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Fairchild has its sights on the wearables market

4 mins read

Wearable electronics is a burgeoning market, with some analysts claiming sales could reach $8billion a year by 2018. While that's good news for those developing wearable products, it's also good news for those companies developing MEMS based devices, because many wearables will be enabled by them.

And it is this market which Fairchild has in its sights. But the company isn't interested in competing across the board. Rather, it has identified what it believes to be an exploitable niche and has acquired Dutch sensor fusion specialist Xsens to boost its offering. In a recent webinar, Fairchild's ceo Mark Thompson said: "Power today isn't very smart. Our innovation will be to embed motion sensing capability so that gestures can be used to turn functions on and off. Motion and power," he claimed, "will be the next revolution." The niche which Fairchild hopes to exploit centres on the efficient use of energy; something on which the company is already focused. "In order to make sure energy is used as efficiently as possible," said chief operating officer Vijay Ullal, "machines need the ability to sense their environments; they need true intelligence." Ullal intends to start from the basis of niche applications and take them to the mass market. "We'll be creating low power MEMS devices," he asserted. And it is the phrase 'low power' which is central to the ambition. "We're not interested in competing with, for example, STMicroelectronics in the automotive market," Ullal continued. "We want to get into applications where low power is important." Casper Peeters, chief executive of Xsens – which will retain its identity – said the company has been supplying products targeted at higher end applications. "Inertial systems for the stabilisation of robots and other systems where precision is needed," he explained. "Working with Fairchild, we see a big opportunity for systems that are smaller and lower cost than today." Xsens' previous systems have been units based on third party sensors, including MEMS devices from potential rivals. Peeters said the most important element is an inertial sensor, but said other devices – such as orientation, magnetic field and pressure sensors – will be needed. But he says the sensor fusion algorithms developed by Xsens are the most important element. "These algorithms provide a stable output in challenging situations," he continued. "For example, a camera on a helicopter. If you need the camera to point in a particular direction, it's hard to control. Our algorithms cope with things like vibration." The systems being developed by the two companies may well be targeted at Internet of Things applications and at smarter connected devices. "Many of these will be mobile applications," Peeters pointed out. "They could be in or around the house – cleaning devices and robots, for example – but will need a sense of their position and direction. That's some of the applications we're going to be addressing using high end technology." Joseph Notaro is the recently appointed business development director for Fairchild's motion tracking business unit. "We're bringing together the competences of two companies," he noted. "Xsens has knowledge of motion tracking, while Fairchild has the components knowledge and the knowledge of how to make low power MEMS devices." Peeters is keen to point out that the two companies are more interested in selling systems solutions, rather than discrete products. "We're looking at markets where added value is appreciated." Notaro picked up the theme. "We want to bring value. We're not interested in competing on cost in commoditised markets. We can only achieve our ambitions if we offer differentiated technology." Quite what that differentiated technology will look like remains under wraps. "We'll be announcing our first product later this year," Notaro said. "It will focus on low power and high accuracy and will be aimed at markets where those two figures of merit are important." The initiative will be new ground for Fairchild; it hasn't demonstrated any particular track record in MEMS technology, although it is said to have developed an accelerometer/gyroscope with six degrees of freedom. Notaro said the acquisition in November 2010 of Jyve gave Fairchild a MEMS technology team. Jyve was believed to have been developing inertial MEMS sensors for low cost consumer applications, apparently using a disruptive technology. "We're now putting the pieces together and the acquisition of Xsens is a natural evolution of this process," said Notaro. Manufacture of the devices will be outsourced to a foundry. "It's a new area," Notaro admitted. "We've developed the technology in house and we are working on system architectures." That's something that Xsens will be able to reinforce. "It's an area where Xsens leads," Notaro claimed. "It's not only how to architect a system, but also how to add more into the MEMS devices to make them the best in the market. Our two companies have come together to cooperate; it just makes sense." Notaro was reluctant to discuss manufacturing technology or who the foundry partner might be. "From the mechanical side, we're not dependent on any particular process node. We're developing mechanical structures that need to move, so we're talking about features that are several microns in size. With MEMS, it's not so much about lithography; it's more about processing." However, he accepted there was flexibility in the way future devices can be assembled. "We will be looking at integrating more than one device in a package." Peeters believes the Xsens/Fairchild partnership will address applications that go beyond today's idea of wearables. "That means things like wristbands; devices which tell you how many steps you've taken. Beyond those devices and applications, you can imagine something like a virtual coach or something you can interact with in a virtual environment. While the wearables market has started with wristbands and glasses, I believe the technology will go beyond them." Switching the focus to new technology According to DelfMEMS, the demand for always on data access is requiring the use of multiple wireless standards. In turn, this is creating the need for high speed RF switching. MEMS technology has been applied to this problem in the past by, says DelfMEMS, classical MEMS structures – such as bridges and cantilevers – have a mechanical stiffness which is too high, meaning switching times are not fast enough. A further issue is that the structures are sensitive to stress induced during packaging and overmoulding operations. Looking to address these questions, DelfMEMS is developing an anchorless, push-pull MEMS device that is deflected by electrostatic forces. It allows RF signals to be switched using the same principles applied in electromechanical relays and switches and is said to overcome previous problems. The company says its RF switch improves insertion loss substantially, along with linearity, switching time and power consumption. Using RF MEMS switches is said to improve receiver sensitivity, meaning fewer dropped calls and better call quality. Combined with high levels of RF integration, this also results in a lower bill of materials cost for the RF Front-End module, and significantly longer battery life by reducing the power consumption of the RF module by up to 20%.