High-end inertial MEMS are continuously challenging legacy technologies – An interview with Silicon Sensing Systems

High-performance motion sensing is useful in many industries: in the military, commercial aerospace and naval as well as industrial applications. While the overall high-end inertial systems market is estimated to be worth US$3.24 billion in 2019, Yole Développement (Yole) forecasts a 4.7% annual growth rate, to reach US$4.26 billion in 2025 (Source: High-End Inertial Sensors for Defense, Aerospace and Industrial Applications report 2020, Yole Développement)

However, among these applications, industrial promises the highest growth rate over the coming 5 years, at more than 10% CAGR. The rise of inertial systems in industrial applications during the last years has been driven by the possibility of integrating new functionality at low cost and with good performance, mostly thanks to the recent development of low to mid-cost MEMS and FOG technologies. As MEMS make their way into industrial applications and as their performance improves, it is only logical to speculate how big a threat they will pose to other traditional technologies (FOG, RLG). They have started to replace FOG-based solutions in some industrial and tactical applications, but the battle is just beginning as FOG technology will also continue improving.

To highlight the escalating importance of MEMS in the high-end inertial system market, Dimitrios Damianos, Technology & Market Analyst from Yole, interviewed Darioosh Naderi, Business Development Manager for Silicon Sensing Systems.

Dimitrios Damianos (DD): Silicon Sensing Systems is a player in the high-end inertial systems domain. Could you please recap the company’s history and give an overview of the products that you offer?

Darioosh Naderi (DN): We develop and manufacture high-precision MEMS gyroscopes, MEMS accelerometers and MEMS IMUs – to support accurate measurement, guidance, stabilization, navigation and control in marine, automotive, industrial, agricultural and aerospace applications.  The company is a joint venture between Sumitomo Precision Products of Japan and Collins Aerospace of the USA.  We are twenty years old but our heritage in gyroscope technology, through our predecessor companies, is over a century long.

We were the first to market with a high-volume silicon-MEMS gyro and we have now supplied over 40 million MEMS inertial sensors to commercial and industrial markets. Since the start of 2017 our business has grown by a massive 80% and we have also expanded our offering to include complete inertial sensing solutions.   

Courtesy of Silicon Sensing Systems, 2020

DD: In which markets/applications do you have a strong presence …

DN: Our inertial sensors are often found in applications where high performance and low drift are specified, areas such as surveying and mapping and the marine and rail sectors.  We are also present where this performance requirement is combined with strict limitations on space and weight, such as on autonomous vehicles and in advanced robotics.  Our products perform reliably in the most extreme environments and so are used in activities such as downhole drilling and on space launch vehicles and small satellites.   In applications where lower levels of precision are required, we have seen a notable increase in demand for proven devices such as our tiny PinPoint® gyro (photo included).  Used alone or in multiples, this gyro is delivering extremely reliable motion sensing for an ever-expanding list of applications. 

DD: … And what differentiates you from your competitors?

DN: Our products use our unique and patented silicon sensor design based around a vibrating silicon ring. This ring-resonator construction overcomes mount sensitivity problems and is far less shock sensitive than other vibrating structure-type gyros.

We are also differentiated by our ability to manufacture all our sensors in our own in-house foundry in Japan.  This gives us complete control of every aspect of the design and manufacture of our devices.

Courtesy of Silicon Sensing Systems, 2020

DD: Silicon Sensing is expanding its foundry in Japan. What are the motivations behind this?

DN: The expansion of our foundry is currently under way and the latest phase is expected to be completed by the end of 2020.  This has included a move to a new foundry building and the introduction of new tooling and manufacturing capabilities. There have been several motivations for this expansion:  Firstly, to support increasing demand for our sensors; Secondly, to meet rising demand for our foundry services. Wafer bonding and thin film PZT deposition are just two examples from a list of process capabilities that a growing number of customers are accessing; Finally, the move to the foundry building will increase our resistance to damage or disruption to manufacture resulting from any future earthquake activity.

DD: What are your business prospects in Asia (which markets and applications do you address already, and which others do you want to address in the future)?

DN: As an operation that is a 50/50 joint venture between US and Japanese companies, we have a strong foothold in Asia and a sound understanding of, and participation in, this market. However, we view our products as a global commodity with sensors that meet the demands of each market rather than reflecting any geographical difference. As you would expect, we have a sales team in the Asia Pacific area that is focused on supporting customers based in the region, ensuring we operate in an effective close partnership with them.   

DD: Do you see any specific threats from upcoming Asian domestic players?

DN: We regard ourselves as an Asian domestic player with in-depth involvement in the region and we are experiencing strong demand from the area.  As a matter of routine our team constantly monitors and explores evolving requirements.  We do not see a threat specifically from this region.

DD: Silicon Sensing inertial systems are present in many autonomous vehicle programs. Could you elaborate on this market? What are the requirements from customers in this domain? Price range? Performance range? Certifications? Etc.

DN: The rapidly growing autonomous vehicle market has fueled increasing demand for accurate 3-axis motion sensing, and, in particular, for high accuracy in the yaw axis since this is the one axis where gyro bias errors cannot be trimmed out by accompanying acceleration measurements. Silicon Sensing products offer effective MEMS-based solutions to meet this demand.

One key aspect of this fast-evolving market is our customers’ desire for collaborative partners rather than off-the-shelf suppliers.  With every capability in-house, we have the expertise and financial strength to work effectively as partners, creating specific, cost-effective solutions.

And as AV programs move from development to mid- and high-volume production there are the predictable pressures to reduce power consumption, size, weight, and cost, whilst retaining, or extending, performance. Our design expertise, manufacturing resources and financial strength mean we can respond swiftly and effectively as needs evolve and mature. 

Coutesy of Silicon Sensing Systems, 2020

DD: Industrial applications are in the sweet spot for low price and high-performance. What are the opportunities in this market from your side and which other applications do you think will boom in the near future?

DN: Manufacturing automation and the growing use of robotics are current, and future, areas of opportunity. We are already seeing customers use multiples of our more basic sensors, such as PinPoint®, to gain a real performance benefit at low cost.  We are also seeing growing demand in this sector for established, fully integrated solutions such as our DMU11, which is calibrated over the full temperature range and requires minimal integration cost and effort.

DD: Given that the lifecycle of industrial-grade sensors is much shorter than for space/aviation/naval applications, what is the typical lifecycle of your product? Does this necessitate a different approach to the design and market segment applications?

DN: Our experience is that the lifecycle of the product is driven by the task it performs and by the level of change, which differs across sectors. We have several products that have been on the market for several years, are ‘off the shelf’ and ultra-reliable and remain in demand in a number of markets.  And where customers need to upgrade performance, our latest devices are entirely retro fittable.

DD: Could you please describe to our readers your product (and technology) roadmap?

DN: Our target is to add more functionality and performance whilst continuing to lower product size and weight. This is a constant imperative for us.  We drive new product development using an array of building blocks that help us evolve and refine performance. We currently have completed 5th generation MEMS designs and have two more generations in the pipeline and being prototyped.

DD: Si-MEMS technology is becoming more and more competitive against legacy technologies. Do you think that in the future they could threaten FOG or even RLG technologies by reaching similar performance?

DN: The ‘future’ that you refer to is already here. We are marketing more than one product that can match FOG performance with a much smaller, lighter, more rugged and far more cost-effective device. One of these, our DMU30 (photo included), has been on the market for several years with customers already having made the decision to move from FOG to this silicon MEMS technology. This FOG-grade capability is already disrupting the inertial sensing market and we expect these devices to find a home in applications as diverse as hydrographic surveying, maritime guidance, airborne surveillance, terrain mapping, machine control, inertial navigation and GPS drop-out aiding, and in autonomous vehicle control.  This September, two FOG-grade units will sit within the autopilot on the Mayflower Autonomous Vehicle (MAS400) delivering critical navigation data throughout this repeat of the original Mayflower’s transatlantic voyage 400 years ago – with the MAS400 sailing without captain and crew. 

DD: What can we expect from Silicon Sensing in the next couple of years?

DN: This is an extremely dynamic market and we will continue to introduce enhancements to our products that will increase performance, expand functionality and reduce size and weight.  This will bring the potential for effective precision motion sensing to markets and applications where this has not been achievable historically, as well as delivering greater levels of performance, and new opportunities, to existing markets.

We will also continue to deliver expert technical support from our engineering team and to work with customers to deliver effective operational solutions.

DD: Would you like to add any other important information that has not been addressed, and that you would like to share with our readers?(DN): Independent trials have established the class leading performance of our DMU30 high performance IMU. We are proud of this track record and determined to retain this market lead. Our road map for product development and our strong, focused R&D activity will help us ensure we deliver effective solutions to new market demands as they emerge.


About the interviewee

Darioosh Naderi is the sales, marketing and business development lead for Silicon Sensing Systems Ltd (SSS). SSS is a leading provider of silicon micro electro-mechanical systems (MEMS)-based inertial sensors and systems, including gyros, inertial measurement units (IMU) and accelerometers. Mr Naderi has worked in business development and product strategy within Silicon Sensing, and within one of its parent companies, for some five years.

About the interviewer

Dimitrios Damianos - Yole Développement

Dimitrios Damianos, PhD joined Yole Développement (Yole) as a Technology and Market Analyst and is working within the Photonics, Sensing & Display division.
Dimitrios is daily working with his team to deliver valuable technology & market reports regarding the imaging industry including photonics & sensors.
After his research on theoretical and experimental quantum optics and laser light generation, Dimitrios pursued a Ph.D. in optical and electrical characterization of dielectric materials on silicon with applications in photovoltaics and image sensors, as well as SOI for microelectronics at Grenoble’s university (France).
In addition, Dimitrios holds a MSc degree in Photonics from the University of Patras (Greece). He has also authored and co-authored several scientific papers in international peer-reviewed journals.

Related report

High End Inertial 2020 - Yole Développement

High-End Inertial Sensors for Defense, Aerospace and Industrial Applications 2020

High-end inertial sensors are the backbone of systems that will enable autonomous transportation and the new space industry.

Source: http://www.siliconsensing.com, http://www.yole.fr

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