Dr. Jeroen Van Ham, from ICsense, talks with MEMS Industry Group:
Q: It’s our round – what are you having?
A: I’ll take a Stella Artois, the beer that is brewed in the city of Louvain, which is also the home of ICsense. We Belgians have a close connection to it: in fact, some while ago, a pub opened not far from here which has more than 2000 (!) beers on-stock. It’s a nice place that we like to take our customers to.
Q: A great picture is worth a thousand words – please show us yours.
A: ICsense has been developing ICs since the early 2000’s. Throughout the years we developed ASICs that are high-up in the air (for the Airbus 380), and even further up into space (radiation hardened ASIC for DCDC and motor control for Thales Alenia Space). Of course, most of our projects are for applications on common ground, like ASIC readout interfaces for MEMS gyroscopes or MEMS microphones, MEMS speakers and MEMS pressure sensors. Occasionally, we also dig down into the earth as you can see on the picture.
Q: What’s hot in MEMS and sensors and what is your company’s role in it?
A: ICsense is the largest fab-independent European ASIC design company. Our role is to design ICs for IDMs and supply interfacing ASICs to product companies (e.g. MEMS or sensor integrators). I have seen a large increase in ASIC design requests for the MEMS industry the last 2 to 3 years. Obviously the biggest driver is portability but it strikes me to see that more incoming demands focus on medical. As I read in one of Yole’s latest industry reports, this is actually a general trend in the industry (they mentioned a 24% CAGR for medical alone!). This is the reason ICsense became ISO13485 certified (medical oriented certification) to be able to optimally support ASIC design for the medical (wearables) markets.
Q: Where is the MEMS and sensors industry heading, and how are you engaging the MEMS and sensors supply chain?
A: Over the years, MEMS have become smaller for cost reasons and for satisfying the volume constraints of end-customers. The disadvantage of this trend is that MEMS element inherently become more “noisy” and less sensitive (e.g. for a capacitive element the base-cap and Delta[C] decrease). To make it worse, there is the continuous demand to decrease power consumption. These evolutions put a lot of stress on us as ASIC developers. We have to cope with less sensitive MEMS elements (while still meeting the end-user accuracy requirements) at a lower power budget.
So far, we have always been able to manage this, but the key word here is COOPERATION. There is no such thing as delivering a spec and having your ASIC back after 12 months, we don’t believe in that. It’s all about making trade-offs on various levels and understanding the limitations and boundaries of the design (MEMS + ASIC + external components). Therefore a mutual “Architectural design” (and Spec freeze) is mandatory in every state-of-the-art product.
Q: What’s on your highlight reel of major technological accomplishments over the past 20 years?
A: About 10 years ago, we designed an ASIC for wireless power and data to control and charge the Li-Ion battery of an implantable IPG (Implantable Pulse Generator). I have always found it fascinating to see how medical implantable products have evolved over the years. The most famous one is the pacemaker of course. It’s even a bit scary knowing that this 1932-device was ever used!
Q: We’re giving you a ‘mulligan’ – what would you do over?
A: Since a few years, we became more active in MEMS communities (like MIG). I would have done this earlier as I see the increased relevance of a good ecosystem.
Q: What is the biggest hurdle limiting MEMS commercialization?
A: The expectation to meet 3 key parameters at once: Highest quality, fastest timing and lowest cost. This quality triangle below explains it all.
Q: What are the MEMS and sensors products you can’t wait to see?
A: I can’t wait to hear the sound coming from the world’s first MEMS speaker. The device is in its last stage of development and promises to disrupt the audio market! We designed the accompanying ASIC to drive this 1024 pixel digital speaker that is ultra-flat (less than 1 mm) and therefore suited to be placed within a flatscreen. Instead of your computer producing sound and bouncing it up- or sidewards, you will now actually have the sound coming directly to your ears. Much brighter and with a greater overall experience.
Q: Anything special you wish to comment on to the MIG newsletter audience?
A: We made a dedicated page on our website targeted to the MEMS industry, you can have a look here: www.icsense.com/MEMS
By the way, our linkedin-page is the fastest channel to learn more about ASIC interfacing for MEMS, so interested MIG members should certainly have a visit there: www.linkedin.com/company/icsense