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Sensor Fusion and New Sensor Interface Developments Open Up Innovation

Last week at the MEMS Executive Congress in Scottsdale, Arizona (Nov. 5-7, 2014) two separate announcements were made that will have long term impact on sensors. The MEMS Industry Group announced the first open source algorithm community for sensor fusion and the MIPI Alliance introduced a new sensor interface specification.

MIPI I3C

The I2C, also known as I Squared C, standard has been used extensively for sensor interface.  Many sensor hub controllers, mostly microcontrollers, use I2C for connecting to sensors.  But I2C has its limitations in terms of power, speed and scalability. SPI is another interface standard that is used for sensors, but this requires more pins. 

MIPI is addressing the interface fragmentation and scalability issues with a new sensor interface specification, MIPI I3C. As that name implies it is backward compatible with I2C. But the new standard provides data throughput capabilities comparable to SPI. According to MIPI “the name MIPI SenseWire℠ will be used to describe the application of I3C℠ in mobile devices and the use of the I3C interface for mobile devices connecting to a set of sensors, directly or indirectly.”

This new standard has been developed because of the steadily growing proliferation of sensors in smartphones. A new standard was needed that could be scalable. MIPI has developed I3C with the participation of sensor vendors and other companies in the mobile ecosystem.

Semiconductors are Key to Better 3D Printing

The 3D printing world is an exciting place to be right now.  For do-it-yourselfers with an artistic or engineering bent, 3D printing delivers a whole new toolbox, enabling designs that were not possible before with exciting new materials.  These DIYers will often build their own 3D printers from scratch.  The RepRap movement was formed with the goal of creating a self-replicating manufacturing machine. 

The first self-replicating 3D printer was built in 2008 by mechanical engineers at the University of Bath. Since then, the hobbyist 3D printer movement has blossomed from a grad school project to thriving hobbyist community. A 3D printer can be built from scratch using almost any building material (plywood, laser cut acrylic, machined aluminum, LEGO bricks, etc.), however all printers need at least one type of commercially manufactured hardware: electronics. 

Example of a RepRap Printer

Source: www.reprap.org

Printing Your Own Semiconductors

Much of the look and feel of today's PCs, tablets and smartphones was developed at PARC (Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center).  Is PARC now on the track of an innovation that could revolutionize semiconductor manufacturing?

With financing from DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects), PARC has developed a method of programmable electrostatic assembly, inspired by xerography.  Tiny chiplets are produced and mixed into a solution-based “ink.”  The chiplets, which have an electrical charge pattern on them, are subjected to dynamic electric fields which are used to orient and position them with micron-level accuracy.  Once assembled, the chips are put onto a final substrate with interconnects.  The technology used is similar to laser printer technology, which is essentially the assembly of large numbers of micron-sized toner particles, a Xerox development from the 1970s.    The resulting circuits can be microprocessors, memory or any other desired semiconductor chip.  Although production quantities will not be feasible for several years, could this be leading to desktop printing of almost any semiconductor?

FinFET Ramp: Changing Market Dynamics?

Rolling out a new semiconductor technology always has its share of challenges, but it seems like the 14nm finFET process node is starting off with more than its share of delays and speculation.

This week Intel revealed some of the details for its new microarchitecture, Broadwell, and their first product, the Intel Core M processor, to be manufactured using their second-generation finFET, 14nm technology.

Plagued by rumors of yield issues and a slow computing market in 2013, Intel delayed the release of their newest 14nm product line by almost one year.

Back on July 16, during the TSMC Q2 2014 financial conference call, the company reported that their 16nm finFET process would not begin ramping until 2H 2015. That is a delay of approximately six months from the original Q4 2014 ramp target.

There have been some technology issues, but Semico believes these delays are also market-driven. In the past, new products could be released for the early adopters willing to pay a premium just to get in on the higher performance. Huge volumes were not required from day one. Today, the ramp to high volume occurs much faster and the products require high efficiency and low cost to support huge consumer driven mobile markets.

How Swarm Intelligence will Take Over our Lives

Swarm intelligence is a type of crowd intelligence, like what is seen in ant or bee colonies, where each member of the colony tends to work independently at a particular task and then contributes their particular knowledge to the collective, and the group reacts as a whole. 

For example, ants may have guards, health monitors, food gatherers, childcare monitors, etc.  When any one group hits an alarm, (Food is low! The Queen is dying!) the entire hive reacts appropriately because they come “programmed” with the knowledge of what their next task should be. 

In effect, this is where the Smart Home is going.  With lights, sockets, hubs, speakers, security, curtains, appliances, etc, the Smart Home is becoming a swarm of input sensors where each sensor will be able to react based on input from all other sensors. 

For example, in a Smart Home, if the sensors are activated, i.e.  a window is broken or the inside temperature is not ideal, then the entire home will react appropriately.  The alarm will go off and the security alerts will be sent, the heater may automatically go off to save energy, the lights may go on, and the home owner’s phone alarm alerts them to the situation.  Each segment of the home will come preprogrammed with the knowledge of how it should react based on the particular information supplied by the hundreds of sensors around the home. 

Sensor Fusion in a State of Flux as Companies Fuse Together

There has been a great deal of activity among companies within the sensor fusion ecosystem.  Mergers and acquisitions are changing the competitive landscape. 

As a quick background, sensor fusion is the technology of combining data from multiple sensors and deriving intelligence from that data.  It is the foundation for motion tracking, navigation, context awareness, location based services, augmented reality and more.  It is the basis for future innovative applications.  The brains behind sensor fusion is in the algorithms.  This is usually embedded in a 32-bit microcontroller core or similarly powerful processing device, known as a sensor hub.

In May 2014, Fairchild announced the acquisition of Xsens the Dutch company known for motion tracking software.  Xsens has been doing motion tracking for film and other such applications.  It has modules with low cost consumer grade inertial motion MEMS sensors from STMicroelectronics.  At the time of the acquisition, Fairchild also announced that it would be bringing MEMS sensors to market soon as well.

3D Printing: Can You Imagine the Possibilities?

3D printing is being used in many more applications than most people realize.  But the most exciting applications for 3D printing are the ones that haven’t even been conceived of yet.  It’s exciting to realize we are on the cusp of a manufacturing revolution that affects so many different industries already. 

If you have been to the movies lately, you’ve likely seen 3D printing in action.  Movies from “Iron Man” to “ParaNorman” used 3D printing, while Disney’s upcoming “Big Hero 6” features a main character designing and printing a robot armor suit.  What 3D printing has brought to Hollywood is the ability to quickly make designs for directors to approve, easily make iterative changes to the designs, add amazing detail, and create parts much more efficiently than doing it by hand. 

3D-Printed Glove Pieces for “Iron Man” 

Iron Man 2 costume

Source:  Fastcompany.com

3D-Printed Faces for “ParaNorman”

How 3D printing changed the face of 'Paranoman'

Source:  engadget.com

Biosensors: Perspiration is a Good Thing

Those of us who live in warm climates understand how important it is to stay hydrated, especially in a place like Phoenix, Arizona.  We emphasize this starting with youth sports.  We remind visitors who want to enjoy hiking our beautiful state the importance of staying hydrated.  But many people are not aware about how quickly they can become dehydrated and find themselves in distress.

Staying hydrated has been a top concern in sports for many years.  During the recent National Basketball Association finals, Miami Heat star, Lebron James, was unable to finish one game due to severe leg cramps.  The FIFA World Cup is being held in Brazil under extreme heat and humid conditions.  In a rare move, FIFA is allowing water breaks during the game.  The time is added on as stoppage time.

A water break during the FIFA World Cup was used during the USA v Portugal match.  This Sunday during the Netherlands v Mexico match the referee called for a water break during both halves.  However, the water breaks were left to the discretion of the referee.  He bases his decision on the air temperature, relative humidity and his own subjective observation of the players. 

Ethernet: The Highway for Automotive Electronics?

What happens when technology from the fast paced communication industry makes a move into the traditional automotive industry? Semiconductor marketers and even the automotive industry are talking about revolutionary changes inside and outside the vehicle. 

What kinds of changes?  Ethernet and sensors.  There’s a lot of excitement and enthusiasm over the prospect of cars with Ethernet networking capabilities and multiple ports for streaming video, driver-assist cameras, real-time diagnostics and autonomous driving.  Ethernet is touted as being a faster, and ultimately cheaper, network solution for the operational information collected by sensors as well as providing more bandwidth for the infotainment needs of each passenger.    

After attending DAC last week, I was quite bullish myself.  Companies such as Synopsys are reporting significant design activity focused on automotive applications.  Synopsys offers their DesignWare ARC SEP Processor for ISO 26262 safety compliant solutions as well as a sensor IP subsystem for small, low power devices. 

Ethernet is already ubiquitous in the communication world, providing not only experienced design knowledge but also large-volume manufacturing.  Large volumes lead to economies of scale and lower costs compared to other automotive network options.  Cadence has a long history of designing Ethernet IP and developing standards which will make adoption in the automotive industry much smoother.

IOT, Priming The Market

No matter who you talk to, from material vendors to OEMs, semiconductor equipment suppliers, designers, fabless companies, IDMs, or foundries, IoT is a popular subject. Every industry publication you may read or conference you attend, IOT is at the forefront of every discussion. This was certainly true at DAC last week. I was on a breakfast panel session sponsored by GLOBALFOUNDRIES and Synopsys on Tuesday morning. The big question is, will IoT be the next driver that will take the industry to its next growth phase? There was a lively discussion of the opportunities for IoT. Semico believes that IoT devices will exceed mobile connections by 2018. However, there are some significant caveats that should be pointed out. The main inhibitors that were discussed were:

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