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Deca Technologies, an electronic interconnect solutions provider to the semiconductor industry, today announced it has named semiconductor industry veteran Chris Seams its new CEO. Seams brings more than 25 years expertise in managing operations, manufacturing, and sales and marketing. He has also been appointed to the company’s board of directors.

Seams joins Deca from Cypress Semiconductor Corporation, where he served as executive vice president of Sales and Marketing. He takes over for Tim Olson, who will now serve as Deca’s Chief Technology Officer and a member of its board of directors.

"Deca has two key value propositions: truly revolutionary wafer level packaging technology and industry-leading manufacturing efficiency," said T.J. Rodgers, chairman of Deca’s board of directors. "Chris brings a wealth of manufacturing experience to the position. He directly managed Cypress’ manufacturing for 14 years, building up its reputation for world-class efficiency. We are confident Chris will successfully build upon Deca’s strong inroads with top customers and lay the groundwork for the next level of the company’s growth."

"This is an exciting time to be joining Deca," said Seams. "The company is poised for rapid growth with the continued development of its offerings. I welcome the opportunity to lead Deca’s efforts to bring the potential of our wafer scale packaging capabilities to reality. In so doing, we will transform the way our customers­the leading semiconductor manufacturers around the world­approach wafer level packaging."

Seams joined Cypress in 1990, where other assignments included technical and operational management in manufacturing, development, and operations. Prior to joining Cypress, he worked in process development for Advanced Micro Devices and Philips Research Laboratories.

Seams is a senior member of IEEE, serves on the Engineering Advisory Council for Texas A&M University, and is on the board of directors of Tessera Technologies, Inc. Seams earned his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Texas A&M University and his master’s degree in electrical and computer engineering from the University of Texas at Austin.

January 23, 2012 – The market for MEMS microphones has nearly quintupled in just the past three years, topping a projected 2 billion shipments in 2012, a rise attributed mainly to the rise of Apple and the iPhone, according to IHS iSuppli.

"While MEMS microphones have been around for many years, 2009 marked an important milestone when Apple started to buy MEMS microphones for the iPod Nano 5, and more importantly, for the iPhone 4," stated Jérémie Bouchaud, director and senior principal analyst for MEMS & sensors at IHS. "With Apple playing a huge role, the MEMS microphone market turned up the volume dramatically." Apple’s share of MEMS microphone consumption was just 6.2% of shipments in 2009, and nearly a third of the market (31%) in 2012.

Silicon microphones are "one of the great success stories in the MEMS field," according to the firm. A smartphone may need one of most MEMS-enabled features, e.g. an accelerometer or compass or gyroscope, it typically has two MEMS microphones these days — and some handset suppliers are considering designing in a third device for noise suppression and better audio recording for videos.

Interestingly, MEMS microphones’ usefulness has resisted the typical price reduction seen in technologies rapidly adopted in consumer and mobile markets, because the high-end segment (Apple, Nokia, etc.) is driven more by than just price. "Apple, for instance, pays anywhere from three to four times more than its competitors to secure performance-oriented MEMS microphones, helping to stabilize pricing for MEMS microphones as a whole," iSuppli notes.

Differentiating a smartphone/handset with better audio capabilities is increasingly important as consumers rely on their devices for even more tasks beyond simply making a phone call, such as consuming music or video content. The new Nokia Lumia is one such smartphone specifically marketing its audio and recording features. Apple’s addition of Siri voice command to the iPhone 4S has carried over into the iPhone 5 and other Apple devices including the newest iPod touch music player and iPad tablet. "Siri demonstrated the impressive functionality that could be achieved by multiple MEMS microphones featuring a lower signal-to-noise ratio," the firm notes.

More MEMS microphones in handsets has also improved audio for video recording, iSuppli points out. The iPhone 4 and 4S had two microphones (supplied by Knowles and AAC) on the side of the display — great placement for calls and voice commands, but not for recording the sound of the video taken with the main camera on the back of the phone. The iPhone 5 has those same two microphones but adds a third from Analog Devices on the back of the phone for video recording.

Worldwide MEMS microphone historical shipments, in millions of units. (Source: IHS iSuppli)

December 28, 2012 – Researchers in Japan have devised a microelectromechanical system (MEMS) fabrication technology using printing and injection molding, fabrication of large-area devices with low capital investment, without a vacuum process, and lower production costs. Thus, MEMS devices can be made and applied for fields where manufacturing cost has been an issue, such as lighting.

The team from the Research Center for Ubiquitous MEMS and Micro Engineering of the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) integrated microfabrication technology and MEMS design evaluation technology, and combined it with Design Tech Co. Ltd.’s signal processing technology to fabricate a lighting device.

Conventional commercial MEMS devices use fabrication techniques with semiconductor manufacturing systems used to produce integrated circuits, including vacuum processes. Resins could be used to form patterns onto moving microstructures but production costs are high due to vacuum-based processes. Also, it has proven difficult to form and thin MEMS structures such as springs and cantilevers because resins harden immediately after mold injection.

AIST researchers now say they have realized low-cost printing and transferred the structure using injection molding, and improved the mold structure to fill thin moving structures. A film for transferring the MEMS functional laser is formed, and the release layer and MEMS functional layer are printed onto the film with a screen or gravure printer. The printed film is aligned and put into an injection mold, into which is injected a molten resin that is cooled and solidified into the MEMS structure. The mold is then opened and the MEMS structure is separated from the film; the ink layers printed on the film are transferred to the MEMS structure.

Figure 1: MEMS fabrication processes by printing and injection molding.

The printed MEMS functional layers can be changed according to the desired purpose of the MEMS device — from acceleration sensors and gas sensors to power generation devices. This enables low-cost MEMS fabrication in fields where costs are currently too high. One example the AIST highlights is in light distribution control of LED lighting. MEMS mirrors produced with semiconductor manufacturing processes are based on costs determined by devices per wafer; so large-area mirrors are costly, while more cost-friendly micromirrors necessitate a more complex optical system. This new MEMS fabrication technology, though, could produce low-cost large MEMS devices (larger than several mm across), which opens the door for MEMS-based active light distribution control devices. Future work will seek to improve the symmetry of the MEMS mirror synchronization with the LED timing, and expand the range of the light distribution by improving the arrangement of the optical system, the signal processing, and the control circuit.

Figure 2: MEMS mirrors for active light distribution fabricated by using only printing and injection molding (left), and examples of the resulting light distribution patterns (right).

Injection molding can be used easily to form complex 3D objects such as spheres; the researchers expect MEMS devices will be formed on the surface of, or inside, 3D objects. Moreover, injection molding processes are commonly available in Japan, and systems cost less than semiconductor manufacturing systems. AIST projects its work will lead to MEMS fabrication coming out of non-semiconductor industries, such as plastics molding — and participation from these other sectors into MEMS manufacturing will help develop new applications for MEMS devices.

Figure 3: Examples of MEMS devices fabricated with the AIST technology. Top & middle: A reflective mirror and a mirror displacement sensor incorporated into a MEMS mirror device for lighting. A mirror ink for the reflective mirror, a conductive ink for the strain sensor, and a magnetic ink for driving the mirror are printed on the film, and then the printed ink patterns are transferred to the MEMS structure by injection molding. The MEMS mirror device for lighting did not break after more than 100 million operations driven by an external coil. Bottom: A MEMS device array can be fabricated using an arrayed MEMS pattern mold.

Mike Rosa, MEMS global product manager at Applied Materials, blogs about recent advances in MEMS, as described at the recent MEMS Executive Congress.  

Over the last 50 years computing power has migrated from the mainframe, to the desktop, to the laptop, and now, with almost-equivalent computing capability, onto mobile devices, tablets, and smart phones. 

And tomorrow? If you were in Scottsdale, AZ in November for the now semi-annual MEMS Executive Congress, you would have heard about the latest concepts in personal computing – and I mean really personal. Think body art that collects data…well, not quite body art, but an array of patches, arm bands, watches, jewelry and more, all with one goal in mind – to help quantify every aspect of our daily lives!

It’s been referred to in recent times as the “Quantified Self” or “QS Quotient” and it’s just one of the many exciting advances enabled by MEMS.

MEMS devices enable many advances in personal health care including portable (sometimes wearable) health monitors. Fast-evolving innovations from a host of companies promise even more imaginative and discretely wearable integrated solutions.

For example, personal wellness is rapidly becoming a key priority for individuals and employers alike, both as a means to improve longevity and quality of life, and to control dramatically rising health care costs.  The result is a burgeoning business in devices that enable people to continuously gauge their personal behaviors and habits and provide actionable information.   Companies like BodyMedia and WiThings are incorporating MEMS into various portable products designed to monitor and track your vital signs, which they believe will open up new and exciting markets in personal healthcare. 

Looking only slightly further into the future, wearable patches embedded with monitoring technologies that are currently available only through health care professionals will soon find their way onto the consumer market.  One such MEMS enabled offering (see images below) being developed by BodyMedia is a seven-day, disposable patch that, will measure calorie burn, activity levels, and other body metrics, creating a snapshot of lifestyle habits to guide recommendations for weight loss, sports, fitness and much more. 

A major supplier of sports and fitness products has recently debuted a wristband with a built in accelerometer to track of all your daily activity, report calories burned and allow you to track your data over time ─ oh, and did I forget to mention ─ all wirelessly from the your favorite mobile device.  And for times when you’re not running, biking, hiking or salsa dancing, start-up company Lark has also introduced a wristband technology that, with the help of MEMS, monitors and keeps a record of your sleep patterns.

Where will it end?

According to Dr. Janusz Bryzek, vice president, Development, MEMS and Sensing Solutions at Fairchild Semiconductor, it won’t!  Bryzek moderated a lunch table discussion at the MEMS Congress entitled “Roadmap to a $Trillion MEMS Market” where we debated the growth of MEMS fueled by an increasing number of consumer, industrial and medical applications. These are based on the four strongest device types to date: gyroscopes, accelerometers, microphones, and pressure sensors.  In addition to these, there was increasing support expressed for the growth of “the internet of things,” where everyday objects are not only connected to the Internet or Cloud, but also play host to a MEMS device that enables the object to collect data from its surroundings.

The consensus among the group is that the road to a $Trillion (or unit volume) market is not an easy one.  Based on the use of today’s conventional MEMS technologies, it looks like it may take the invention of many more wristbands, waistbands, head bands, patches and pills before we can truly reach that lofty goal.  That’s not to say it won’t happen, but as in most other technology segments we’re in for many exciting baby steps as we march down the road to a “$Trillion MEMS Market.” 

 Nowhere was this more evident than during the “MEMS Technology Showcase” – a segment at the Congress where companies have an opportunity to show off the latest inventions and prototypes for MEMS-based technologies.   

Sphero and Lightbohrd are two examples of novel and very exciting products that rely on MEMS, either for acceleration, gyroscope function or for ambient light sensing and external interaction.  The MEMS in these products are available today and their use is representative of the MEMS adoption we’re likely to see as new product innovations emerge. And Applied Materials continues to be committed to developing the device fabrication technologies needed to keep those innovations coming.

Industry analysts Yole Developpment currently estimate the MEMS market at just over 7.5 billion units per year, with a valuation of $11.5 billion. Their 5-year forecast shows the combined MEMS/emerging MEMS technology market at about $20 billion by 2017, with a unit volume of more than 18 billion units. Those figures represent healthy growth, but there’s still a long way to go.  It will take many more amazing inventions ─ both new applications and new MEMS device designs ─ before that 1 trillion mark becomes a reality.  


Mike Rosa serves as MEMS global product manager within the 200mm equipment products group at Applied Materials. He has over 15 years of technology focused product and business development experience.

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.

December 4, 2012 – A*STAR’s Institute of Microelectronics (IME) and SFC Fluidics will be collaborating to develop a portable diagnostic tool for rapid triaging of traumatic brain injury (TBI) victims. TBI is one of the most common causes of death and disability in the world, usually resulting from blasts, falls, knocks, traffic accidents, and assaults.

The proposed diagnostic tool is a fully integrated, automated biosensor device that requires only a drop of blood to detect up to three biomarkers released by the brain after sustaining injury. The biomarker readings, along with an indicator indicating the severity of the injury, will be displayed on-screen.

Unlike conventional diagnostic tools such as neurological tests and computed tomography (CT) scans, the biosensor device does not require any trained personnel for sample handling. The device is portable, allowing rapid on-site diagnosis of the injury.

"This collaboration exemplifies the extension of ‘More-than-Moore’ technologies to health care. Building on our core capabilities in silicon-based microfluidics and biosensor technology, we can help our partner create innovative diagnostic tools to improve TBI treatment," says Prof. Dim-Lee Kwong, executive director of IME.

"By leveraging IME’s industry standard mass production facilities, we can cut down the product development cycle time," says Dr. Sai Kumar, VP of R&D at SFC Fluidics, a Fayetteville, AK microfluidics-based biomedical device development company.

The Institute of Microelectronics (IME), Singapore, is research institute of the Science and Engineering Research Council of the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR).

November 19, 2012 – Researchers from Rice U. say they have developed a micron-scale spatial light modulator (SLM) built on SOI that runs orders-of-magnitude faster than its siblings used in sensing and imaging devices. The "antenna-on-a-chip for light modulation," developed with backing from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, is described in Nature‘s Scientific Reports.

While light processing has found use in consumer electronics (CDs and DVDs), communications (fiber optics), of course lighting applications (LEDs) and even industrial materials processing (lasers for cutting, welding, etc.), photonics for computing applications are still being explored, and reliant upon waveguides in 2D space. So-called "free space" spatial light modulators (SLM), however, could tap into "the massive multiplexing capability of optics," in that "multiple light beams can propagate in the same space without affecting each other," explains researcher Qianfan Xu.

To demonstrate, the Rice team built SLM chips with nanoscale ribs of crystalline silicon surrounded by SiO2 claddings, forming a cavity between positively and negatively dopes Si connected to metallic electrodes. The positions of the ribs are subject to nanoscale "perturbations" and tune the resonating cavity to couple with incident light outside. This coupling pulls incident light into the cavity; infrared light passes through silicon but is captured by the SML and can be manipulated to the chip on the other side, with electrodes’ field switched on/off at very high speeds.

In the paper they go into more detail on the structure of the device:

SLMs are fabricated in a CMOS photonics foundry at the Institute of Microelectronics of Singapore. The fabrication starts on an SOI wafer with a 220nm-thick silicon layer and a 3μm-thick buried oxide layer. To construct the 1D PhC cavities, silicon ribs with the height of 170nm are patterned on a silicon slab with the thickness of 50nm using 248nm deep-UV lithography and inductively-coupled plasma etching. Following the etching, the p-i-n junctions are formed by patterned ion implantations with a dosage of 5 × 1014 cm-2 for both the p+ and n+ doping regions. A 2.1μm-thick SiO2 layer is then deposited onto the wafer using plasma-enhanced chemical vapor deposition (PECVD). Finally, vias are opened on the ion-implanted areas and a 1.5μm-thick aluminum layer is sputtered and etched to form the electric connections. The serial resistance of the diode is measured to be 105 Ω. After the fabrication process, the contact pads connecting to the p-i-n junction are wire-bonded to a SMA connector with a 50-ohms terminal resistor for impedance match.

The 3D FDTD simulations are done with commercial software Lumermical FDTD. A non-uniform grid is used which has a spatial resolution ~30nm around the resonator. Even though perturbation we introduced is much smaller than the grid size, the software is capable of incorporate that in the simulation. When a dielectric interface (Si/SiO2) lies between two grid points, the program modifies the dielectric constant at the neighboring grid points according to the position of interface. This way, the small shift of the dielectric interface due to the width perturbation is taken into account in the simulation.

Conventional integrated photonics incorporate an array of pixels whose transmission can be manipulated at very high speed, explains Xu; adding an optical beam can change the intensity or phase of the exiting light. In LED screens and micromirror arrays in projectors (both of which are SLMs) where each pixel changes the intensity of light which generates an image, some switching speeds can get down to microseconds, but that’s far too slow for moving data around in a computing application. The new Rice device can "potentially modulate a signal at more than 10 gigabits per second."

Another key to their device is that it is silicon-based and can be fabricated at volume in a CMOS fab, which can scale up the capabilities to build very large arrays with high yield, he adds. For example, Rice researchers are separately creating a single-pixel camera, which initially took eight hours to process an image; this new SLM chip could enable it to handle real-time video. Alternatively, a million-pixel array could mean "a million channels of data throughput in your system, with all this signal processing in parallel" and at gigahertz levels, he said.

Xu is careful to note that the new SLM antenna-on-a-chip is not for general computing, but more for optical processing comparable in power to supercomputers. Optical information processing is " not fast-developing right now like plasmonics, nanophotonics, those areas," he admits, "but I hope our device can put some excitement back into that field."

Left: An illustration showing the design of Rice University researchers’ antenna-on-a-chip for spatial light modulation. The chip couples with incident light and makes possible the manipulation of infrared light at very high speeds for signal processing and other optical applications. Right: Crystalline silicon sits between two electrodes in the antenna-on-a-chip.  (Credit: Xu Group/Rice University)

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November 8, 2012 – Growing use of disposable devices and respiratory monitoring are underpinning growing use of microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) used as pressure sensors in medical electronics, according to IHS iSuppli.

Medical electronics is a relatively small slice of the overall market for MEMS pressure sensors. Sales of such devices are seen rising 6%-7% this year to $137.6M, with steady growth continuing through 2016. But they’re in the "high-value" category where suppliers can command much higher average selling prices, so it’s a more profitable and attractive market, points out Richard Dixon, principal analyst for MEMS & sensors at IHS. (Another high-value MEMS category, industrial and military/aerospace, will rake in about $283M this year.)

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

Pressure sensors are poised to become the leading type of MEMS device, generating $1.5B in revenue. In medical applications the technology is found in accurate low-pressure measurement devices. They are particularly seen as a low-cost consumable for invasive applications such as the monitoring of blood pressure. The most common medical pressure sensor is the disposable catheter to monitor blood pressure and micro vascular resistance in the vicinity of the heart. Another type of disposable (and low-cost) MEMS pressure sensor is the infusion pump, used to introduce fluids, medication, or nutrients into a patient’s circulatory system — 60M units of these devices were shipped in 2011.

MEMS pressure sensors also have use in non-invasive applications where they are reusable and cost considerably more. The biggest category in this segment is respiratory monitoring, such as the Continuous Positive Air Pressure (CPAP), used mainly to treat sleep apnea at home. (The US is the main market for such devices, since the treatment is included in healthcare programs, iSuppli notes.) Another application is in oxygen therapy machines, incorporating both a low-pressure and high-pressure sensor, to administer or increase the amount of oxygen in a patient’s blood. This application is growing given the aging population and increase in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Another respiratory-use market, though currently small, is in ventilators to treat lung injuries, asthma, and adult or acute respiratory distress syndrome.

Yet another medical market for MEMS pressure sensors is in measuring vital signs: benchtop or mounted-central-station patient monitors, and multiparameter monitoring devices. Low-end instruments include at least one non-invasive pressure sensor; midrange counterparts comprise one or two such devices, and high-end devices have both non-invasive and invasive pressure sensing, as well as additional respiratory pressure sensing.

One market "in its infancy today" but with high promise is implantable devices such as cardiac monitors, glaucoma monitors, and cranial pressure monitors, iSuppli notes. With a cardiac sensor a patient can be monitored from his/her home, eliminating repeat hospital visits for tests — which would realize huge savings in healthcare costs.

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November 1, 2012 – X-Fab Silicon Foundries says it has become the majority shareholder in German MEMS Foundry Itzehoe GmbH (MFI), the latest in a series of recent moves to raise its profile as a top MEMS foundry.

The MFI business, renamed X-Fab MEMS Foundry Itzehoe, complements X-Fab’s capabilities in its MEMS foundry in Erfurt, adding technologies for microsensors, actuators, micro-optical structures and hermetic wafer-level packaging processes. X-Fab originally signed MFI as a contract MEMS manufacturing partner in Feb. 2011, a deal that expanded its capabilities across a range of 200mm MEMS technologies. Its ownership stake in MFI is now 51%, up from 25.5%.

X-Fab MEMS Foundry Itzehoe will continue its long-term cooperation with the Frauhofer Institute for Silicon Technology‘s (ISIT) MEMS Group. MFI was spun out of ISIT in 2009 and is located within the same wafer fabrication facility in Itzehoe/Germany.

"Our customers will benefit from both an even wider spectrum of available MEMS technologies and from direct access to X-Fab’s manufacturing facilities for CMOS-compatible MEMS processes," stated Thomas Hartung, VP of marketing at X-Fab Group. "X-Fab MEMS Foundry Itzehoe will play an important role in the implementation of our MEMS strategy, and brings us closer to our goal of becoming one of the top three pure-play MEMS foundry providers."

"The rich combination of the versatile MEMS-specific technology portfolio at the Itzehoe-based MEMS foundry and the development expertise of Fraunhofer ISIT greatly expands the capabilities of X-Fab’s technology offering," added Peter Merz, managing director of X-Fab MEMS Foundry Itzehoe. "We are delighted to provide the full bandwidth of MEMS technologies including vacuum and optical wafer-level packaging or TSV backed by X-Fab’s existing and well-proven foundry services. This integration brings X-Fab customers bundled and accelerated product development and manufacturing cycles for micro-machined devices such as inertial sensors, micro-mirrors, and piezoelectric transducers."

Barely a month ago X-Fab pledged to invest $50M over the next three years to support projected growth and a goal of "becoming one of the top three worldwide suppliers of MEMS foundry services." (X-Fab placed 10th in Yole Développement’s 2011 MEMS foundry rankings, surging 33% to roughly $16M in revenues, about $31M shy of No.3 Silex Microsystems.) Among X-Fab‘s other recent MEMS accomplishments:


October 11, 2012 – High pricing and ineffective marketing, in a consumer market fighting for attention against hot-selling mobile devices, are weighing down expectations for ultrabook demand — but the future’s still bright with new models promising more tablet- and smartphone-like features.

IHS iSuppli has slashed its estimates for 2012 ultrabook shipments to 10.3M units (with hopes of half of them coming in 4Q12), down from 22M units earlier this year. The firm also has lowered its outlook for 2013 ultrabook shipments, to 44M units from 61M units. (Part of this forecast-lowering is a classification issue: Intel’s rigid definition of what qualifies as an "ultrabook" has redefined many notebooks as "ultrathins," iSuppli notes.)

1Q12 2Q12 3Q12 4Q12 1Q13 2Q13 3Q13 4Q13
714 1,540 2,692 5,392 8,752 9,806 11,473 14,297

Forecasted global ultrabook unit shipments, in thousands of units. (Source: IHS iSuppli)

So far, the PC industry has failed to create the kind of buzz and excitement among consumers that is required to propel ultrabooks into the mainstream," noted Craig Stice, senior principal analyst for compute platforms at IHS. "This is especially a problem amid all the hype surrounding media tablets and smartphones."

The other sticking point for ultrabooks: pricing. Systems need to get from today’s ~$1000 levels to below the $600 threshold to achieve mainstream-friendly volumes. Ramping up sales for 2013 especially will depend on this, while also incorporating the new Windows 8 operating system as well as attractive features (read: expected by consumers) such as touchscreens. If they don’t, they’ll continue to face an uphill battle, in a persistently languishing economy against a growing roster of lower-priced tablets and smartphones (iPhone 5, Kindle Fire HD, forthcoming Microsoft Surface).

Intel seems to be focusing its attention on the mid-2013 introduction of its Haswell chip, which it hopes will "catalyze[e] the ultrabook revolution" with improved performance, lower power consumption, security features, and support for multiple displays and high-definition monitors, iSuppli notes. At the recent Intel Developer Forum, the chipmaking giant reportedly mapped out 40 ultrabook designs in progress with touchscreens, and showed survey results indicating consumers prefer touchscreens 80% of the time. Ultrabooks with convertible form factors — e.g. with a detachable touchscreen, usable either as a traditional clamshell laptop or as a tablet — offer the best of both worlds.

Ultrabooks: Key market for motions sensors

One component sector that’s counting on that ultrabook demand to materialize is motion sensors. Various accelerometers, gyroscopes and compasses will be required to deliver the new features promised in new ultrabooks, from gaming to indoor navigation to augmented reality. IHS iSuppli projects an eye-popping 14-fold growth for motion sensor sales over the next four years to $117.3M, up from just $8.3M in 2012 — that’s a 93% CAGR. Before ultrabooks, the only motion sensors found in notebooks were accelerometers used to identify if the unit was dropped, to trigger protection of the hard-disk drive’s read/write head. With more solid-state devices (SSD) being used in notebooks, that functionality isn’t needed, notes iSuppli.

But the new ultrabooks do use accelerometers for functions such as auto screen rotation, and will employ compasses and gyroscopes to detect direction and motion — functions already common in games for tablets and smartphones. While Intel had originally asserted that it wouldn’t make sense to incorporate such motion sensors into conventional ultrabooks, the planned future convertible/detachable ultrabook models will indeed require them, points out Jérémie Bouchaud, director and senior principal analyst for MEMS and sensors at IHS. And that’s the kind of assured end market that component suppliers need.

2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016
0.4 8.3 32.8 60.2 92.3 117.3

 Forecast of global motion sensor revenues in ultrabooks. (Source: IHS iSuppli)