Even among creative engineers, sometimes it takes a while for the light to go on regarding applications for new technology. The folks at Intel weren’t initially sure of how the microprocessor would be used. So too with MEMS (microelectromechanical systems).
Initially popular as pressure sensors and actuators for automotive applications, including seat belts, air bags, and stability systems, MEMS also flourished in medical and consumer electronics applications. Now they’re entering a new phase, with new applications in astronomy, manufacturing, projection, and location-based systems.
“There are really five senses of motion,” says Wayne Meyer, horizontal marketing manager for the micromachined products division at Norwood, Mass.-based Analog Devices. “These are acceleration, velocity, speed, position, and rotation sensing. These contribute to shock sensing and vibration sensing, all activities that go beyond consumer devices.”
There has been a spate of new applications announced in the last few months:
Item: Boston Micromachines announced in December 2008 that its MEMS-based deformable mirrors were being used in astronomical research by multiple institutions, including Durham University and the French aerospace lab ONERA; its two deformable mirrors offer either 140 actuators or 1,020 actuators. Item:
In December of 2008, Huntsman
announced a manufacturing machine called the Araldite Digitalis, which uses MEMS in place of lasers to both speed and improve the process of radiation curing, a method of applying polymer coating.
Item: At January 2009’s Macworld Expo, display and imaging company Microvision announced the Show WX projection device. About the size of a smartphone, it uses a one-millimeter MEMS mirror to display the output of three lasers (red, green, and blue). Lemoptix is another company in this space. Item:
In December, 2008, Memsic
announced a new line of magnetic sensors with “digital compass functionality” that compensate for extraneous magnetic interference using just 400 microamperes of power, making them appropriate for consumer electronics devices. And the new applications don’t stop there. “Because they’re small and made of silicon, they have a very high shock capability,” says Greg Smolka, vice-president of the industrial, military and space division at Hudson, N.H.-based Vectron International
, which manufacturers frequency control and sensor systems. “Customers are using them in precision guided munitions, otherwise known as smart bombs. MEMS offer the ability to give a good timing signal, but it can stand being fired from a cannon and still operate.”
In line with the current mania for green technology, Benedetto Vigna, general manager of the MEMS and healthcare, RF and sensor product division at Geneva-based ST Microelectronics, sees an upcoming opportunity in monitoring energy and water consumption. “One of the applications that we see is remote monitoring of temperatures through a distributed network of wireless sensors in houses and factories,” he says, noting that such sensors could also be used in appliances such as washing machines to maintain optimum energy use and water temperature.
Analog Devices’ Meyer sees opportunities in safety and inspection applications. “Say you have a rotating shaft on a turbine with a 1 Khz frequency. If the frequency increases, that’s a leading indicator that the shaft is getting warped. You can look for this either when you do preventative maintenance, or you can fix it after it’s broken. But if you use the vibration sensing capabilities of a MEMS, you can find out immediately if they’re a problem. You’re talking about 24x7 monitoring rather having an inspector walking around. It’s less costly and more reliable.”
It may take a while for these new applications to establish a foothold as strong as current applications. ST Micro’s Vigna, for instance, believes that widespread deployment of such new uses for MEMS are still three to five years away. “That’s not a long time, but I believe the biggest revenue stream from now until 2012 will still be the consumer market.”
Even so, it’s important at an inflection point like this to remember that inventions sometimes outgrow their initial expected uses in unexpected ways. Consider the story of the Kleenex tissue, so named because its inventor expected actors to use it as a way to remove makeup. He was horrified to learn that people were using it as a disposable handkerchief until he realized that market was considerably larger.
The creative uses of MEMS will undoubtedly feed larger markets as well.