Timing is an essential part of all electronics developments, with uses ranging from the simplest digital instruments to very complicated systems for advanced computational applications. The constant growth of electronics content across all industries and the stringent specifications asked from component suppliers for new electronics devices embedded in cars, medical devices, and even consumer electronics puts intense pressure on innovation in the timing field. Companies must design ever more integrated, ever more robust, ever more efficient solutions to address these new needs adequately.
Antoine Bonnabel (AB): Please introduce yourself and Micro Crystal?
Hans-Rudlf Gottier (HRG): I am Hans-Rudolf Gottier, the General Manager of Micro Crystal, the largest European producer of 32kHz quartz products. Micro Crystal, a company in the Swatch Group Inc. Switzerland, the world’s largest watchmaker, was founded in 1978 in Grenchen, Switzerland, in order to produce tuning fork crystals for watches. Today, Micro Crystal is a leading manufacturer of miniature quartz crystals (30 kHz to 250 MHz), Real-Time Clock (RTC) modules, oscillators, VCXOs, and OCXOs for the world’s leading manufacturers of IoT, wearable, automotive, industrial, and medical applications. The company has more than 300 employees spread between the main site in Switzerland, a production site in Bangkok, and a global sales network.
AB: Can you describe your product line and your main differentiator in the timing field?
HRG: The range of crystal products extends from watchmaking products with through-hole technology metal can to fully encapsulated resonators in an SMD miniature helium-impermeable ceramic package for the implantable medical market. Micro Crystal offers oscillators and RTC modules in various sizes and types. Our portfolio features the smallest, most accurate, and lowest power RTC modules with embedded 32 kHz crystal and temperature compensation on the market. The VCXO and OCXO product lines are dedicated to niche applications with stringent requirements for frequency stability, shock and vibration resistance.
We have successfully applied the excellence and the long experience acquired in the watchmaking field in terms of quality, miniaturization, low power consumption, high accuracy, and mass production to other fields. Our products have proven track records in thousands of applications worldwide.
We regularly set new global standards for the dimensions and performance of our products. For instance, the tiny geometry of our packages enhances the circuitry in applications where bending radii are critical, such as in smart cards or e-textiles. This allows access to a very wide range of applications and offers innovative alternatives to system developers.
Our technical support offers drivers and specific user interfaces that accelerate the development and marketing of new products by our customers. We support our customers holistically through a global sales network and technical support from design to production.
AB: The timing industry is a large established field. Does your company focus on providing better performance to current established applications, or are you looking at the new demands coming from emerging applications?
HRG : Essentially, Micro Crystal supplies outperforming components to a large number of customers in a wide variety of market sectors. This is particularly true for telecommunications, where high performance and very small dimensions are required, and also for the automotive sector, where reliability and cost constraints are very demanding.
Expansion of our medical-grade product range gives us access to the market of Class III electromedical and active implantable devices (AIMD), such as pacemakers and neurological stimulators. Thanks to the manufacturing processes and technology we have developed, our products can meet the highest quality standards and are reliable in the long term.
Another area where our products feature prominently is that of “Wearables”. An example is in consumer products such as fitness wristbands, where we have been able to demonstrate for years our ability to mass-produce while guaranteeing competitive prices on the world market. Other successful applications are in “Healthcare” for glucometers and insulin pumps or security with fixed or body-worn cameras.
AB: What are the emerging new markets you look at?
HRG: IoT wearables for healthcare applications is typically showing strong growth. We can see the development of many smart sensor-based IoT systems.
For healthcare applications, the sensors on the wearables provide information at predetermined intervals to the cloud platform to analyze and look for abnormal events (e.g., higher blood pressure, low oxygen saturation, low/high heart rate, high glucose, etc.) that can trigger medical attention. They also provide feedback on whether a specific medication is effective, if sleep quality is linked to bad vitals or even signs of infectious diseases in a region.
Tracking activities by collecting and processing data at scale makes actual applications and predictions possible; those can help not only medical experts but also individual users, as well as large populations, insurance companies, and third parties involved in the complex healthcare system. This is a vast market with strong growth expected in the coming years
All new IoT products need ever-smaller miniaturized components that perform better, and this is where our greatest strength lies.
The smart metering market is also dynamic. The ecosystem requires reliable time measurement for all billing operations. High accuracy and low power consumption allow a reduction of maintenance cost, which is a massive advantage.
AB: What are the main obstacles today faced by these new emerging markets?
HRG: Small wearables — smartwatches, rings, and patches, for example — have to be accessed in low-power mode and the battery has to last for a few years. Therefore, power consumption and dimensions are key factors in the requirement list of timing components for such devices. A reliable small-sized crystal to clock the MCU is also a must. The obstacles may be linked to the limitation of the battery life, and energy harvesting solutions may need to be improved and implemented.
In the healthcare IoT market, there is also a clear need to have regulations in place to exploit the full potential of large-scale data coming from the connected world. This standardization will take time and might slow down the adoption.
AB: How does Micro Crystal manage to address these obstacles?
HRG: By ensuring extended battery life in extremely small packages, our products offer competitive advantages that appeal to our most demanding customers.
When using a real-time clock module, a drastic battery lifetime extension is achievable. It is possible to place a main system MCU in a deep-sleep mode, thus significantly lowering power consumption while maintaining an accurate timekeeping function combined with tampering detection and temperature alarms, for instance. At predetermined intervals, the system can be woken up, perform a measurement and send data to the cloud platform. The addition of special features linked to power management like the trickle charger or the charge pump is also well appreciated as they offer alternatives for backup sources while not adding extra components, thus not impacting the footprint budget.
Of course, our crystals and oscillators are also designed to operate at the lowest possible drive or power consumption level.
The assurance of an extended product life cycle for our portfolio also reassures our customers of the durability of their designs. This is particularly important in the automotive and medical fields where design validation is time-consuming and costly.
AB: What is the main technological innovation brought by Micro Crystal for advanced timing solutions?
HRG : Manufacturers need to make devices small, efficient, and convenient for the user. As an answer to the market demand, technological development is heading in the direction of ever-smaller quartz crystals. This requires an innovative design of blanks where virtual digital simulation tools are heavily used and provide great help while reinforcing our design expertise. At certain production stages, it also necessitates the use of new manufacturing technology.
After initiating mass production of the smallest quartz crystal ever manufactured, Micro Crystal launched an even smaller and slimmer one in recent years. We keep going with our technology roadmap with the next launch of our 32.628 kHz crystal in a 1.2 x 1 mm package.
By being part of the Swatch Group, we benefit from the synergy and the know-how of our sister companies, such as EM Microelectronic-Marin, which designs and supplies us with very high-performance integrated circuits for our Real-Time Clock (RTC) products. This allows us to offer best-in-class RTC modules in terms of power consumption, time accuracy, and size. The new temperature-compensated RTC module “RV-3032-C7” is generating strong interest in the market. The combination of nano-power operation with guaranteed accuracy over the industrial temperature range in a miniature package helps to solve the extreme design challenges of timekeeping, battery lifetime, and footprint requirements of nowadays-smart devices.
AB: What do you think of emerging timing technologies such as MEMS timing which is currently gaining momentum?
HRG: It turns out that the market entry of products based on MEMS resonators has hardly led to increased competition for quartz products, also due to the performance and quality of our new developments.
The typical claim about MEMS resonators offering a 4 to 1 improvement in the meantime-between-failure (MTBF) rate compared to quartz-based solutions could be seen as a serious threat. However, a designer that looks more in detail at this aspect rapidly realizes that the 30,000 years achieved by quartz devices are more than acceptable and that the long-term reliability of the part is guaranteed.
AB: How do you expect the timing market to evolve in the next 5 years?
HRG: As crystals and oscillators are present in just about every type of electronics device we use, it can be surmised that the growth of the timing market will organically follow the global electronics industry. The growth of IoT hardware, like the smart sensor nodes and connected devices, will be a major driver.
The various manufacturers are, however, currently suffering severely from the chip shortage, and many sectors from automotive, consumer electronics, medical devices to technology and networking equipment are impacted. Spending on crystals and oscillators is expected to rebound significantly over the near-term future.
As they take a long look at their supply chain strategies, companies will most likely choose suppliers that can guarantee supply.
Within the Swatch Group Electronic Systemsdivision, we benefit from the presence of EM Microelectronic-Marin, one of the few European manufacturers of ultra-low-power chips. The Swatch Group will invest heavily in expanding production capacity in Marin over the next few years. This will allow us to continue to have a guaranteed supply of high volumes of high-performance chips for our RTCs while developing new innovative products.
Hans-Rudolf Gottier is Micro Crystal’s CEO. He has managed and developed the company since 1990, after having been in charge of quartz manufacturing since 1980. Hans-Rudolf has an Electrical Engineering Degree. He has been a member of the Extended Management Board of Swatch Group since 2013 where he is also responsible for Renata (battery manufacturer), another entity of Swatch Group Electronic Systems.
Antoine Bonnabel works as a Technology & Market Analyst for the Power & Wireless team of Yole Développement (Yole). He carries out technical, marketing and strategic analyses focused on RF devices, related technologies and markets.
Prior to Yole, Antoine was R&D Program Manager for DelfMEMS (FR), a company specializing in RF switches and supervised Intellectual Property and Business Intelligence activities of this company. In addition, he also has co-authored several market reports and is co-inventor of three patents in RF MEMS design. Antoine holds a M.Sc. in Microelectronics from Grenoble Institute of Technologies (France) and a M.Sc. in Management from Grenoble Graduate School of Business (France).
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