System Plus analyzes the world’s smallest microbolometer-based thermal imaging camera core released by FLIR

Initially focused on the military, uncooled thermal camera sales have grown significantly due to substantial cost reduction of micro bolometers and growing adoption in commercial markets, including thermography, automotive and surveillance applications. The market research and strategy consulting company, Yole Développement (Yole) confirmed this growth last July: indeed, Yole announced +25% CAGR between 2014 and 2019 in its infrared imaging report, Uncooled Infrared Imaging Technology Market (Ed. July 2014).

In this report, Yole’s analysts also highlighted the consumer applications: this market has moved to a new phase of growth in 2013-2014. Under this context, FLIR introduced in 2014, two disruptive technologies: the LEPTON core and FLIR ONE smartphone plugin.

“A high number of pre-release reservations for FLIR ONE (more than 30K units in July 2014) already confirms the commercial success of this innovation,” said Yole.

System Plus Consulting (System Plus), a sister company of Yole, specialized in technology and electronic components and systems cost analysis, looked into new FLIR’s products and proposes today a complete teardown analysis, entitled System Plus’ report details the bill-of-material (BOM), the manufacturing process flow and related cost analysis, the supply chain evolution and a comparison with FLIR i7 infrared camera and microbolometer sensors. FLIR Systems FLIR ONE & LEPTON Consumer Thermal Imager with Microbolometer. FLIR is the world’s largest long wave IR (LWIR) camera manufacturer and main microbolometer supplier, and as such it drives the price war in the commercial market.

“FLIR’s strategy is to take volume leadership in multiple markets, make economies of scale and further decrease price,” explained Michel Allain, CEO, System Plus, the reverse costing & engineering company. “To achieve this it exploits a vertically-integrated business model and a fabless structure, with manufacturing subcontracted to ON Semiconductor,” he added.

FLIR also boosted that strategy by acquiring Indigo System’s IR imager business in 2004 and Tessera’s Digital Optics wafer-level optics (WLO) division in 2013.

This year, the company released two innovative solutions: the Lepton core and FLIR ONETM smartphone plugin. Plugged into the back of an iPhone 5 or 5S, the FLIR ONETM is the first consumer thermal camera featuring LWIR technology. It contains a visible VGA (640×480) camera and a thermal camera which provide images blended using FLIR MSX Technology.

The thermal camera uses FLIR’s new Lepton core, where costs have been reduced in every element. The most expensive component, the sensor, is an uncooled vanadium-oxide (VOx) microbolometer, featuring an 80×60 pixel resolution with 17μm pixel size. Vox provides a high temperature coefficient of resistance (TCR) and low 1/f noise, resulting in excellent thermal sensitivity and stable uniformity. The microbolometer array is grown monolithically on top of a readout integrated circuit (ROIC) to comprise the complete focal plane array (FPA). An anti-reflection (AR) coated window is bonded above the sensor array via a wafer-level packaging (WLP) process, encapsulating the array in a vacuum. The purpose of the vacuum is to provide high thermal resistance between the microbolometer elements and the ROIC substrate, allowing for maximum temperature change in response to incident radiation.

The system electronics that receive and process the signal is a custom application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC) device mounted in flip-chip on the substrate. Digital Optics’ WLO brings an important part of the cost reduction. The silicon lenses are made at the wafer level with lithography and etching processes. The final cost reduction comes from the core housing, which is a three-dimensional molded interconnected device (3D-MID). Incorporating a conductive circuit pattern inside the housing provides grounding and allows FLIR to integrate a temperature sensor.

“Thanks to its strong integration at the core level with innovative WLO, wafer-level packaging (WLP) and custom ASIC use, the FLIR Lepton is the world’s smallest microbolometer-based thermal imaging camera core,” comments Romain Fraux, Project Manager, MEMS Devices, IC’s and Advanced Packaging, System Plus.

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