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Are MEMS accelerometers here to stay?

Posted: 13 Feb 2009     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:MEMS accelerometers  motion sensing  analogue  sensor 

Motion sensing, largely enabled by MEMS accelerometers, has taken more than its usual share of the headlines recently. The acceptance of accelerometer-based features enjoyed by Nintendo Wii's motion-sensing remote controls and Apple iPhone's self-orienting display, has brought accelerometer manufacturers attention they could but dream of in year's gone by.

According to Douglas McEuen, a senior analyst at ABI Research, a handful of manufacturers share the market: "A 'big three'—Analog Devices, Freescale Semiconductor and STMicroelectronics—are joined by just a few others, including OKI Semiconductor and Hitachi Metals America." Other smaller players include Bosch Sensortec, Honeywell, Kionix, MEMSIC and VTI Technologies. Mathieu Potin, MEMS analyst at Yole Developpement, believes the MEMS accelerometer market was worth Rs.4,355.40 crore ($876 million) in 2008—a revised figure, following the financial downturn.

With the total MEMS market worth an estimated Rs.37,786.58 crore ($7.6 billion) in 2008, the technology is an important contributor to MEMS sales as a whole. Though MEMS accelerometer sales are likely to decrease to Rs.4,206.24 crore ($846 million) in 2009 due to a slump in automotive demand, he estimates that the market will recover to be worth Rs.7,955.07 crore ($1.6 billion) by 2012, fuelled by a boom in consumer applications. For comparison, Yole projects that the total MEMS market in 2009 will be worth Rs.39,775.35 crore ($8 billion), and by 2012, the entire market will be on the same projection path as accelerometers, to be worth Rs.83,031.05 crore ($16.7 billion).

Endless opportunities
Within the MEMS accelerometer market, there are a plethora of uses. Yole cites 25 in its latest report, although Potin acknowledges that the opportunities are endless. The best known are now in the consumer electronics domain, such as the provision of horizontal and vertical sensing to determine portrait and landscape requirements in mobile phones or digital still cameras, enabling pedometer features, supplementing GPS navigation, power management, or recognising freefall conditions to provide HDD protection for notebooks or portable audio and video players. The latter was the main driver of accelerometer integration in consumer devices until 2008.

Accelerometers also feature in home appliances such as washing machines, where they are used to adapt the spin cycle to reduce noise, water and energy consumption, as well as to extend the life of the machine. Similarly, vibration monitoring is an important application in heavy-duty equipment and shipping-container management.

What may be surprising to many is that the first MEMS devices were created in the late 80s, with volume driven initially by air bag sensors. This has been followed by integration for tyre pressure measurement and stability control purposes in the automotive sector. Indeed, the automotive market accounted for the most sales with a 45 to 50 per cent share of the MEMS accelerometer market today, estimates Potin. However, he believes that the consumer electronics sector could grow its share from approximately 30 per cent today to 45 per cent or more by 2012.

Explaining the opportunities, Benedetto Vigna, group VP and general manager of ST's MEMS and healthcare, RF transceivers and sensors division says: "We are strong believers of MEMS 'computerisation'. We still see a lot of growth in existing consumer market such as laptops and mobile phones. But we see opportunities in other markets such as remote controllers, digital cameras and portable audio and video players."

Much of this growth is likely to be contributed by human machine interface applications—something that has surprised some industry watchers. As early as 1998, ADI's accelerometers were designed into game pad controllers by Microsoft, Logitech and Pellican. However, it was the iPhone and Wii game controller that revolutionised their usage. Acknowledges Christoph Wagner, a field application engineer for ADI, which supplied accelerometers for Nintendo's GameBoy in 1999 and the Wii in 2006: "People bought Nintendo's Game Boy, but not the extra motion sensing module. The difference with the Wii is that motion sensing is at the heart of the product."

Potin says that the success of these products is also a reflection of how the games have been created: "Take Nintendo; most games that make use of motion sensors are ones that Nintendo has developed itself. In contrast, most games for the Sony PS3 have been developed by third parties. From my understanding, it has been complex for designers—especially those outside an organisation—to adapt to these new capabilities."

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