Alibaba, Google, and other big names are interested in MEMS. The technology is an opportunity and a challenge.
Built-into millions of smart speakers, smart devices and smartphones across the globe, MEMS are securely ensconced in the smart home, and Internet giants such as Alibaba, Google and Amazon will continue to drive demand as they invest in smart cities, smart medicine, smart buildings — smart everything.
The MEMS market, which follows the semiconductor market, is holding up. It amounted to $11.6 billion in 2018 and is expected to exhibit an 8.2% growth in value and an 11.9% growth in units up to 2024, according to Yole Développement (Lyon, France).
A make-smarter capability
Large companies such as Alibaba, Google and Amazon are considering MEMS as a critical element in their smart applications, Dimitrios Damianos, technology market analyst with Yole Développement, told EE Times. “MEMS have a make-smarter enabling capability, as they can offer high accuracy, low power, small size and, if you have many MEMS in your system, you can have sensor fusion inside and increase the functionality of your system and provide context for new applications and services in various industries such as mobility, transportation, health and safety.”
This has a huge impact on all markets, but especially in consumer and automotive. In 2018, the consumer market generated almost $6.5 billion in 2018 — more than half of the total MEMS market — and is set to grow up to $10.5 billion in 2024. The main contributors, microcrophones and RF MEMS, account for half of the total revenue in consumer applications.
Voice assistance is quickly becoming a common feature in consumer electronics devices such as smartphones, smart speakers, smart TVs, and smartwatches.
“For the voice to interact with the device and the voice commands to work, you need to use a microphone to capture your voice,” said Damianos. And the key adoption drivers for MEMS microphones are the quality of the voice capture, high fidelity, low distortion and ultra-low power. “The number of smart speakers and smart displays are expected to reach about 250 million units by 2023. If two to seven microphones are used per device, which is the case of Google Home Mini and Amazon Alexa, we understand that there is a real potential for MEMS microphones.”
Asked about the challenges facing MEMS for consumer applications, Damianos said “it is always a matter of miniaturization and cost.” The cost of MEMS microphones is around 15-20 cents. “You can’t indefinitely reduce the price, so you need to make them smarter and consume less power.”
Moving to the automotive market, Damianos said it reached $2.3 billion in 2018 and is expected to grow at a 6% annual rate, up to $3.2 billion in 2024. In the next few years, autonomous driving will become reality, and technologies are being developed to ensure accuracy, reliability and safety to drivers and passengers. Due to the complexity associated with environment perception, radar performance has been continuously improved. The LiDar market, for instance, is experiencing fast growth, from $1.3 billion in 2018 to an expected $6 billion by 2024, with 70% of the total market dedicated to automotive applications.
Data is wealth
MEMS collect and aggregate granular data in real time. Sensor data can be pre-processed at the edge or transmitted directly over the network to the cloud. While MEMS manufacturers advocate for some edge computing locally to extract meaning out of the sensor data and reduce both power and latency, cloud service providers such as Alibaba and Google “want to leverage sensor data and do massive data processing on their cloud.” Eventually, “the real value is in the data coming from the sensors.”
The growing interest of tech giants in MEMS is a golden opportunity “if the sensors that MEMS companies produce can be integrated in their products and shipped massively for MEMS suppliers.” Then the market potential can be big.
However, he continued, “there might be the opposite case.” Today, these giants need a specific design for their applications, and MEMS companies provide devices that fit their requirements.” What if MEMS suppliers can no longer keep up with the inexorably accelerating pace of change? “MEMS companies could buy other MEMS companies in order to differentiate their solutions and address more and more players.” And what if the supergiants' requirements are no longer met by the MEMS manufacturers? “Maybe there is a threat that the big companies could eventually develop their own MEMS for their own needs.”
This scenario may seem remote, but large companies such as Amazon are moving fast in the fields of emotion sensing and holistic perception. One year ago, the Seattle-based group filed a patent with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office related to detecting illness and emotional wellbeing of users from the sound of their voice. Now, Amazon Lab126, the hardware development group that developed the Amazon Echo smart speaker, is reportedly working on a voice-activated wearable device that can decode how a person is feeling, discerning among a range of emotional states such as excitement, happiness, fear, and disgust.
MEMS, and sensors in general, are driving a new wave from physical sensing to sound sensing, acoustic wave sensing, voice activation and emotion sensing. “Sensors are now incorporating more and more intelligence. We have been hearing about AI, machine learning, computing. All of the sensors create the wealth of data, as they take the digital world closer to the humans. The MEMS are the glue between them.”
Opening the discussion, Damianos said empathetic sensors are already here, but he urged us to think about the meaning and understanding of the word. “What is it to be empathetic? A human quality in the sense that it will understand my emotions based on my voice” and a sensing capability combined with large processing power to read between the lines and decode the true state of the users’ needs.