Speaking today at the MEMS Executive Congress Europe, here in Zurich, Carmelo Papa, senior executive VP and GM, industrial and multisegment sector for STMicroelectronics, outlined the progress and the next phases for an industry which is still booming.
Microelectromechanical systems, or MEMS, can be over-simplified as the tiny devices which mean your iPhone knows which way it is being held. But this is just a small portion of what MEMS are used for and what they are capable of. MEMS, as Papa's keynote puts it, are only "limited by the imagination".
Excluding the automotive sector, StMicroelectronics has been the top player for four years in a row, he claims. Automotive still makes up a "big chunk", Papa said. "When I started with MEMS it represented almost 80 percent, now it is around 50 percent. It's not that the portion of MEMS has shrunk, but the consumer industry overall has expanded, a lot."
In five years from now, Papa estimates the ratio between the consumer and automotive segments will look more like 80 to 20 percent. At first, ST decided not to go into automotive because it is a "risky business" - if you start with gaming, for example with Nintendo, if something goes wrong it's overall a lot less of a deal than if your BMW breaks down.
"Now that we are safe," Papa said, "in 2012 there are a lot of designs in automotive that will see us growing very, very fast in that field."
ST's business used to be just based on accelerometers. Then, 2010 was the year of the gyroscope. In 2012, he said, we will see the combination of the sensors altogether, along with other sensors. All the gaming players were interested except for Microsoft, because it used a different type of sensor, but with Windows 8 on the way STMicro will be able to count Redmond as a customer too. "The way we have been moving around the world you can compare to lego," he said. "Step by step, accelerometers, gyroscopes, then the combination of them together."
This year we can expect to see other types of MEMS take off. The electronic compass will find its way into phones and cars, as well the altimeter or barometer for 3D positioning and e-GPS. "It will be pervasive," Papa said. "You can have it everywhere," even in watches.
MEMS are a no-brainer, ST suggests, because they add value at a very low cost in high volume. "20cm precision for a device that costs less than 50 cents- that is something that was unthinkable five years ago," he said.
MEMS active microphones will continue to be installed. They "offer a unique sensitivity" and are "very unidirectional" - not only in mobile phones, but also in laptops.
Where is the market going from here? According to Papa, the competition is going to get bigger and bigger. It is "still very attractive land." The way for companies to win will be for those companies who "have the imagination and the innovation rate so high to be able to appeal in front of customers", so demonstrations mean you don't need to be Einstein to understand the added value.
"The environment will be more and more crowded, but to understand the wishes and, in advance, what the market wants, you need to be very, very innovative," he said. "The innovation rate will be the differentiator."