Think Outside the Chip…MEMS-Based Systems Solutions

Mon, 03/21/2011 - 5:25am
Roger Grace, President, Roger Grace Associates,

Roger GraceMEMS is an acronym for Microelectromechanical Systems however most “MEMS” implementations to date have not been systems at all but rather devices. This article addresses the creation of solutions that are enabled by MEMS…I have named this “MEMS-based systems solutions…MBSS”. These systems use front end MEMS …either or a combination of one or many sensors, actuators and or structures… which additionally use the functionalities of many other devices including signal conditioning ASICS, DSP embedded software, energy creation and storage and finally networking communications functions. All of these functions need to be interconnected and contained in a small, robust, low cost package that has the ability to be tested in a high -throughput fashion. The concepts of classical system engineering bringing the design team together from day one; co-design principles that acknowledge the interaction of the MEMS, other electronics and packaging; reliability analysis and finally the embracing of design for manufacturing and test are the principles that drive this approach. (Fig. 1) All of this is driven by the specific application.

MEMS-based systems solutions consist of a front end MEMS (sensor(s)/actuator(s) and or structure(s)) along with its signal conditioning electronics, power management and control and back-end communica

Approaches to MEMS Based Systems Solutions
Our recently conducted market research on MBSS applications establishes that they fall into two categories…category one has an “enabling engine” that drives the solution. This concept is driven by MEMS technology that is the intellectual property of the creator of the solution. As an example, a high sensitivity accelerometer created by HP is the enabler for a wireless autonomous sensor network for seismic oil and gas exploration applications.

The other approach, “commoditized integration” uses standard off the shelf MEMS devices in conjunction with ASICs /DSPs with proprietary application software and proprietary packaging to create a solution. Examples of this approach are Schrader Electronics in its automotive tire pressure monitoring systems automobiles using standard off the shelf pressure and motion sensors, Hillcrest Laboratories and Movea in their human-machine interface devices for gesture recognition using MEMS accelerometers and gyros and MEMSIC using various sensors for their bridge structural monitoring and off-road vehicle navigation systems. The value added to these “commoditized” solutions is the knowledge of the application and the ability to successfully accomplish intelligent systems integration and provide software programming specific to the application. All of this is neatly packaged in a low cost and robust fashion.

Drivers for Adoption of MBSS
There are a number of drivers…both technical and business driven that we believe will make the adoption of MBSS a major business success for MEMS. The most significant of these is cost, availability, market expansion and the need for product differentiation and optimization of gross margin on the part of the supplier of the solution The maturing or commoditization of MEMS devices has enabled large volume applications including mobile phone and games to adopt these low cost devices as integral to their strategy of providing many more functions, higher performance and efficiency to their phones. This facilitates the creation of product differentiation between phone suppliers. Additionally, the necessity of the MEMS device to work in conjunction with a signal processor in the form of an ASIC and/or DSP which are commercially available from many vendors including e2V, SiWare Systems, and others provides solution designers with a wide choice of partners. Therefore, the barriers to entering the MBSS market from a commoditized approach can be much lower than that of the enabling engine approach.

The enabling engine approach has a number of companies actively pursing application opportunities including Polychromix who has created a hand help optical spectrometer and C2V (both recently acquired by Thermo Fisher) which has created a MEMS-based near infrared spectrometer and microfluidic gas chromatograph respectively. Our recently completed market research shows that portable analytical instruments hold great promise to propel MEMS -based spectrometers and chromatographs into the laboratory diagnostics and medical point of care application sectors.

Although MBSS has been around for many years, the proliferation of this approach is being fueled from the technology push perspective by the availability of low cost MEMS devices and signal conditioning ASICs and DSP as well as packaging and high throughput testing. The need for gesture recognition in games, toys, computer peripherals (mice), medical, sports and fitness bodes well for this approach. Additionally, as the need to better understand the quality of food and water as well as the chemical and biological composition of many substances to enhance society’s quality of life, MBSS for spectrometers and chromatographs for hand held instruments will fuel the “enabling engine” concept. However we believe that the ultimate forcing factor to the adoption of MBSS will be the need for well defined and defensible product differentiation and higher profit margins vis-à-vis higher levels of integration and value added.

Want to Know More???
I have organized and will chair the June16, 2011 all-day “MEMS-Based Systems Solutions and Integration Approaches” session at the Microtech 2011 in Boston where 18 speakers and panelists will address the topic of MBSS. For more information and a view of the agenda and abstracts, please visit:  

The MEMS Industry Group (MIG) annual Executive Congress will take place in Monterey California on November 2/3, 2011. MBSS is planned to be addressed in a number of the panel discussions. For more information, please visit:   


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