MEMS at Bosch: Using automotive and consumer applications as a launch pad

According to Yole Développement’s “Status of the MEMS industry 2016” report, the value of the MEMS industry has exceeded $10B. Its products are becoming ubiquitous in virtually every imaginable application, especially in automotive and consumer markets. For more than three years, Bosch has been the MEMS industry giant, reaching $1.2B sales, 50% over and above its nearest competitor.

Yole Développement interviewed Stefan Finkbeiner, CEO of Bosch Sensortec, the company spearheading Bosch’s consumer MEMS sensor activities. He discussed his company’s strategy and how Bosch leverages its market position in consumer goods, automotive, industry automation and beyond to develop more sensors and sensor modules, as well as study new applications.



(Source: Status of the MEMS industry 2016 report, Yole Développement, May 2016)

Yole Développement: What is the role of Bosch Sensortec within the Bosch group?
Stefan Finkbeiner: Bosch Sensortec was established in 2005, a spinoff from Bosch group’s automotive systems business because MEMS were identified as a strategic technology for Bosch. The last 11 years have seen the mobile device market boom and we have been able to grow with it. The next big market is the Internet of Things (IoT). MEMS are more an enabler than a driver for the Bosch group. Bosch is a technology company with a multitude of products: security, white goods, power tools, smart homes, even automotive transport and factory automation. MEMS sensors are very strategic for the entire Bosch group. Steve Reynolds, president of the Mobile Data Association, has discussed that tens of billions of devices will be connected to the internet, most of which will incorporate a sensor solution. It will not come as fast as people anticipate, however, at Bosch, we can consult with our associates to gain an improved understanding of system needs in multiple applications outside of the automotive and consumer markets.

YD: What is the main development focus of Bosch Sensortec in terms of sensor-based devices and applications?
SF: Most of our sensors are still classical sensors like 3-axis gyroscopes, accelerometers, 6-axis IMUs and geomagnetic sensors, and moreover pressure sensors, humidity sensors and gas sensors. We anticipate that innovation will be a significant driver in the coming years, especially in the field of environmental sensors, with a strong focus on gas sensors. We are extending our portfolio to follow these trends in the MEMS market. Another possible focus, is to develop new sensors and new features for sensors. Additionally, we are also fostering the trend of vertical integration, which incorporates sensor combos like IMUs, but also integrating intelligence into sensors using microcontrollers and software. We have already started with our BHA, BHI, BNO and BHV product lines. With these hardware platforms we can address new functions, new applications, and even new markets.

YD: How important is this kind of intelligence to Bosch Sensortec’s products?
SF: We have been doing this for quite some time now. I think that, for example, our 9-axis sensor data fusion software has already been on the market for several years now. Still, in those markets where our sensors are used, low power consumption and saving battery life-time are the key factors to success. The smart integration of a dedicated microcontroller optimized for handling sensor data, as well as for ultra-low power consumption and for the most efficient data transfer to the host or application processor, brings advantages to system designers that other solutions simply cannot match.
This is the level of integration that we strive for; local intelligence, local decisions, like step-counting, all at very low power.
We’re currently seeing that the new versions of Android are becoming increasingly more demanding. For example, sensors have to perform tasks while everything else is inactive, such as a pedometer that counts steps while the rest of the system is in sleep mode. In IoT, where you will have certain local sensor nodes without continuous network access, these devices will need to be able to make local decisions and locally store a certain amount of data, then have the intelligence to integrate the data locally or to transmit the information somewhere else, such as to a cloud or a gateway.

YD: The MEMS market has been difficult over the past year. We saw the stabilisation of several markets in terms of value, and estimates of MEMS sales at Bosch Group matched this. Are markets still difficult?
SF: If you look at the overall market, it was relatively weak last year. It has not grown as much as in previous years, and I think that this trend will continue. As you know, the mobile phone market is significantly influenced by a small number of major players. We also see new customers emerging and growing significantly, especially in China, which opens up opportunities. The smartphone market is really focusing on either the high-end or the low-end, leaving the mid-price segment weaker. There is also an overcapacity problem in the market, which, of course, also has had some impact. Bosch is in a good position where we don’t have to compete in all areas, so we are focusing on the innovations that we have in the pipeline, and I think that these innovations will allow us to continue to find interesting opportunities in the near future.

YD: In our research, we have seen that there is more continuous innovation in areas like image sensors for example, than in motion sensors. This is because the improvements in image quality are visible and the increase in functionality tangible, whereas the quality of motion sensing is much more difficult to estimate, and so improvements are more difficult to judge. Do you agree?
SF: I do not believe this is true. Of course, there are customers who will simply say “I want to have something cheap, I don’t care. A more-or-less perfect MEMS? Great.” This is more concentrated at the lower end and we do not think this will be sustainable. However, there are other new application fields such as virtual and augmented reality where performance is extremely important and that is also reflected in the customer requirements. One other trend which is being driven by big companies is indoor navigation. Here, long-term stability and low power consumption of sensors are a priority. Wearables are another area where quality is needed for functionality. In most wearables, the accuracy of the sensor information is not great, and we want to change that with our sensor solutions. For most applications it is not just about the hardware, it’s also about cooperation with other companies who contribute special application know-how in order to jointly achieve the best solution performance. One good example here is our collaboration with our partner Firstbeat: We offer quality sensors, Firstbeat provides quality heart rate measurement and vital analytics software. Together we can provide our BHV vital sensor hub that offers a complete solution, more than just the sum of the hardware and software.

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The new BHV250 and BHV160 sensors are designed for always-on sensor enabled wearable applications such as fitness wristbands, earphones and smart textiles (Source: Bosch Sensortec)

YD: Up to now Bosch, Invensense, and ST Microelectronics were the main suppliers to mobile phone and consumer electronics manufacturers. Do you see the emergence of new competitors in that field?
SF: Not really, considering the sensors currently contained in smart phones. For new sensors there may be new players, for example on the environmental and gas sensor side. There are newcomers trying to get into these segments of the market.

YD: Is the Bosch Sensortec environmental sensor that integrates gas sensors still in the sampling phase, or is it already in the production phase?
SF: A gas sensor is a great sensor to illustrate the situation in this field compared to others. If you have an accelerometer, you give it to customers and they use it as an accelerometer. When you talk about a gas sensor, it depends on which application you are addressing. Which cross-sensitivities do you have? What do customers really want to do? It is about providing solutions, not just sensor functions. This is what we are currently doing with our major customers, putting features into their phones. The sensors are in qualification right now and we’ll see the first sensors in the market in the first quarter next year.

YD: You launched a product which integrated an MCU at the end of last year. Has it been successful?
SF: We launched several products last year, two of which were hubs with optimized microcontrollers, the BHA250 and BHI160. These products incorporate what we call a “Fuser core”, a small microcontroller optimized in size and power consumption. Yes, we are already mass producing these products for some smartphones, despite the fact that they were not developed exclusively for smartphone applications. We are also looking at wearables. In this case, although the BHI160 is slightly more expensive, the additional functionality you can achieve is really significant for those who care.
In January, we launched two more hubs, the BHV160 and the BHV250 vital hubs. Here we are working on a lot of applications right now. We are already seeing considerable interest. You will probably see it in volume at the end of this year, beginning of next year. We see big companies, big brands in the industry, interested in having great solutions and maximizing value, and we cooperate with all of them to tailor perfect solutions.

YD: Are you looking at potentially adding microspeakers to your product portfolio?
SF: We have already carried out several assessments of this area. The key question is: “Is it cost-efficient enough for what one gets out of the device, for the market to take it up?” I think that’s the real challenge for microspeakers. You need solutions for the market with good performance at acceptable prices. Even gas sensors are not really finished in the sense that they are not yet totally accepted by the market. If there are new opportunities, we look at them, but frankly speaking, microspeakers are really not the hottest product that we are looking into right now.

YD: What are the next sensors then?
SF: Environmental sensors, going more in the optical direction. We are currently investigating solutions for particle sensors. The challenge is to do this in a way that is both very smart and power efficient. Some other optical MEMS products could also be of interest to Bosch in the next two years.

YD: What can we expect from Bosch Sensortec in the next 6 months and in the next three years?
SF: Over the next 6 months, we are launching an ultra-small 9-axis sensors for smartphones and also for IoT or wearables, the BMX160. We will also be working on more environmental sensors in the next 6 months. In the next 3 years, I think we will see optical-based MEMS products from Bosch Sensortec.

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The new BMX160 is ideally suited for a wide range of applications such as smartphones, smart watches and fitness trackers (Source: Bosch Sensortec)

Sensortec Finkbeiner014Dr. Stefan Finkbeiner, CEO and General Manager of Bosch Sensortec GmbH
Stefan Finkbeiner received his Diploma in Physics from the University of Karlsruhe in 1992. He then studied at the Max-Planck-Institute in Stuttgart and received his PhD in Physics from the University of Stuttgart in 1995. Dr. Finkbeiner was appointed as CEO of Bosch Sensortec in 2012, having previously served as General Manager and CEO of Akustica Inc, a Bosch Group company which develops MEMS microphones for consumer electronics applications and is located in Pittsburgh, PA, USA. Dr. Finkbeiner joined Robert Bosch GmbH in 1995 and has been working for more than 20 years in different positions related to the research, development, manufacturing, and marketing of sensors. Senior positions at Bosch have included Director of Marketing for sensors, Director of Corporate Research in microsystems technology, and Vice President of Engineering for sensors. In 2015, he was recognized with the prestigious lifetime achievement award from MEMS & Sensors Industry Group.

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Status of the MEMS Industry 2016
Amid a commodization paradox, Chinese players taking off, sales stabilization and new applications, how can the MEMS industry regenerate value? More here.