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MEMS imitates logic

August 04, 2014 // Peter Clarke

MEMS imitates logic

There were those that said history would not repeat itself. But evidence continues to accumulate that the MEMS sector will follow a similar path to CMOS logic.

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That path is one in which integrated device manufacturers (IDMs) that do everything thing under one roof gradually give way to those choosing one side or other of a dual fabless-foundry business model, where there are those that specialize in manufacturing in volume and those that specialize in design.

The difference between MEMS and logic – and the reason previously given for the continued supremacy of the IDM in the MEMS domain– is that in the case of MEMS the manufacturing process is fundamentally linked to the design possibilities. In contrast, over 30 years of digital CMOS development has led to a remarkable consensus on the best ways to implement integrated circuits and a degree of separation of design from process implementation. The fabless avoid manufacturing infrastructure costs while those that incur them spend big for economies of scale and then manufacture for many customers and do not compete with them.

In CMOS logic this has led to the rise of such companies as the foundry Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. Ltd. (TSMC) and fabless chip companies such as Qualcomm, Broadcom, Mediatek. It is also notable the way a traditional IDM Advanced Micro Devices evolved to become fabless and threw off its manufacturing operations, which became the seed crystal for the creation of Globalfoundries.

Meanwhile the latest MEMS status report from Yole Developpement (see MEMS leaders under pressure, says Yole) indicates the start of similar process. It remains true that there almost as many detailed MEMS processes and packages as there are MEMS products but the volume is met by a much-reduced set for such things as inertial sensors, for pressure sensors, for microphones.

Leaders under pressure

The Yole status report shows that some of the former leaders in MEMS, the likes of Texas Instruments (digital light processing) and Hewlett Packard (microfluidics for inkjets) are seeing sales decline. STMicroelectronics, the MEMS market leader in 2012 – which operates a split strategy where is does MEMS manufacturing some customers and also produces under its own name – has also come under pressure. Meanwhile, Yole is tipping InvenSense and mCube as rising stars of the MEMS firmament.

Both companies have intimate knowledge of the manufacturing processes relevant to their designs but they have avoided the cost of setting up their own wafer fabs and worked with TSMC.

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