Ever hear the saying, “Good things come in small packages?” When it comes to microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), the old adage is proving true in the tiny yet powerful devices all around us—like sensors that make your phone, car, and even refrigerator “smart.” MEMS deliver some of the enabling technology behind the exciting development of the “Internet of Things,” which promises to connect our world.
Manufacturing MEMS requires specialized equipment to create electrical and mechanical parts that can be smaller than a grain of sand. It also involves processes similar to those used to produce semiconductor chips. As a result, Lam’s technologies are readily extended to fabricate these devices, which enable important capabilities for several industries. In addition to industrial and medical uses, MEMS are increasingly being developed for mobile, automotive, and consumer applications. Here we take a closer look at these three segments.
MEMS growth for the mobile market is being driven by requirements for phones and tablets, which value components that are small and have low power consumption. Perhaps the best-known MEMS applications are gyroscopes and accelerometers that can sense when the screen on a mobile device has been rotated and then pivot the display in response. Remember the grainy photos from early cell phone cameras? Thanks to gyroscopes, which help stabilize optical images by detecting motion and signaling a controller to compensate, the latest generation of mobile phones takes amazing photos. Smartphone applications such as navigation, activity tracking, and hand-gesture interfaces are also all MEMS-enabled.
The electronics content of automobiles is continually growing because of demand for greater safety, reliability, comfort, and convenience. MEMS-based sensors for airbag deployment are now distributed throughout vehicles for early crash detection. Have you ever wondered how your car “knows” when passengers have not buckled their seatbelts? MEMS devices are used to sense the presence of a passenger. MEMS sensors monitor tire, fuel, and oil pressures and send signals to the dashboard if levels fall below certain limits, making frequent car inspections a thing of the past. MEMS have also enabled advanced functions such as adaptive cruise control, collision-avoidance systems, and self-parallel parking capability—and a completely self-driving car may be in the not-too-distant future.
Although less apparent, MEMS devices are also increasingly being used in our household appliances. Does your freezer have an automatic ice cube maker? It may rely on a MEMS sensor to detect when the water has frozen and can be dropped into the ice bin. MEMS are used in high-end cooktops to help regulate heat transfer by monitoring the temperature of the pot or pan on the surface: when the pot is removed, the energy transfer stops. MEMS sensors can also be found in microwave ovens, vacuum cleaners, air conditioners, dishwashers, and washing machines, making our lives more comfortable and convenient while saving energy.
These are just some examples of MEMS device applications, and we haven’t even touched on personal fitness or medical functions! A “big future” is indeed likely as uses for these tiny devices continue to develop and expand into new markets, transforming the way we live and work.