MEMS seeing strong growth in military sector

December 17, 2012 – Demand for microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) devices, particularly pressure sensors for harsh environments, will grow 20% in 2012 on the way to a 9% CAGR for the next several years, according to an outlook by IHS iSuppli.

Sales for pressure sensors in military and civil aerospace applications will top $35.7M in 2012, up from $29.7M last year, notes Richard Dixon, principal analyst for MEMS & sensors at the firm. Sales are expected to reach $45.5M, or about 9% compound growth over the five-year period. These are two of the markets grouped as "industrial" MEMS applications, which although a far cry from the automotive or consumer segments still offers some growth opportunities and for higher-end (and higher margin) MEMS technologies. The firm projects all "high-value" MEMS sales will top $283.6M in 2012.

Worldwide high-value MEMS pressure sensor revenue forecast
for military & civil aerospace, in US $M. (Source: IHS iSuppli)

MEMS in military and aerospace applications, like many other technologies, are fighting broader macro pressures from an ongoing economic malaise to more specific constraints on the US defense budget and scaled-back (or terminated) programs. But there is optimism here too, for two reasons, iSuppli says: In military usage, there is a continued focus on long-range air and sea power (including drones), surveillance and reconnaissance or smart weapons, all of which involve a lot of electronic content. The US government strategy to transition to a smaller and smarter force will mainly affect reductions in troops and personnel — not weaponry systems and the electronics required therein. And on the aerospace side, the firm cites strong demand for newer fancier/complex aircraft, the EADS Airbus A320 and Boeing Dreamliner 787. Between them they have >2000 orders, which will spur 24% growth in the aviation market this year, iSuppli notes.

So where do MEMS pressure sensors find a home in military and aerospace applications? Aircraft, jets, turboprops, helicopters, engines, and various harsh environments — everything from air data systems to environment and cabin pressure, to hydraulic systems in airframes, to engines and auxiliary power units, and other applications such as doors, oxygen masks, flight tests and structural monitoring. A large jet needs as many as 130 sensors. A luxury airliner has 13 engine pressure sensors and switches; smaller jets can have six or seven. The "full-authority digital engine control" (FADEC) engine controller and related systems, which measure multiple variables including air density and engine temperature for any given flight condition, require 5-6 handful of transducers.

As with other industrial MEMS technologies, such capabilities command a premium price. MEMS pressure sensors in a first-level package for military/aerospace usage "can easily reach or exceed $1,000," according to Dixon. That premium comes from the much higher application demands vs. markets like automotive or consumer — e.g., high accuracy, low drift, and long-term stability in inhospitable environments while battered by high vibration, high G-force impact and acceleration, extreme temperature, and high pressure. The base silicon element has much higher performance requirements, for example, and temperature-range stability is guaranteed over 25 years vs. just 10 in vehicle. "To do all this successfully, in very small package dimensions and low weight, explains why MEMS pressure sensors are able to dominate in military and aerospace applications," Dixon sums.

Key MEMS suppliers for military/aerospace markets include Honeywell (both sensors and complete systems); Kulite Semiconductor Products, which suppliers sensors to various makers of aircraft (Boeing, Airbus, Canadair and Embraer) as well as helicopter and other military programs; and GE Druck, a US firm with a 4-in. silicon line in the UK.


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