Why MEMS and Sensors are Important in Europe

Article By : Anne-Françoise Pelé

Europe has strong assets in the MEMS and sensors industry and must leverage them to mitigate the risk of technological dependency.

Europe has strong assets in the MEMS and sensors industry and must leverage them to mitigate the risk of technological dependency.

In the opening keynote at last week’s MEMS World Summit, Lucilla Sioli, director for Artificial Intelligence and Digital Industry within Directorate-General CONNECT at the European Commission, explained why it is essential to continue to invest in new and emerging research areas.

EC’s Lucilla Sioli

“MEMS and sensors are a very important part of the microelectronics value chain,” Sioli said. “We can only hope and work toward being better at the development and mastering of the technology and [provide] capabilities of integrating them into applications such as automotive, industrial, healthcare, defense, aerospace, and many others.”

MEMS and sensors now touch every aspect of our lives, and it is critical to make sure that they are secure, sustainable, and fully aligned with data protection rules.

Sioli continued, “It’s the first time that a president of the European Commission talks about microelectronics. It has always been considered too technical. Her [Ursula von der Leyen] involvement has really meant a lot to change the attention of politicians, and that’s why there are more policies in place now than there were in the past.”

MEMS and sensors in Europe

“Players like Bosch, STMicroelectronics, NXP, and Infineon are active and have manufacturing operations in Europe,” Dimitrios Damianos, technology & market analyst in the photonics and sensing division at Yole Développement (Lyon, France), told EE Times Europe in an interview last year. “Many companies are among the top 10 or top 15 players, and we have the know-how in pressure sensors, microphones, and inertial sensors.”

Besides, Europe has a deeply-rooted culture of research on MEMS. Not only did the patented “Bosch Process” enable this new class of sensors in 1994, but “there is a strong MEMS R&D in Europe, very diverse compared to North America and Asia, except for Japan,” said Éric Mounier, fellow analyst at Yole. “We have R&D institutes like CEA-Leti working on nanoelectromechanical devices, the Fraunhofer Institute involved in MEMS developments, but also Sintef, CSEM, VTT, and the National Centre of Scientific Research Demokritos. We can be proud of our R&D in Europe.”

Avoiding acquisitions

Recently in Europe, many small companies have been eaten up by bigger ones from other regions of the world. “It’s not pleasant to see these acquisitions,” said Sioli, specifying that a foreign direct investment program constantly screens mergers and acquisitions.

“We discuss with Member States to see whether it is possible, for example, to avoid acquisitions,” said Sioli. “At the same time, we try to make Europe a more attractive place for staying here, and I hope that we are able to strengthen our European industry that can really count on European IP in the future. Otherwise, we expose ourselves to a lot of dependencies.”

Sioli insisted on the need to create a favorable environment for European companies to remain in Europe.

European projects relevant to MEMS and sensors

Here is a roundup of projects supported by the European Commission where MEMS and sensor research plays a key role.

ZeroAMP

Applications in demanding sectors automotive, IoT, industrial IoT and aerospace require electronics efficient enough to use ultra-low-power sources even in harsh environmental conditions. As part of the Horizon 2020 initiative, the ZeroAMP project is developing logic and memory circuits using nanoelectromechanical (NEM) switches for applications demanding zero standby power, operating temperatures up to 300°C, and radiation hardness.

“The ZeroAMP project is taking into account the benefits and capabilities of NEMS to develop computational solutions with energy efficiency to survive extreme environments,” Sioli said.

The project, which runs until December 2023, is a joint effort of seven partners: Microchip, Univbris (UK); X-Fab, AMO (Germany); Sciprom, CSEM (Switzerland), KTH (Sweden).

Horizon Europe

Horizon Europe is the EU framework program for research and innovation that succeeds Horizon 2020. With a budget of €95.5 billion, the seven-year framework aims to boost Europe’s innovation capacity, foster competitiveness, create jobs, and ensure European technological sovereignty.

“In the work program for the first few years of Horizon Europe, we have a number of calls that are very interesting for MEMS and sensors, which look at the functional electronics for the green and circular economy, advanced optical communication components, advanced photonics integrated circuits, advanced multi-sensing systems,” said Sioli, calling for attendees to “be attentive because this is an important call for your community.”

Key Digital Technologies

In Europe, partnerships with the industry are established in the form of Joint Undertakings (JUs). This term comes from the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union and refers to a form of public-private partnerships set up in strategic areas of research and innovation. A new joint undertaking, called Key Digital Technologies (KDT), will be launched before the end of this year, said Sioli. Terms are being finalized with council and parliament support.

The European Commission has proposed a financial contribution of €1.8 billion between 2021-2027. Participating Member States will make a similar contribution, while industry, research organisations, and academia will contribute about €2.5 billion via the 3 industry associations AENEAS, ARTEMISIA and EPoSS.

Building on the ongoing ECSEL joint undertaking, the KDT aims to generate technological achievements in Extreme UV lithography, FD-SOI, advanced power electronics, safety-critical embedded systems, and smart miniaturized systems. It will focus on areas with strong societal impact such as clean mobility, energy-efficient industry, and sustainable health care.

“More attention will be paid to photonics and to the software that runs with electronic components,” said Sioli.

Comparing it with the ECSEL JU’s setup, she said the KDP JU will “take a more strategic approach”. The Commission and Member States will be involved in defining the priority areas for research.

“We have two general priorities,” noted Sioli. “One is to strengthen our capabilities, and certainly MEMS and sensors are areas where Europe is strong. We have to invest more to become even stronger. The other is to reduce our dependencies and fill in the gaps we have, in particular in manufacturing. We are discussing whether we can strengthen our capabilities in the European Union.”

Sioli said they have been simplifying procedures to “be able to reach out to more SMEs and startups than we did in the past.”

IPCEI on microelectronics

A new project of Common European Interest in microelectronics, the IPCEI, is being set up to strengthen capabilities in design and increase autonomy and resilience of EU semiconductor value chains.

She commented, “The involvement is not with the European Union, it happens at the national level. Member States have called for projects, companies have applied and have been selected to participate in this project of Common European Interest. Now they should be networking and identifying common projects with important spillovers between companies located in different European countries.”

Many areas of development are relevant for MEMS and sensors, including a project on advanced packaging for 2D/3D heterogeneous integration.

Alliance for processors and semiconductor technologies

The European Commission launched on July 19 two new Industrial Alliances: the Alliance for Processors and Semiconductor technologies and the European Alliance for Industrial Data, Edge and Cloud.

The alliances, which aim to gather businesses, member state representatives, academia, and R&D institutes, seek to develop the next generation of semiconductor and industrial cloud/edge computing technologies.

The Alliance for Processors and Semiconductor technologies intends to rebalance global semiconductor supply chains by ensuring the capacity to design and produce, in Europe, the most advanced chips towards 2nm and below. The objective is to increase Europe’s share of the global production of semiconductors to 20% by 2030.

“Many think that this is an overly ambitious target, but I think we do need ambitious targets if we want the European Union to be an important player in this particular value chain. We don’t just want to be important players because it is good for the economy and the European industry, but also because it is good for our societies.”

Speaking to the audience, Sioli said it is an alliance for European companies and non-European companies that are interested in boosting the competitiveness of the European sector. “We have invited companies, and I invite you also as part of the MEMS and sensors community to participate in this alliance.”

This article was originally published on EE Times Europe.

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