“Sensors are Fricken’ Everywhere”

I have to say that this was THE  quote of last week, uttered by MEMS Industry Group’s managing director, Karen Lightman, neatly summing up the main reason why the MEMS Executive Congress, held this year from November 3-5 at the sumptuous Montelucia Resort and Spa in Scottsdale, Arizona, drew everyone who’s anyone in the MEMS community. This event was different than most of the ones I attend for 3D technologies, because the focus was not on technology processes. Rather, it addressed issues that emerge once a technology hits the big time: market trends and business strategies; the natural growing pains as MEMS matures from a niche market to  mainstream;  system integration; and the next wave of  killer applications.

With phrases like “intelligent sensing,”  ““the internet of things” and “intuitive interfaces,” speakers painted a picture of a world where MEMS devices provide the bridge between the physical and digital world; they have the potential to improve our quality of life, solve energy problems, and short of reading our minds, will, some day soon, allow us to customize our very surroundings to suit our individual preferences.

MEMS sensors have been around for years, but as keynote speaker, Vida Ilderem, Intel, explained, over the past 20 years, sensing has matured from  awareness to intelligence;  essentially providing information that has moved from the perspective of “I am here, what is around me?”  to “I am here, tell me what to do.”  “All this data generated is a huge opportunity for companies to make money,” said Ilderem.  Getting from point A to point B requires a paradigm shift from integration application to experience usage, integration, and what else can it do? What’s needed is a MEMS process that enables large scale integration of sensors.

The awareness capability begins with the sensor itself, but the intelligence comes from integration with ICs, microcontrollers and software to make it all communicate. As opening keynote speaker, Rich Duncombe, Hewlett Packard strategist, explained, comprehensive sensor technology requires a full solution.  We’re shifting from a component based world to solving problems and creating real value.  “What’s cool from the MEMS perspective is that what was an enabling technology 25 years ago has created this tremendously profitable business for HP, and we’re still growing and disrupting technology,” noted Duncombe.  And he stressed that it can be profitable for others too.  In this next wave, when IT is everywhere, having progressed from being housed in “beige boxes to being invisible and ubiquitous” there’s a need to connect every intelligent thing intelligently; this includes existing sensors, automation, communication, mobility, etc.  “As MEMS practitioners, you are right in the center,” he said.

This integration is where MEMS and 3D IC technologies converge to add value and enable increased functionality.  Probably one of the most exciting things I heard for the 3D community was from Roger Grace, of Grace Associates, when he disagreed with Robert Lensch, managing director of boutique investment bank, Boucher-Lensch Associates, about his prediction that monolithic MEMS would be the cheapest way to integrate because all the functions can go on one chip. “Monolithic is not the way to go, because of packaging and testing. I really believe TSV is going to be the monolithic integration killer,” contradicted Grace.

Sure, challenges remain, such as those pointed out by market analysts. and Jeremie Bouchaud of iSuppli.  Things like competition (“it’s incredible!” notes Jean-Christophe Eloy of Yole Développment,, “There are 60 companies manufacturing consumer MEMS.”) decreasing prices (“it’s a nightmare! The only way to increase prices is to add function,” adds Eloy), marketing strategies for how to add value and create product differently, (“the S in MEMS stands for systems” says Grace), and raising capital to take these technologies forward (“MEMS are the honeypot,  Bees are the CMOS foundries, wireless semiconductor companies and mixed signal companies looking for a bargain,” says Jérémie Bouchaud) . To do that, the market analyst panel agreed that as venture capital is difficult to come by these days, it will be consolidation by mergers and acquisitions that fuel these technologies forward.  When asked the question of where they’d invest their money, Bouchaud said if it was him, he wouldn’t invest in a MEMS company itself, but in but in a company around MEMS with the IP and software.

In all the discussions throughout the day – and I should note here that I found the multi-panel format much more conducive to stimulating discussi on than straight presentations followed by Q&A —the topics mentioned here kept rising to the top, whether the panelist were sharing perspectives on MEMS in the healthcare industry, as solutions for clean energy, automotive and military electronics, or advances in consumer electronics.  The key is to not put all your eggs in one basket, because as Bouchaud noted, MEMS reinvents itself every couple of years, offering ongoing opportunities for new sources of revenue.

Oh! I almost forgot to mention the best part — socializing with this fun and innovative group of people. There’s definitely air of optimism and enthusiasm in this market sector. I’m already looking forward to next year’s event.  I’ve never been to Monterey.  Hope to see you there!  –  F.v.T.