With an all-time high of $197 billion in revenue projected for 2012, the U.S. consumer electronics industry is throwing down the gauntlet, calling for designers and manufacturers throughout the supply chain to meet the increasing demands of an ever-shorter consumer electronics product life cycle.
“OEMs want a very short life cycle,” said Shawn DuBravac, chief economist and director of research for the Consumer Electronics Association. “Nine months is the target for cell phone manufacturers, from initial thought to on-the-shelf for purchase by consumers. That’s a tough cycle, even for them, let alone the partners in that process.”
Propelling that development cycle, he continued, is a desire among OEMs to introduce new features and products ahead of any market rumors. In addition, smartphones and tablet computers have become “highly associated with one’s persona,” DuBravac said. “They’ve become fashion accessories.”
The iPhone family (4S is pictured) leads an increasingly fast-paced consumer electronics market demand for MEMS-CMOS integration. Image courtesy Apple.
Then factor in how cellular providers subsidize phone purchases. The typical consumer gets an upgraded phone every 18 months, DuBravac said.
Given the “crazy 9-month life cycles,” DuBravac added, anything that slows time-to-market risks losing an opportunity.
“The OEMs cater to the consumers with or without a given component manufacturer,” he observed. “One might argue, too, without certain components. There may be less functionality built into the product as a result.”
That’s where makers of analog and microelectromechanical-systems components stand to lose.
“I imagine there’s a suite of MEMS devices out there that the average software developer wouldn’t know how to leverage,” DuBravac noted. “There is a need for greater coordination, including educating software developers on what something does or what function it enables. The relationship between the hardware OEM and the component manufacturer, both upstream and downstream, and whether it’s MEMS or something else, has to be tight and seamless. The speed of the supply chain hinges on any given piece in that chain.”
While DuBravac sees greater collaboration between MEMS device makers and consumer electronics OEMs, many in micromanufacturing think there’s a long way to go before MEMS companies fully establish themselves in the consumer electronics market.
At least one market researcher suggests that MEMS device makers have about 5 years to establish themselves, or risk losing opportunities because the consumer electronics OEMs will devise workarounds.
MEMS device makers must collaborate more effectively with product designers, said Tony Massimini, chief of technology at Semico Research Corp., a Phoenix-based semiconductor marketing and consulting research firm. Massimini, who recently addressed these issues along with DuBravac at the MEMS Executive Congress in California, said the MEMS segment could grow from $9 billion this year to $17.5 billion by 2015, but only if there is greater collaboration.
About half the current MEMS market resides in automotive applications, Massimini explained. By 2015, he expects a major shift toward consumer electronics.
While the need to increase collaboration may seem obvious, Massimini isn’t so sure this is well understood. “That’s why I raised the flag [at the MEMS conference],” he said, “because I was not sure how many people were talking about it until I got there.”
At the conference, he stressed the need for a cohesive “ecosystem” similar to the one developed for semiconductor manufacturing. “An ecosystem is when you have standardized tools—for both chip design and test verification—and you develop systems for product designers so they can better figure out how to use your devices. That will reduce costs and cycle times. Some MEMS companies are still struggling with [standards] because they’ve never had to deal with them before.”
The proliferating use among consumers of popular wireless devices like smartphones and tablets will boost revenue this year for mobile communications products and wireless infrastructure gear by a hefty 29 percent. Revenue for the total mobile communications device market is expected to reach $335.6 billion by the end of 2011. Chart courtesy IHS iSuppli.
Complicating matters is the emergence of MEMS devices with multiple sensors and functionality, observed Jean-Christophe Eloy, president and CEO of Yole Développement, a technology market research firm headquartered in Lyon, France. “The early adopters of MEMS devices were gaming industry companies like Nintendo and Sony, and they learned how the sensors work,” Eloy said. “Now there’s a new generation of consumer electronics companies, such as smartphone makers, willing to integrate these devices, but they have no idea how to use the sensors.”
In short, MEMS device makers not only have to produce a sensor, they have to show the OEMs how to use it.
“That’s a big change for the MEMS device makers,” he said. “They have to develop the software and firmware so it is plug-and-play at the system level to help the OEMs integrate these devices into their products.”
Though it requires more work for each device maker, MEMS companies are moving away from delivering a device toward delivering a function. “That can really help the introduction of MEMS devices into the consumer electronics industry,” Eloy said. Up to this point, however, “companies across the industry have been quite reluctant to work together to provide system education. And that’s a mistake.”
There’s a huge financial incentive for companies to work together. With effective collaboration between MEMS device makers and consumer electronics OEMs, Eloy said the MEMS market could move from 15 percent growth per year to 20 percent annual growth.
Massimini said many MEMS companies agree with the analysts’ assessments. “It is just a matter of time, and once you collaborate, standardization will produce success.”
Software simulation and design vendors will play an important role in the consumer electronics ecosystem, according to Massimini. For example, Coventor Inc., Cary, N.C., provides MEMS design and simulation software tools, while other companies, like Tanner EDA, Monrovia, Calif., are seeking collaborative partnerships to help designers reduce time-to-market.
Companies such as these are developing design toolsets that expedite modeling, packaging and assembly. “There will be standards for MEMS because a lot of these consumer electronics OEMs will turn to foundries for manufacturing, and large foundries want standards,” Massimini said. “They don’t want to do a special process for everybody.”
On that point, Coventor Vice President of Engineering Dr. Stephen R. Breit said the software company’s 3-D simulation platform “is definitely helping foundries that use it to verify customer designs and communicate with their customers (MEMS device makers).”
The challenge for Coventor, added Breit, is getting the word out about how a software toolset can help expedite time-to-market, especially at smaller companies where engineers have multiple responsibilities and sometimes take shortcuts to finalize a design. “They often pay for [the shortcuts] because they get devices that don’t work the way they expect them to work.”
As an example, Breit cited a West Coast company that spent 5 years building a MEMS device, but the company didn’t have MEMS-specific simulation tools. Coventor created a simulation of the device using its MEMS simulation platform. “We were able to show them that the device as designed would not work,” said Breit. “It was an eye-opener for them, and they are using our tool to come up with a design that will work.”
Before such software tools existed, Breit noted, MEMS device makers were forced to do minimal design work up front, build a prototype and test it. “That’s a very time-consuming, costly process. They do multiple iterations of this process. You’re talking about 3 or 4 months—minimum—for each cycle.”
At present, Breit added, companies are managing to get their MEMS devices to market in 2 to 4 years. Just a decade ago, the average time to market for a MEMS device was closer to 10 years, he noted. Software like Coventor’s is one of the factors in that trend, Breit said, and added that the integration of MEMS with traditional CMOS (complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor) ICs is an important part of the next generation of consumer products. Toward that end, Coventor is linking its software platform with tools from IC and systems providers such as Cadence Design Systems, Berkshire, U.K., and The MathWorks, Natick, Mass.
John Zuk, vice president of marketing for Tanner EDA, also credits supply chain improvements with reducing time-to-market. But much of that saved time has been process driven, he said, “and there’s only so much you can push on that. You’re looking at designing both digital and analog elements. And analog has increasingly become the ‘long pole in the tent’ in terms of cycle time.” The challenge, Zuk said, involves the inherent art forms associated with analog and MEMS design—both of which are fundamentally different from their digital counterparts.
Part of the solution, Zuk said, is working closely with partners that supply design tools. By giving designers the ability to produce sensor or analog designs that embrace industry standards, the devices created will be capable of a free flow of information without the need for data translation. One example is the Open Access standard for a common design database. Standardization helps various software tools work in tandem.
The IDG-2000 family is the world’s first digital gyro with both SPI and I2C interfaces, simplifying integration in customer platforms with high-resolution 16-bit analog-to-digital converters. Image courtesy InvenSense.
“From our perspective, there has been good receptivity to that standard among design software developers, at least with our partners,” said Zuk. He sees 2012 as a potential turning point for the adoption of this particular standard, which will be driven by MEMS foundries.
“Foundries don’t want to continue creating custom design kits for each EDA (electronic design automation) toolflow. They are working with EDA software vendors on the types of tools and design kits that they create for designers so that everyone uses this Open Access format.”
With the standard, explained Zuk, information can flow as quickly as possible. Without it, there is a delay due to data translation and manipulation. “That’s just a pure waste of time,” he said.
On the other hand, Zuk acknowledged the need for companies like Tanner EDA to understand the unique needs of designers from different markets. Tanner EDA has to account for the specific workflow designs of the consumer electronics, aerospace, defense and automotive markets.
Image courtesy Coventor.
“The real challenge is upstream, getting the device through the design process and getting it out and available,” said Zuk. “And it’s the analog and MEMS components that tend to have the longer lead times.” While the digital design side is mature, the analog portion is lagging. And MEMS lags behind analog, according to Zuk.
One way Tanner EDA is closing that gap is by forming technology partnerships with MEMS companies, such as SoftMEMS, a MEMS design software company. The Santa Clara, Calif., company brings knowledge and expertise of MEMS design requirements to Tanner EDA, noted Zuk. In turn, Tanner EDA brings its understanding of the broader IC design requirements to the table.
Together, the two companies assess the analog IC advances that can be applied to MEMS and identify the unique challenges to integrating MEMS processes with broader IC processes. “We have found that many of their tools for MEMS design are actually built on our tool framework, which is used by analog IC designers,” Zuk added.
The MEMS industry needs more such collaborations, observed Alissa Fitzgerald, founder and managing member of A.M. Fitzgerald & Associates LLC, a MEMS development company based in Burlingame, Calif. Another sign that a “new wave of openness” may be on the way for the MEMS segment, she added, is a technology licensing strategy emerging from InvenSense Inc., a Sunnyvale, Calif., MEMS device maker capturing the attention of the consumer electronics industry due to its success with MEMS-based gyroscopes.
InvenSense developed and patented the Nasiri-Fabrication platform, which enables integration of standard MEMS with CMOS in a wafer-level solution. Combining a MEMS wafer with a standard CMOS wafer reduces the number of MEMS manufacturing steps, according to a recent financial statement InvenSense filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. In addition, the process is said to enable wafer-level testing and wafer-level packaging, which helps reduce back-end costs.
“With our heritage in high-volume, fabless MEMS manufacturing,” the company’s SEC statement reported, “we believe we are uniquely positioned to help enable a fabless MEMS ecosystem. We have recently developed an NF-Shuttle program that allows universities and industry peers to license and leverage our technology in the development of CMOS-MEMS based solutions.”
Fitzgerald said the NF-Shuttle program follows the multiproject wafer model, which has been successful in the semiconductor industry. “They can put three or four groups of MEMS devices on the same wafer because [the devices] are all going through the same process—a process that’s been perfected in mass manufacturing,” she said.
While such newfound openness is a welcome sign, added Fitzgerald, the MEMS industry still needs its own set of standards in order to respond to increasing demand.
“MEMS needs standards at the process module level,” Fitzgerald said. “We cannot dictate the overall flow because every MEMS device needs a different process flow to create its unique shape. They have these Z-axis features that can only be formed through different process flows (than normally found in semiconductor manufacturing).”
The focus for MEMS standards, then, must be on the different MEMS process modules, which are building blocks for a process flow. “To use a machine shop analogy, just as you have standards for lathes, mills and sheet-metal benders, MEMS needs standardized process modules for lithography, silicon plasma etching, wet etching and polysilicon deposition,” she said.
Many foundries currently have standardized their own sets of recipes and equipment, but haven’t had a way to communicate that to MEMS designers.
“If we can get standardization at the process module level, then we can re-use the modules to compose different process flows and eliminate some of these inefficiencies of starting over and over again,” Fitzgerald concluded.
One way or another, MEMS device makers must rise to the occasion, according to Tanner EDA’s Zuk. “The electronics industry is laying down this gauntlet to the tool vendors and the guys who do the design work, and [is] saying, ‘This is what our market is demanding—you need to be able to meet this requirement.’ ” µ
A.M. Fitzgerald & Associates LLC
Consumer Electronics Association
Semico Research Corp.
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