MEMS driving devices from smart phones to home automation at CES 2015

LAS VEGAS – MEMS (micro electromechanical systems) were showcased prominently at International CES 2015. A growing number of smartphone, fitness and wearable device developers and vendors are heavily reliant on this nascent technology.

0 January 27, 2015

“The MEMS industry was $5 billion five years ago, is now a $12 billion industry and is forecasted to be $18 billion in three years – that’s how fast it’s growing,” said Karen Lightman, MEMS Industry Group Executive Director.

The MEMS Industry Group started with five companies in 2001 and was initially funded by DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) – a relationship lasting until 2006 when the group gained independence. Now with more than 170 members including 20 international partners, the organization hosts conferences and provides seminars and programming to members both in person and online.

“Our members see value in collaboration with competitors,” Lightman explained. “With the growing Internet of Things (IoT), the use of MEMS is increasing exponentially. Our organization’s ambition is to have MEMS sensors everywhere, such as in the smart home shown by Bosch (a member company) here at CES. The display home is laden with sensors and MEMS microphones, gyros and accelerometers.

“Now the big thing is a wearable device. MEMS used in this environment need to be much smaller and draw significantly less power to be successful. For example, chemical sensing MEMS might one day enable a smartphone to tell you how many calories you’re sweating, or if diabetic, how much sugar is in your sweat.”

Lightman continued, “Industrial applications for MEMS are huge. For example, Chevron is using MEMS sensors mounted on chain link fences to protect their facilities and assets in Nigeria instead of using security cameras.

“Our group represents the entire supply chain including: the companies that make the chip; the companies the build the equipment that use the chip; the companies that make the silicon; as well as the designers and integrators.”

Canadian members of the MEMS Industry Group include: Micralyne, a world renowned pure-play MEMS foundry based in Edmonton; Quebec’s MiQro Innovation Collaborative Centre (C2MI); and Teledyne DALSA of Waterloo, ON.

“We as an organization brought together our colleagues and created the first standards for performance of MEMS and sensors, which is now an IEEE standard – IEEE 2700,” said Lightman. “We actually won an innovation award because we did it in less than 2 years from start to finish, which is pretty amazing for a standard.

“We can now work on testing, and Cinder Solutions here in our booth develops testing equipment specifically for MEMS. We are now working on standards for testing and calibration of MEMS.”

Stuart Faris, Cinder Solutions marketing director, showed a two-axis rate table used to validate the performance of embedded sensors within consumer products such as smartphones and tablets. With this custom device, engineers can test both gyroscope and accelerometer, then benchmark that performance, make any improvements at the sensor software or hardware level and track improvements.

QuickLogic, another MEMS Industry Group member, demonstrated their MEMS smart hub device.

“We make ultra low power sensor hubs and develop all the algorithms needed to take the data from MEMS and make something useful of it, then a pass it to the application processor,” marketing director Paul Karazuba explained.

“Inside smartphones and wearables are a lot of MEMS devices such as accelerometers, gyroscopes, pressure sensors. The question of what you do with all that data is a big one right now. What our smart hubs do is take that raw data and determines what the user of the device is actually doing. Are you walking, running, sitting in car, in an elevator, are you sleeping? With this information, the smartphone can change its behavior accordingly.

“On a consumer level MEMS can make your smart devices smarter – I hesitate to call something smart when it ‘butt-dials,’ but if our sensor hub can make the determination that the device is in your pocket, the system can turn off the screen and stop wasting battery power or accepting touch input.

“If the user were asleep, why on earth would they need WiFi? Turn that off! All of these things can be done with the data from MEMS sensors interpreted by our smart hub.”

ZMDI, a MEMS Industry Group member based in Dresden, Germany, produces semiconductors, application-specific integrated circuits (ASIC) and MEMS. Uwe Guenther, Mobile Sensing product manager, demonstrated sensors destined for the mobile industry, such as pressure sensors which are MEMS devices that give the accurate air pressure, and from that the altitude of the device.

Zac Bolan is a Calgary-based freelance writer and photographer.

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