MEMS the word
Bill Roberts - July 1, 2001
Longtime backers of micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS) are understandably excited over Intel Corp.'s investments and research into MEMS, details of which the Santa Clara, CA-based company recently made public.
At its spring investment analyst meeting in New York, Intel said it has devoted several millions of dollars in six MEMS start-ups since 1999, and plans to invest in more. It also has been engaged in its own internal research and development over the same period.
The most immediate MEMS applications for its own purposes, Intel believes, are in wireless communications and advanced cooling technologies. The latter would be in the form of a micro-fluidic device (called by some a refrigerator-on-a-chip) used to cool increasingly fast—and therefore hot—microprocessors.
Intel has made no secret of the fact that it's trying to diversify. The company believes MEMS, which are essentially semiconductors with embedded pumps, valves and other miniature mechanical parts, is just such an effort, one that takes advantage of Intel's state-of-the-art manufacturing and other capabilities.
With this combination of investment and research, analysts say, Intel plants a significant stake in MEMS territory. They view the development as good for both Intel and the MEMS market.
"Intel's announcements and its investments help to say 'this technology is real and a force to be reckoned with,'" says Marlene Bourne, a senior analyst at Scottsdale, AZ-based Cahners In-Stat Group, a unit of Cahners Business Information, ELECTRONIC BUSINESS parent company. Bourne is a self-confessed advocate of MEMS: "I really believe we are on the cusp of entering the MEMS era."
If so, not a minute too soon. MEMS have been dawdling along for more than a decade. The biggest application is the accelerometer. These devices are widely used in the automotive industry, as a trigger for airbags, for example. Two other large-scale applications are ink jets and blood monitors.
When the technology first burst onto the scene, it held a lot of potential. "There was a lot of buzz and hype in the early 1990s, creating a level of expectation the technology could not meet," admits Bourne.
The technology caught another buzz blitz last year around developments that could lead to MEMS devices for optical networks and wireless communications. Those products aren't expected to hit the market for another year. "There are a large number of companies with a wide variety of products going into volume production now and ramping up through 2002," says Bourne. She sees the overall MEMS market growing from $3 billion in 2000 to $12 billion in 2005. Bourne also foresees a changing market for types of devices (see graphic).
Confidence in MEMS' future encouraged Intel to discuss its activities, says Intel Spokesman Howard High. Intel has been trying to do a better job of telling the investor community about its research-and-development activities, he adds. Intel spends $4.5 billion a year on R&D, but it hasn't always done a good job of explaining where the money goes.
One reason, he says, is that Intel's approach to R&D is quite unlike, say, IBM Corp's. Instead of concentrating funding and energy into one or a few large labs, Intel takes a highly decentralized approach, with lab facilities in dozens of locations all over the world.
Investing in start-ups also is a big part of Intel's R&D effort, High explains. As a result, a lot of what Intel does isn't visible. "We've been trying to do a better job of explaining our R&D efforts over the past year," he says. "We were ready to talk about MEMS because we are far enough along to have something to disclose." Hence, the briefing to analysts and material now posted to its Web site (http://www.intel.com/research/silicon/mems.htm).
Intel certainly isn't the first mainstream chip company to take the MEMS plunge. Texas Instruments Inc., Dallas, Cypress Semiconductor Corp., San Jose, CA, and Analog Devices Inc., Norwood, MA, to name just a few, have been active. Analog, for example, has supplied MEMS-based optical networking devices for nearly a decade. In late May, it announced a one-mega-sample-per-second (MSPS) analog-to-digital converter for MEMS-based optical switching.
But many large chip makers and OEMs continue to sit and watch—at their own risk, some observers say. "By starting a portfolio of MEMS IP and bringing this forward, Intel is doing the right thing," says Roger Grace, president of Grace Associates, San Francisco. Grace, who markets MEMS
products and companies, believes chip companies without MEMS resources or intellectual property will be at a disadvantage in an era of system-on-chips and other multipurpose devices. He cautions: "Without MEMS, you can't optimize your system design."