MEMS Executive Congress 2010 — the Coming Decade of “MEMS Inside!” (Almost) Everything – Conrad Schneiker
November 3–4, 2010, Scottsdale, AZ — This year’s annual MEMS Executive Congress broke new records for attendance as the MEMS industry strongly rebounded from two years of slight declines. This first-rate event was organized by the MEMS Industry Group — which aims to strengthen the MEMS industry and market by cultivating a neutral forum for meetings, presentations, networking, and information exchange. So in that spirit, let’s take a whirlwind tour of this event’s highlights.
The MEMS market analyst panel
The opening market analyst panel kick-started things with a panoramic wealth of MEMS industry information and insights that set the stage for the rest of the conference. Here is a tiny sampling of some interesting items taken from much more comprehensive presentations and the long and lively question and answer session that followed. (We’ll get back to the keynotes and other panels in a moment.)
Before introducing the panelists, Susumu Kaminaga of SPP Process Technology Systems noted that high volume MEMS is no longer a niche market, and sees some consolidation as big players focus on economies of scale shift to foundry models reminiscent of CMOS semiconductors in the 1980.
Roger Grace of Roger Grace Associates analyzed critical success factors of successful MEMS companies. He noted that discovery-to-volume commercialization times averaged 28 years. In considering the relentless erosion of gross margins and what this portends for “life after inertial sensing,” he emphasized the need to “think outside the chip” in terms of systems, co-design, signal conditioning (DSPs), software-based systems (MPUs, flash, EEPROM) and external communication back-ends (especially wireless). TSVs may soon facilitate these hybrid aims much more effectively than pursuing increasing monolithic integration. Application segmentation is a limit on consolidation. Deal with the preceding issues by seeking strategic partners while improving product differentiation and branding.
Jean-Christophe “JC” Eloy of Yole Développement emphasized the challenges of long development lead times and costs for new applications “$45 million/4 years” due to increasing complexity of software and firmware. He emphasized the need to pursue “blue ocean strategies” (major new types of untapped markets) to deal with intense MEMS competition. Contract fab and manufacturing help buffer the MEMS industry from under-capacity and over-capacity risks and costs.
Jérémie Bouchaud of iSuppli observed that the gaming market is strong but potentially dangerous since its growth may start rolling off after a couple of years. In addition to the “iPhone and iPad effect,” the demand from BRIC countries is a sustaining MEMS growth factor. Especially intriguing is the prospect for a renaissance in optical MEMS for telecommunications, now that telecommunications is finally emerging from decade-long overcapacity issues.
Robert Lensch of Boucher-Lensch Associates LLC explained the great challenges of funding MEMS ventures in an era when VC returns have been mostly terrible. He focuses on strategic transactions, since the strategic value of MEMS ventures can be much bigger than the financial value from the strategic product portfolio perspective of big company acquirers, partners, or investors. Microfluidic and other life sciences MEMS has a promising future.
Keynote talks other MEMS panels
Rich Duncombe of HP spoke on MEMS as an engine for profitable growth. He emphasized that the business process “how” that he pioneered was more important than the technical “what”. (We strongly agree, although we only have room to briefly mention a few “whats”). He noted that HP’s breakthrough in inertial MEMS seismic sensors (1,000 x better resolution) built on seemingly humdrum inkjet MEMS capabilities. (Yet inkjet MEMS has followed a Moore’s-like law improvement of doubling drops ejected per second every 18 months for about 25 years. The underlying development capabilities have become a very powerful MEMS platform.) Creating a profitable prospecting technology services business requires a comprehensive system for seismic sensor deployment, wireless networking, data collection, and high performance computing and visualization services. A good early customer-partner to work with is another critical factor. This development is a step towards the vision of “IT everywhere” which in turn should greatly increase the value added services market.
Vida Ilderem of Intel Labs surveyed a wide range of prospective MEMS applications and systems. Her talk aptly complemented and expanded upon the opportunities and themes raised in the course of other panel discussions. These other panel discussions included MEMS-enabled smart and clean energy, the use of MEMS-enabled robotic health care products for improving quality of life, next-generation mobile consumer MEMS, plus the previously-discussed MEMS analyst panel. These talks and panels lead to many interesting discussions. One recurrent theme was the emerging “internet of things” that will eventually interconnect a vast population explosion of MEMS systems. Another recurrent theme was the increasing systems-level issues resulting from growing capabilities, and the corollary increasingly important roles of software, interdisciplinary expertise, and design services.
Bosch Sensortec had a very nice demo of their new multi-axis inertial accelerometer that showed how systems based on it could be quickly, simply, and interactively reconfigured to selectively respond to various stimuli of interest. Jungkee Lee of Samsung gave a brief eye-catching demo of a cell phone pico-projected movie clip during the consumer MEMS panel. I hope next year’s MEMS Executive Congress will feature a walk-through “show and tell” session of such increasingly-remarkable MEMS capabilities.