In the Product Design & Development Brainstorm we talk with industry leaders to get their perspective on issues critical to the design engineering marketplace. In this issue, we ask:
As the Internet of Things (IoT) expands to the Internet of Everything (IoE), more MEMS and sensors will be designed in to products, devices, and even buildings. What advancements are needed to scale future MEMS and sensor ecosystems?
The vast majority of the IoE devices that have been designed, built and sold up to now rely on components that leveraged the economies of scale coming from mobile electronics products. Small size, low power, and high manufacturing volumes were drivers that have considerable commonalities between the two types of segments.
Because of this, many IoE devices look like smaller versions of the smart phones we all carry in our pockets: they use the same manufacturing processes, tooling, and components. As examples, tear-downs of most wearables show compact, but substantially traditional assembly technologies.
In order to allow the IoE to fulfill its promise of becoming seamlessly prevalent and embedded in our everyday lives, we need to see the disruption in use cases driven by new form factors and human-machine interfaces. This in turn will only happen if solution providers are able to innovate in two broad fields: unit cost and software-defined features.
The multi-billion device explosion will only be possible if component and system costs are cut by one or two orders of magnitude. 3D printing of devices and electronics promise to help in this area by allowing consumers to independently customize hardware with the push of a button – eliminating design, manufacturing, and distribution costs.
Similarly, the evolution of software marketplaces of apps and algorithms will create ecosystems for sensor fusion and processing to digest the streams of data. These algorithms will run locally – close to the sensors themselves to reduce data transmission overheads through the recognition and classification of specific contexts – or on hosts as simple as single-thread microcontrollers to complex cloud servers running social media heuristics to crowdsource and process data to track and influence social trends.
Such democratization of sensing devices and software ecosystems will drive the revolution towards rapid growth and adoption of IoE.
The adoption of sensor technology in smartphones has spurred additional motionsensor technology development, driven the cost down, and made the concept of adding motion monitoring and context awareness tangible to Internet of Things designers and consumers.
OEMs want to enhance their products by adding sensor data and connecting them to the Internet, but they still want to quickly get their designs into revenue production.
There are several challenges with the actual adoption and implementation of sensors into IoE applications, though. OEMs need to select and procure MCUs and sensors, understand sensor strengths and deficiencies, and apply complex mathematical concepts to accurately and reliably model 3D position behavior, and develop calibration capabilities.
These are daunting tasks, and OEMs often don’t have the time, knowledge, or resources to address the challenges of adding motion-monitoring capabilities to their designs.
As a result, vendors need to make the technology accessible and easy for designers to incorporate into their products. By developing production-ready building blocks, vendors provide designers with a complete sensing solution.
The MCU, sensors, algorithms, board layout, and calibration are all done for the customer. Customers designing motion awareness for applications such as a suitcase, an industrial monitor, or even a building don’t need to be experts in sensor ecosystems. They simply purchase a complete solution, hook it into their board, and are quickly utilizing the sensor and position data to enhance their products.
Production-ready building blocks will be essential, in order to quickly scale future MEMS and sensor ecosystems. Customers need easy-to-use, easy-to-manufacture sensor ecosystems for their myriad IoE designs, including portable devices, robotics, commercial trucks, industrial automation, patient tracking, smart farming, and smart buildings.
As IoE implies, every “thing” will be connected, and every “thing” will need sensors to generate data. Given the scale anticipated in the IoE – trillions is the oft referenced number for sensors – low-cost, low-power, andsmall will be the name of the game.
As such, MEMS sensors will dominate the IoE ecosystem. MEMS sensors are inherently small (measured in microns or nanometers), low power (typically low voltage semiconductor solid state devices), and intrinsically cheap, as they too are subject to Moore’s Law.
However, MEMS sensing requires four key technology advancements to reach IoE nirvana. The first is energy harvesting. MEMS devices are already low power, but IoE will need no-touch lifetimes of more than a decade.
Advancements in integrated energy harvesting from both the environment of the sensor and the read-field of the network are needed to meet requirements. Passive RFID sensors are the example to which we should aspire.
Second, MEMS sensing has to move beyond inertial and thermal. The IoE will involve billions of biological “things.”
Advancement in both bio-electrical and electro-chemical MEMS devices will be necessary to measure physiological, environmental, and biological states for application in agriculture, life sciences, and medical markets.
Many of these applications are going to be mobile or remote, so the third advancement is in very low bandwidth, low power wireless communications. New networks like LoRa and Ultra Wide Band are addressing the need, but limitations still exist.
Innovative wireless communication solutions will be necessary for many yet unserved applications.
Finally, if every “thing” is connected, systems designers are going to want each “thing” to know what it is and where it is.
As realtors say – “Location, location, location.” Geo-location technology operating under the same size and power constraints as the MEMS sensor itself will be necessary to support IoE deployment. GPS and triangulation are solutions today, but they do not provide the accuracy and indoor performance at low power.
Each of these advancements will open vast numbers of applications in the IoT, but only when all are available will we reach true IoE level deployment.
As we enter the age of the IoT/IoE, the “sensorization” of the world presents tremendous opportunities as well as challenges.
It seems a foregone conclusion that the world around us will be connected, smart, and aware. It’s that last part – awareness – where MEMS and sensors come into play.
They work to connect the electronic world with the physical world. For this part of IoT to scale at the same rate as the communications and computing infrastructures, we have to look at it from both the supply and demand perspectives.
The first thing that’s needed is fabrication process maturity. Currently MEMS and integrated sensors are very custom parts, created via a fair amount of human expertise and ingenuity.
This contrasts with the IC and network industries where tools exist that enable an engineer to systematically create, simulate, and optimize the designs of ICs and networks.
Although there are tools for designing and simulating MEMS, they’re not at the same level of sophistication and maturity and so the practice of developing MEMS is a much more iterative process that benefits greatly from experience and intuition.
Another aspect that will need to be addressed is democratization of the technology. Currently most successful commercial products produced via MEMS come from companies that have developed their own processes and keep them as a competitive advantage.
Therefore, they are not available to a massive population to tinker and develop new MEMS and integrated sensors. For decades many have worked to create open processes to allow one to perform the design and have the manufacturing done at foundries, but to date that’s the exception rather than the rule.
Eventually processes will be developed and perfected that are consistent enough that design tools can accurately model them. At that time, platforms will be built that allow a degree of modularity so that people can build on others’ work.
When this is the case, quicker product development will be possible, and the variety and number of MEMS and sensors will grow to address the vision of IoT.
This blog originally appeared in the July/August print edition of PD&D.