpower Technologies Inc. (Santa Cruz, Calif.), to the 150 MEMS executives at the conference. "The Wii and iPhone are just the beginning. Motion detection with MEMS accelerometers will soon enable all kinds of functions, such as shaking your cell phone to pick up a call: no buttons, no fingers, just simple, natural gestures."

Kahn invented the camera phone, founded Borland Software Corp., Starfish Software (acquired by Motorola in 1998) and Lightsurf (acquired by VeriSign in 2005). Kahn's latest startup company, Fullpower Technologies, provides a multitasking preemptive priority operating environment for consumer-device designers trying to utilize MEMS accelerometers, proximity sensors, ambient light detectors, pressure sensors, magnetometers (compass) and global positioning system (GPS) chips, as well as MEMS pressure and flow-rate sensors for measuring heart rate, blood glucose and other health parameters.

"Everyone has experienced having to go through menu after menu until you get to the function you want; so if those can be done by shaking or tilting the phone, those are features that consumers will really want," said Russell Hannigan, director of product management at Microvision Inc. (Redmond, Wash.). Microvision makes a MEMS projector-display chip that enables cell phones to project images on a wall.

According to presenter Jean-Christophe Eloy, the founder and managing director of Yole Development (Lyon, France), the global MEMS market in 2006 was about $7 billion and is expected to grow to more than $11 billion by 2011. In 2007, about 400 million MEMS chip units were shipped, or about 5 percent of the total foundry market.

"We see the total MEMS market going to $20 billion by 2016, with a 13 percent annual growth rate and about 70 percent coming from semiconductor companies," said Eloy. "Venture capitalists are heavily investing in MEMS, too, putting about $443 million into MEMS companies in 2006, with 12 companies raising more than $15 million each."

"We also expect to see new kinds of MEMS devices, such as tiny speakers for earphones and specialized battery replacement chips by 2008," said Eloy.

Besides startups, established players such as General Electric are ramping up their MEMS manufacturing capabilities. For instance, GE already claims a $1 billion in-house MEMS operation, and is developing a wide variety of new MEMS devices, according to Brian Wirth, GE's global product manager for MEMS, microstructures and nanotechnologies.


  1. Hi Ben,

    Thanks... I like the image, is that MEMS shown elsewhere (link)?

  2. Ben,
    Let's also address the MEMS in the printers, right!


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