Shaking Up the MEMS Sensor Market

Sensors Insights By Tom Kevan

This month, Grace Semiconductor Manufacturing, one of China's leading foundries, placed an order for an SPTS Omega c2L Rapier etch system, advanced technology used to manufacture MEMS sensors. This purchase reflects a trend in which China's sensor providers are investing heavily in R&D and manufacturing infrastructure to cultivate the ability to develop and manufacture high-end MEMS sensors and associated electronic components.

According to reports in Global Sources, examples of this manufacturing expansion can be found elsewhere in China. China National Machinery in Dongyang, Zhejiang province, is building a $160 million sensors industrial park that will include a dedicated zone for producing MEMS sensors. Similar expansion can also be seen in SHR Automation Technology's facility in Shandong China. And China's IC packaging and testing companies have accelerated development of advanced techniques required to produce high-density packaging and multifunction MEMS devices.

Driving this expansion of manufacturing capacity is the surge in demand for MEMS sensors in the automotive, mobile electronics, medical, and industrial control sectors. Increasingly, providers in these areas are seeking electronics that provide greater precision, intelligence, and energy efficiency in a small form factor. According to IHS estimates, the market for chipset MEMS sensors for automotive applications will grow 77% this year, with sales reaching nearly $163 million. Juniper Research predicts the global mobile MEMS market will reach $8 billion by 2018.

At stake is the huge market potential for these products in China. Despite competition from Germany, the U.S., Japan, and Korea, China is now the largest producer and consumer of passenger cars in the world. Visiongain expects sales in 2013 to reach 16.8 million units. Chipset inertial sensors are used in vehicles to enable safety systems.

As for the mobile phone market, Reportlinker estimates that 75% of mobile phones produced globally are made in mainland China, with output in 2013 expected to reach 1.28 billion sets. MEMS accelerometers, gyroscopes, and inertial measurement units address a broad spectrum of applications differentiating mobile phones, such as navigation and augmented reality.

According to Global Sources, most of China's sensor suppliers are currently producing entry-level and midrange products, leaving the upscale market to be dominated by established players from Japan, Europe, and the U.S. The massive investment in MEMS production capacity now occurring in China, however, may mark the beginning of a shift in this market dynamic. Add the growth in China's automotive and mobile markets, and the lead position among MEMS producers may be gravitating toward Asia's new industrial giant. Rising global adoption of MEMS devices in the medical instrument and industrial control sectors will only provide additional motivation for China's sensor industry to continue to enhance its position in this market.

Tom Kevan is a New Hampshire-based freelance writer specializing in technology.