The building blocks of smart systems

Microelectronics is seen as one of the key technologies for Smart Systems. It provides the various modules that give an object intelligence.

The influence of microelectronics is already being seen in all areas of life today. Sensors and chips are being used to efficiently automate industrial processes, in some cases making them fully autonomous, as well as to measure and optimise traffic flows on our roads. Microprocessors control the numerous assistance systems in cars. And as self-driving becomes a reality, demand for them will rise even further. Microelectronics is also playing a key role in the health sector. For example, biological and vital-signs data can only be transmitted from a patient’s smartphone to their doctor if the right hardware and software is available. Special security chips protect and control access to key data – for private users as well as businesses. The trend towards Smart Systems is not only pushing up demand for electronic components; it is also increasing the requirements imposed on them. Miniaturisation is advancing rapidly, and the performance and communication capabilities of the components are continually being enhanced, but at the same time their power consumption and unit costs are having to be cut.

Different functions on one chip

One way to cut costs is to integrate different functions onto one chip. Market research organisation Emitt Solutions cites microcontrollers with chips incorporating a wireless interface as an example. This enables development engineers to cut both material costs and the cost of development – and saves space on the circuit board. An added sensor on board the chip then creates what is termed a “smart sensor”, and the researchers see highly promising prospects for growth in that market over the coming years. In contrast to conventional sensors, smart sensors do not merely collect data without evaluating it but, thanks to their fundamental intelligence, are able to filter the information relevant to decision-making from the acquired data and relay it to where it is needed. This eases the workload of higher-level control systems – a key factor especially with regard to autonomous systems that have to operate independently within their environment. After all, they have to process large volumes of data from a wide variety of different sensors, as far as possible in real time. This interaction between different sensors – termed sensor fusion – is an essential prerequisite for Smart Systems. “From smart toaster ovens and smartwatches to telemedicine – sensor fusion is playing a critical role in a growing number of applications and industries,” says Karen Lightman, Executive Director, MEMS Industry Group.

MEMS market growing

The field of MEMS (Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems) is benefiting more than most from the “sensorisation” of the world accompanying the spread of smart machines. These microsystems, combining mechanical structures on a micrometre scale and electronic structures on one chip, are cheap, robust, and above all highly compact. That is why Jean-Christophe Eloy, President and CEO of market research and consulting company Yole, predicts rapid growth in the MEMS market too: “At Yole Développement (Yole), we expect a 20 billion Dollars business in 2020 with 30 billion units,” says Jean-Christophe Eloy, President & CEO, Yole. The prices of MEMS have been falling by an average of five percent annually for a number of years, however. An acceleration sensor costs just two and a half cents, for example. To generate an adequate profit despite the low prices, manufacturers are looking to produce higher volumes. And they are also integrating different sensors into one system, or even into a single housing.

Autonomous microsystems thanks to energy ­harvesting

The use of distributed and embedded microsystems such as MEMS is directly dependent on a reliable and long-lasting power supply. That is why the harvesting of small amounts of energy from the surrounding environment is growing in importance, as a means to eliminate the need for mobility-restricting cables and space-wasting batteries. This micro-energy harvesting uses sources such as the ambient temperature, motion, vibration and air flows to provide the required power.

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