TREND Embedded: MEMS for all the senses

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MEMS are everywhere. They can hear, feel, smell, see and even taste now. And virtually all key trends rely on these tiny components.

Whether it’s the Internet of Things, autonomous driving, wearables or telemedicine – MEMS (Micro Electro Mechanical Systems) sensors are used to take measurements everywhere. They are the sensory organs of modern electronic systems or what make non-electronic systems intelligent in the first place. The combination of electronics and micromechanics transforms physical or chemical variables into electrical voltages, thus translating our environment into numerical values.

That goes far beyond our five senses. For example, a magnetic sensor ensures that a smartphone knows where north is. An environmental sensor from Bosch measures the air pressure, humidity, temperature and ambient air quality. Or a mobile MEMS spectrometer from the Fraunhofer IPMS in sugar cube format analyzes gaseous, liquid and solid substances. And the list goes on.

Effective together

Yole Developement MEMS-Sensoren für WearableThe real strength of the tiny electromechanical components only unfolds in combination with other parts. Acceleration and pressure sensors, gyroscopes, magnetometers, spectrometers – a great deal can be achieved with the “toolbox”. What is important is that the results delivered by the individual sensors are linked together appropriately. Furthermore, specific tasks can be performed using a whole range of sensors. A person’s pulse, for example, can be measured using a pressure sensor, an acceleration sensor, with a microphone or using light. The chosen method depends on the specific application and what level of accuracy the device should offer.

Europe the leader for MEMS

European companies and research institutions lead the way when it comes to the development of MEMS sensors. According to IC Insights, Bosch further consolidated its position as the world leader for sensors and actuators last year, achieving a world market share of 20 percent. During the same period, ST Microelectronics dropped from second to fourth in this segment. Infineon was in fifth place. When producing its sensors, Bosch focuses on MEMS systems which are manufactured using semiconductor technology. And this seems to be paying off.

After all, the market is a lucrative one, and the automotive industry has developed into what could be the next consumer electronics market. According to Yole Development, the global market for sensor modules for autonomous vehicles alone will grow from $3 billion last year to more than $35 billion by 2030.

Between 2015 and 2020, sales of all MEMS inertia sensors will increase by 23 percent each year, while sales of gyroscopes will rise by 7.9 percent. Smartphones and tablets account for the lion’s share here. Overall, the number of MEMS sensors produced will rise to 30 billion by 2020 – more than double the current number. And there’s no end in sight. After all, wearables are the next candidate for MEMS systems. By 2020, the market will be worth $88 billion and according to Yole will swallow up 1.2 billion sensors.


Bosch MEMS-Sensoren

The image from a scanning electron microscope (SEM) shows the fine etched silicon structures of a MEMS sensor. (Image: Bosch).