By Jeff Karoub
Small Times Staff Writer

Aug. 2, 2001 — Small tech switches and relays designed for mobile phones should see dramatic growth in the next several years, according to a study released this week.

But the uses — and dollars — grow well beyond that if


Agilent Technologies’ miniature film bulk
acoustic resonator (FBAR) duplexer,
shown in the foreground, is one-fifth the
size of a traditional duplexer component
used in mobile phones and other wireless
communications devices.

the forecasting lens is widened to include the larger world of wireless MEMS, components that can be integrated into wireless communication devices, such as wrist phones, vehicle tire-monitoring systems, environmental monitoring and global positioning satellite (GPS) systems.

Radio frequency, or RF MEMS, designed specifically for electronics, are attracting the attention of the wireless industry right now because the technology can boost performance, reliability and function while driving down size and, eventually, cost.

Cahners In-Stat Group, a market research company, predicts that revenues for RF MEMS switches and relays, which control the electronic signal or frequency in a device, will grow from $1 million this year to nearly $350 million in 2006. And mobile phones are the biggest driver of that technology.

Researchers, analysts and industry sources say similar attributes make wireless MEMS, which allow for communications on a range of frequencies, equally as appealing to a wide number of manufacturing applications.

“If you can think of a sensor, you can think of an application for a wireless MEMS. The sky is the limit — it’s whatever you can imagine,” said Clark Nguyen, a University of Michigan (U-M) MEMS researcher and founder of Discera Inc., a newly formed company that is developing microsystems for wireless devices and other applications. Discera’s lead investor is Ardesta LLC, the parent company of Small Times Media.

“If you want to make this ubiquitous, it has to be cheap and small and has to have good performance.”

The wireless MEMS market is in the early stages of development, but some early adopters are starting to produce.

Samsung Electronics Co. is developing mobile phones, personal digital assistants (PDAs) and even a $1,000 Dick Tracy-style watch phone using MEMS-based technology produced by Agilent Technologies.

Samsung has not divulged a release date for the products, but several should be available by the end of the year in the United States and South America.

The phones incorporate Agilent’s miniature film bulk acoustic resonator (FBAR) duplexer, which allows transmission and reception using a single antenna. Simply put, FBAR is the device in the phone that allows two-way conversation.

A ceramic duplexer traditionally has played that role, but the FBAR, built on a silicon wafer, can do more at one-fifth the size, said David Hahn, the FBAR product manager.

“Most people want something that’s smaller, thinner, lighter to carry,” Hahn said. “The battery is the biggest (part of the phone), but next to battery, the duplexer is the second largest part.”

Hahn said Samsung would not be able to create a wrist phone — especially one that offers storage for 229 numbers, voice mail, caller identification and call waiting — without FBAR technology.

Of course, the added features and space-age design don’t come cheap. And at least initially, that will prove to be one stumbling block to sales growth for wireless MEMS, said Marlene Bourne, a senior analyst with Cahners In-Stat.

Although high-volume production eventually will bring that cost down, the first applications will be too expensive for all but the highest-end devices, Bourne said.

Still, she said, competition within the wireless industry — and demand by consumers for the latest thing — means those prices can’t stay high for long.

“Cell phones … are very price-sensitive,” Bourne said. “There is tremendous pressure to decrease pricing of the components — especially if you want that Dick Tracy watch.”

Nguyen said the market clearly is wide open for RF and other wireless MEMS technologies. But tracking growth is difficult because not all technologies specifically are marketed or labeled with a small-tech tag.

Agilent officials, for instance, say FBAR uses MEMS components, but they don’t consider it strictly an RF MEMS device. Moshe Gat, an Agilent project manager, said most industry officials recognize it as a filtering or acoustic technology, rather than MEMS.

Nguyen, who has become a nationally recognized expert on wireless MEMS through his work at U-M and while getting his doctoral degree at the University of California, Berkeley, said the FBAR filter is well within the definition of RF MEMS.

“It has all the features of a MEMS device — it’s 200-300 microns in diameter, it is micromachined and it vibrates,” he said.

“Maybe some people are waiting until MEMS become more of a vogue term.”

Bourne said part of the problem is that wireless MEMS devices, if they are doing their job, become part of the machines — and therefore hard to track as a specific market segment.

“Probably the technology itself is going to disappear into the (circuit) board,” she said. “It’s so integrated into other electronics that it’s just not possible to follow.

“That shows how the technology is … becoming an essential part of electronics and engineering as a whole.”

The same holds true for sensors, which, by themselves, do not contain wireless MEMS, but the sensors hold promise as a way for the emerging market to expand.

Tire-pressure sensors have been developed mainly for trucks and high-priced vehicles, but the U.S. market is expected to boom since the report that the tire treads on some Ford Explorers could separate, especially when underinflated.

The flaw and associated deaths led to massive recalls by Bridgestone/Firestone and Ford. Congress created an act that requires all new vehicles to include tire monitors by the fall of 2003 that meet federal standards being established.

Per Gerhard Gloersen, research and development coordinator of SensoNor, a Norwegian sensor manufacturer, said his sensors use MEMS mounted in the wheel, but SmarTire, a Canadian company, develops the wireless technology.

SmarTire takes SensoNor’s sensor microsystem and puts it on a small printed circuit board. Next to that go a small radio transmitter chip and a battery, which is encapsulated within plastic and placed inside the wheel.

The signal then is sent to a dashboard display, which warns the driver when pressure drops below the recommended level. It also alerts a driver about leaks and punctures.

Charlene Krepiakevich, SmarTire spokeswoman, said her company has worked alongside SensoNor to develop the technology in what she described as a unique process within the industry.

Nguyen said the purposes of MEMS devices used in wireless communication vary greatly, but each is as important as the other as the industry moves toward integrating mechanics and electronics on a single chip.

“It’s not a matter of one (device) versus the other,” he said. “If you’re going to make a single-chip transceiver, you’re going to want to have vibrators and switches working together to the make the best (wireless device).

“You could stick them all together if you have the right technology.”


Jeff Karoub at [email protected] or call 734-528-6291.


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