MEMS really is the word at Munich electronics trade show

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MUNICH, Germany, Nov. 19, 2002 — Germans might not have a reputation for being the jolliest people around, but those presenting a forum on the outlook for the European MEMS industry at the Electronica 2002 trade fair recently were all smiles. The scientists, officials and market watchers painted a generally rosy picture of an industry that has enjoyed steady growth despite the general downturn in the tech sector.

“A lot of the people in other parts of this trade fair wish they could be in our shoes,” said Wolfgang D. Hofmann, a manager at Motorola Inc. who conducted a recent market survey on future MEMS trends.

This is the 20th time Munich has hosted the Electronica trade fair, and this year just over 3,000 exhibitors have come to the southern German city to how off their latest technological developments to an estimated 75,000 visitors. This year, the fair set up three special areas to highlight particular high-growth areas of the electronics industry: Automotive Innovation, Embedded Systems and, for the first time, “The World of MEMS.”

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It’s a sunny little planet, according to Hofmann, one that is in sharp contrast to its telecommunications and Internet breathren, which are still bedeviled by the dark storm clouds that moved in two years ago. He said MEMS world can thank one party for all the good weather: the automobile.

“Automobile sensors are driving this market,” Hofmann said, “and since the European car industry has been been steadily growing over the last few years, the MEMS sector has been recession-proof.”

Europe, and Germany in particular, is a leader in production and use of automotive sensors. While MEMS currently only make up an eighth of the total automobile sensor market, that proportion is expected to double in the next three years. Another reason for Europeans to smile.

While automotive sensors, with their large production volumes, may be the meat and potatoes of the MEMS industry, they are not the only applications with a promising future. Henning Wicht of Wicht Technologie Consulting (WTC) was quick to point out that medical devices with MEMS on board have practically unlimited potential, including uses as implants and stimulators, measurement devices or diagnostic tools.

His company, which specializes in market research and forecasting, predicts medical applications will be one of the fastest areas of growth over the next few years, even though real volume production is still at least three to five years away.

“That’s the main problem for manufacturers of MEMS, to fill up their foundries,” he said. “They have the capacity now, they just need large-volume products. This is still sensors. But later, we’re going to see other types, like optical devices and RF MEMS.”

The words RF MEMS — or radio frequency, wireless, MEMS — were on many lips at Electronica this year and more than one speaker referred to the RF MEMS “buzz.” These systems for telecommunications, which first started generating interest a couple of years ago, are now considered by some to be the “hot” application of microsystems technology.

“OK, there has been a lot of hype and a lot of wrong information out there, that’s why we decided to do a real investigation into RF MEMS,” said Jérémie Bouchard of WTC, which recently released an RF MEMS market study.

RF MEMS technology can integrate switches, inductors, resonators and filters into a transceiver chip, saving on external components. RF MEMS switches consume power only while switching — unlike conventional technology, which drains power constantly. Other advantages are low energy loss, small size and lighter weight. Applications include next-generation mobile phones, the Global Positioning System, satellites, military radar and missile systems.

“We think it’s a real breakthrough,” Bouchard said.

The WTC report estimates that by the year 2007, the RF MEMS market will exceed $1 billion. But first, the devices have to come down in price. Bouchard said manufacture of a unit today would cost several dollars. That will have to come down to under 50 cents if RF MEMS have any chance at widespread commercial use. WTC seems confident they will.

Despite all the good news, the European MEMS industry does face challenges. Several speakers warned that Asia was fast making its presence felt on the world MEMS market and that Europe couldn’t afford to sit on its laurels. An official from the European Commission was on hand outlining the EU’s new research and development funding program that puts new emphasis on result-driven research and real-world application in the hopes that the continent can overcome its difficulty in getting ideas from the lab to the marketplace.

Hofmann of Motorola wasn‘t so sure that EU directives could get MEMS moving any faster, but he said he was confident that the industry was on a good path.

“We‘re poised for success now, since our products lead to cheaper and more efficient solutions,” he said. “That‘s a good mix of ingredients for tech to be successful.”


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