MEMS chips entering mass consumer markets

September 22, 2011 // By R. Colin Johnson
As MEMS enters the mainstream, the high-volume markets will favor mergers and acquisitions over the next five years, as the larger player fill in the gaps of their integrated solution for OEMs, who must fuse the outputs of multiple MEMS sensors for a wider variety of applications than just tablets and phones.

For instance, STMicroelectronics NV (Geneva), cited by IHS iSuppli (El Segundo, Calif.) as the leading supplier of MEMS for consumer and portable applications, recently released a software tool called iNemo, which simplifies the OEMs task of fusing the outputs of multiple MEMS accelerometers, gyroscopes, compasses and pressure sensors.

Of the current MEMS vendors, few can keep up with the volumes needed to supply iPads and other mainstream consumer devices like STMicro, Bosch, Texas Instruments and Freescale Semiconductor. Smaller players like Invensense, VTI and MEMStech will have to settle for smaller OEM accounts or be forced into mergers and acquisitions, according to market watcher ABI Research.

ABI forecasts that the market for MEMS chips will grow to nearly $1.5 billion in 2016, driven by soaring sales of touchscreen tablets and smartphones. The overall MEMS market, including electronics, displays, sensors/actuators and microfluidics, is expected to grow from $10 billion in 2011 to $18 billion by 2016, according to market research firm Yole Development.

"To be successful in consumer electronics markets, you have to have economies of scale and be able to supply a broad range of solutions," said Peter Cooney, practice director for semiconductors at ABI, in his recent report, "MEMS Vendors: A Competitive Analysis."

All the leading vendors are supplementing their portfolios of accelerometers, gyroscopes, compasses, and pressure sensors with sensor-fusion software that simplifies the task of integrating their outputs into actionable information that apps can harness for gesture-recognition, automatic screen orientation, security tasks, and emergency safety reactions, such as shutting down before impact when free-fall is sensed.

STMicro recently released its iNEMO sensor fusion suite to OEMs, which can be used to translate raw MEMS sensor outputs into motion-activated commands. Today the easiest path to motion-processing with MEMS sensors is to is license algorithms from GestureTek Inc., (Sunnyvale, CA), Hillcrest Laboratories Inc., (Rockville, Md.) or Movea Inc., (Grenoble, France). But with iNEMO, OEMs can roll-their-own motion processing algorithms.

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