The MEMS sensor market for smartphones continues to indicate a positive outlook based on the latest models of smartphones from Samsung, Apple as well as the Google Nexus 5. One of the most critical components expanding the functionality of smartphones are sensors known as microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), which are similar in size and scope to microchips and are also built on silicon wafers. These components detect if your smartphone or tablet is tilted, twisted and at what speed; plus MEMS compass sensors indicate navigational direction and help guide its GPS device.
Propelled by Apple’s launch of the iPhone, the resulting explosive growth of the smartphone market has provided the MEMS industry with one of its largest market opportunities. Samsung’s Galaxy S4 has eight MEMS components, and many forecasts predict this number could rise to the order of tens of devices in future high-end smartphones based on the value they bring to the consumer including indoor and outdoor navigation, location-based services, camera autofocusing, gaming, motion-sensing and augmented reality. As a result, there has been increased merger and acquisition activity in the MEMS market, especially for microphone-related applications.
Overall, orientation-sensing gyroscopes will be the largest sensor category for mobile phones by 2017, displacing accelerometers, according to market analysts at Forward Concepts. Pressure-sensing units are also expected to show rapid growth, buoyed by rising indoor GPS-type applications. This market research firm reported that in 2012 sensors represented 68 percent of the $3.9 billion MEMS sensor market for smartphones, with microphones following with 19 percent and emerging components constituting the remaining portion.
The smartphone is predicted to become the key controlling device in the internet of things where objects embedded with sensors, microcontrollers and RF devices are able to interface with each other for a wide range of applications. The network is expected to span from consumer products to health care monitoring systems, home automation, fitness and other smart systems. Radio frequency (RF) connectivity is an emerging technology for MEMS devices to enable augmented environmental sensing, situational awareness, and enhanced fitness monitoring in wearable devices like smartwatches. In the RF-MEMS sector, opportunities will open up for bulk acoustic wave and thin-film bulk acoustic resonator filters, antenna switches and digital tuning capacitors. Antenna switches and digital tuning capacitors are undergoing new technical roadmap designs due to the expansion of 4G LTE broadband networks for smartphone antennas and up to 40 frequency bands have to be converted from older generation technology.
Advanced embedded solutions of this nature are being designed to fit into a single microelectronic package, which elevates MEMS sensors to increased multi-faceted capabilities for more complicated and comprehensive functionality that integrates motion-sensing with sensors for pressure, temperature and humidity, acoustics, voice processing and ultrasonic gesture recognition. However, the more MEMS per package, the higher the cost per device and more specialized they become. This lessens economies of scale, standardization and the potential for high-volume manufacturing in common foundries where an increasing amount of MEMS devices are being manufactured.
It’s easier to design a unique multi-purpose device than to manufacture it at a profitable cost. Many MEMS companies are small businesses or startups without the resources for manufacturing to support a major smartphone maker. In addition, future MEMS need to be compatible with industry roadmaps for 3D wafer level packaging and through silicon vias (TSVs) to enable low power consumption, since consumers do not want to be charging their phones excessively to support new applications.
Apple gave the MEMS market a big boost by embedding accelerometers and gyroscopes in the iPhone for motion-sensing. The addition of the sensors enhanced mobile gaming features such as landscape-to-portrait rotation and advanced navigational systems. The future of the MEMS market for smartphones such as the Google Nexus 5 remains bright, but the industry must be cognizant of emerging market trends for the most critical consumer applications and low power budgets.
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