MEMS commercialization: What's taking so long?
Microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) began their development vis--vis the discovery of silicon's piezoresistive effect by Charles Smith of Bell Labs in 1954. Less than a decade earlier, in the same Bell Labs in New Jersey, John Bardeen and team discovered the transistor—the basis of of today's semiconductor history.
Though MEMS and semiconductor ICs share processing similarities, their business issues vary because in the 50-plus years since their discoveries, the IC market has grown to more than $220 billion, whereas the MEMS market reportedly still totals less than $10 billion. Why the discrepancy?
Most products take time and resources to transition from discovery to full commercialization. It wasn't until 1990 that full commercialization of the first MEMS pressure sensor was achieved, based on the piezoresistive effect. The adoption of accelerometers in air bags in the early 1990s, like the adoption of pressure sensors in automobiles for electronic engine control in the 1970s, was a major success.
|Air-bag accelerometer chip showing stacking of sensor and ASIC|
Numerous MEMS devices have been commercialized in the past few years—as MEMS have dropped in cost, we've seen the integration of MEMS microphones, accelerometers, displays and RF devices into portable electronics (handsets, for example) and games (Wii), for instance.
Each year we evaluate the 14 most critical success factors for the MEMS industry, and create a "MEMS Commercialization Report Card" grading each factor from "A" to "D."
Below are key findings from the 2007 report, based on interviews with more than 50 MEMS suppliers, users and instrastructure providers worldwide. (Results of the 2008 study will be published in early 2009.)
The overall 2007 report card grade was "B-," but it's the individual-factor grades that tell the critical story. MEMS have clearly turned the corner with their integration into a large variety of industrial and consumer products and ultimately will be integrated into many products that touch our lives every day.