Quiet revolution: MEMS thrives on application diversity - Small Times
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Quiet revolution: MEMS thrives on application diversity

by Richard Dixon, iSuppli

December 2, 2010 - With the exception of the consumer/mobile MEMS market, the high-value MEMS space is the fastest-growing technology sector in MEMS today -- ahead of the inkjet and automotive markets. High-value MEMS are attractive because the sensors often sell at much higher prices that for, say, consumer markets, often being designed for harsh environments or with high precision or reliability in mind. Specifically, we define high-value MEMS as sensors and actuators for applications that are outside the high-volume consumer electronics and automotive volume markets -- instead, they address the industrial, medical, energy, optical telecom and aerospace-defense segments.

The volumes for high-value MEMS are usually much lower than consumer of automotive MEMS markets, but the applications are highly fragmented and sufficiently diverse to allow over 100 sensor component supply companies to do business. In addition, this sector has been capitalizing on a gamut of hot-button issues ranging from global warming to aging populations, and the market is set for very rapid growth in a large number of highly diverse segments.

Revenue for high-value MEMS is projected to reach $1.6 billion in 2010, up 29.7% from $1.2 billion in 2009. By 2014, high-value MEMS revenue will hit an estimated $2.6B, equating to a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 16.8% when measured from the starting year of 2009.

As seen in Figure 1, industrial applications, which include sectors as disparate as building automation, oil discovery, waste-water monitoring, HVAC, and semiconductor manufacturing dominate, accounting for approximately 51% of all high-value MEMS revenue projected for 2010. It is also the fastest growing category with 21% CAGR from 2009-2014.

Medical electronics are in second place with a healthy 13% CAGR out to 2014, military and civil aerospace categories are third, with a more conservative 7% CAGR to 2014, while wired (optical) communications brings up the rear; the resurrection of the fiber optical networks after the telecom overcapacity bubble of 2000 drives this market afresh, and brings 17 % CAGR over the 5 years out to 2012.

Figure 1: Industrial applications lead the markets for high-value MEMS. (Source: iSuppli)

Global trends help to underpin an attractive market

The rapid growth of high-value MEMS comes in the wake of global trends that have positively impacted the market, particularly those associated with green energy and global warming. Saving and finding energy, and reducing CO2 emissions, are some of the key challenges of our century. MEMS ICs can help reduce energy consumption in many industrial processes, in residential heating systems, or in transportation.

MEMS devices help find energy, e.g. the especially low-noise floor accelerometers used in "geophones" that map the ground during for oil/gas exploration, or accelerometers and gyroscopes used to position the drills during measurement-while-drilling for oil. The impact for the MEMS market for "building automation" and "energy and power" applications is 30% and 26% CAGR respectively from 2009-2014.

Major changes such as an aging population and growing obesity issues in many countries (leading for example to diabetes or other disorders) are impacting the medical MEMS market. These and other factors are among the motivations for making treatments less invasive or for monitoring the movements of the elderly. MEMS used in insulin pumps increase the efficacy and comfort of insulin drug delivery, for instance, while accelerometers monitor elderly people, tirelessly watching their movements, their position or presence in a bed, if they fall, and so on.

Pressure sensors monitor gases during surgical operations or the treatment of sleep apnea. Accelerometers and gyroscopes assist surgeons by removing shake during precise operations. Emerging applications include implantable wireless pressure sensors, which are showing great promise in monitoring tell tale pressure buildup following heart surgery and are used for post-op monitoring of aneurisms. As a result markets for medical diagnostics and drug delivery devices enjoy 34% and 32% CAGR respectively from 2009 to 2014.

Figure 4: Implantable wireless pressure sensors are showing great promise in monitoring tell tale pressure buildup
following heart surgery.

BRIC countries are on the rise, and while the MEMS industry is still in its infancy in China, it is turning into a major consumer in a number for applications: flow sensors for residential metering, a growing airspace industry, and fiber-optic communications. In fact, fiber deployment in China is currently boosted by government stimuli, and by and large pulls the global optical MEMS market for telecom at 17% CAGR over the next five years.

Another fortuitous feature of the MEMS industry is the continual emergence and eventual proliferation of new devices, e.g. micro-valves which are at once the actuation valve and sensor useful in building automation HVAC. Meanwhile, staple products MEMS pressure and flow sensors help reduce energy consumption in all kinds of industrial processes -- doping of water in swimming pools, residential heating and hydronic transportation systems, to mention just a few -- by monitoring and adjusting parameters for different loading conditions.

Diversity = supply opportunity

In addition to the robust expansion expected for the years ahead, the high-value MEMS market is characterized by the large number of market niches in play. iSuppli has identified and currently tracks approximately 110 device and application cases in the various high-MEMS segments. And while the top 20 suppliers for the overall MEMS market account for 79% of total value, the top 20 suppliers in high-value MEMS account for only 60% -- leaving more market opportunities for many suppliers to compete in the space.

A large number of disparate applications offers many opportunities
for suppliers in high-value MEMS. (Source: iSuppli)

The high-value MEMS food chain

A wide variety of suppliers populate this sector:

  • System companies with their own MEMS production, e.g. in aerospace applications including (Honeywell, BAE, Finmeccanica, Goodrich...), and in medicine (GE Sensing, Honeywell and Caliper), semiconductor testing (Formfactor, MJC...), printing (Epson, Fujifilm Dimatix...).
  • Large independent sensor suppliers like VTI and MEAS, as well as semiconductor companies with significant sensor business such as ADI, Freescale, Omron...
  • Many smaller specialized suppliers, e.g. Colibrys, MEMSCAP, Silicon Designs, Leister, Dexter... and start-ups e.g. C2V, Polychromix, Neosense, not to mention many fabless start-ups with great potential for medical applications, e.g. CardioMEMS, Debiotech, etc.

In conclusion, iSuppli is very excited about the opportunities in the less "sexy" side of MEMS -- a quiet revolution that belies a very active and growing scene able to support a large number of companies.

Richard Dixon received his doctorate in semiconductor characterization from Surrey University and degree in materials science from North Kent University, and is senior analyst for MEMS at iSuppli, Spiegelstr. 2, 81241 Munich Germany; ph +49-89-207-026-070, e-mail [email protected]