Gas sensors are potentially the fastest growing market segment in consumer applications, including in mobile phones. All the major mobile phone makers are working on environmental sensors in order to bring new functions to their customers. These sensors are looking at air quality, breath analysis, and food quality. And there is also strong interest in automotive applications, for air cabin monitoring, for example. Yole Développement’s ‘Gas Sensor Technology and Market’ report estimates market expansion from $560M in 2014 to almost $920M in 2021, at a 7.3% compound annual growth rate.
That growth will be driven by Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC) and future consumer applications. The market could be worth an extra $65M in 2021 if gas sensors are adopted in mobile phone products. An interesting point to zoom in on is that the major IP owners like Bosch, Siemens, and NGK, are different to the market leaders, such as Honeywell and MSA. This situation will lead to big things happening – for more details, see the KnowMade report, ‘Miniaturized Gas Sensor Patent Landscape’. In order to catch up with the latest market trends, we have interviewed Paul Wilson, Senior Marketing Manager, ams Sensors UK. Read on to find out about ams’ latest initiatives and new activities in gas sensors.
Yole Développement: Could you briefly introduce ams and its history?
Paul Wilson: I’ve only been at ams since June as part of the Cambridge CMOS Sensors acquisition, but ams has got a long legacy in developing analogue ASICs for multiple customers, it has foundries and over the last few years it’s been very much focussed on developing sensor solutions. There are different business lines within ams, like light sensors and colour sensors that go into smartphones, positional sensors, magnetic sensors. They also have power management and many other technologies. Two years ago they acquired Applied Sensors, they also acquired the environmental sensor group from NXP, then more recently they acquired us, so Cambridge CMOS Sensors fits inside that environmental sensor business line. Actually, the CEO of Cambridge CMOS Sensors is the business lead, the VP, if you like, of the environmental sensors business line. Within that business line we have gas sensors, relative humidity and temperature sensors and we are developing pressure sensors.
YD: ams entered the field of gas sensors in 2013 with the acquisition of Applied Sensors, and has consolidated that by buying CCS. What was the motivation behind this?
PW: ams' roots are in ASIC design and, we still have a strong position there and in supplying foundry services, but now ams is very focused on developing standard products, specifically sensors. Within the environmental sensor business line, with Applied Sensors and Cambridge CMOS Sensors, we are the leading supplier of gas sensors worldwide. Applied Sensors has a very strong background in automotive and industrial air cleaning applications. Some of their products, like iAQ-core, are seen as the benchmark. With the acquisition of Cambridge CMOS Sensors we can look easily at the best of both worlds. We’ve got this micro hotplate technology and really small sensors that combine with some of the know-how from the Applied Sensors team. We can start to apply that to consumer applications like smart homes, wearables and smartphones, where we can start to drive a bit more volume, because it’s smaller, lower cost solutions.
YD: Which synergies will add value from the CCS acquisition for ams?
PW: There’s a lot of synergy there because what we’ve done is almost double our engineering team. That was very important, because we’ve got a lot of projects ongoing with some pretty big customers. Just combining that know-how in developing metal oxide materials, and process flows, and the whole supply chain, all the key IP for building a gas, relative humidity, pressure or temperature sensor, in-house means we don’t have to rely on any third party suppliers for anything. And we combine that with other sensors from ams. For example, if you want to put a gas sensor into a mobile handset, if you could have sensors that monitor positioning, or monitor light, then you could detect when somebody’s outdoors and switch the sensor off so that it’s not monitoring. Then you can switch it back on when it’s detecting ambient light indoors. It’s combining these different types of sensors to provide a more compelling solution to the customer.
YD: Where is the current market traction for gas sensors in consumer applications? Is it in those areas you mentioned, smartphones, wearables, smart homes?
PW: We have traction in all those areas, but at the moment, it’s predominantly smart home applications. The main reason for that is that this type of technology, indoor air quality or gas sensing technology, has already been adopted – a lot of that was driven by Applied Sensors. With the acquisition of Cambridge CMOS Sensors, we’re talking to the same customers and we’re continuing to use Applied Sensors devices but we’re now adopting CCS products on higher volume projects where cost and size is quite important. In the smart home area that’s things like thermostats, IP cameras, portable air cleaners, and a whole raft of applications. In the wearables space, we’ve got a couple of design-ins. One that’s in the public domain is the Hicling wristband that has CCS801 and CCS803 gas sensors. And we are getting quite a bit of traction with our CCS811 digital gas sensor in that space as well, for indoor air quality, plus ENS210 our new relative humidity and temperature sensor. In smartphones, we’re engaged with every single smartphone provider and one or two customers are very determined to put gas sensing technology in phones as soon as we can realise the use case that they’re working towards. However, others like the use case but don’t think it’s compelling enough yet, so they want to develop the ecosystem. They’re developing smart home products instead as a starting point. I’ll give you a classic example. The Lenovo/Motorola Z has got an accessory connector in the back of the phone. So Lenovo could develop accessories for indoor air quality that attach magnetically to the back of the phone. You also have companies like Huawei doing smart home accessories that connect directly to the phone. So there are some smartphone companies taking that leap of faith to put the technology straight into the phone. Others are keener to develop an ecosystem first, understand that, and if it adds value, add it to the phone later.
YD: Do you plan to apply to combine gas sensors with other type of sensors, like humidity, or pressure, or optical sensors? Does your technical roadmap include combo sensors?
PW: Long-term, yes. It won’t happen in the next 12 months. We’re not going down the path that other competitors have done. Not this year anyway. The main reason for that is that we have got all these different technologies within ams. We’re developing them, starting to bring out discrete solutions, develop the use cases, and then look to potentially developing combo chips if it makes commercial and technical sense. The reason I say that is, for example, that having a hotplate for a gas sensor combined with a relative humidity and temperature sensor could have a major impact on the temperature reading. There are some technical challenges there to get that right solution. Our take right now is to make sure that we have the technology blocks in place to do those combos, as well as the process knowledge within ams, while in parallel we will develop use cases with these customers. Every mobile customer that you speak to, ideally they want the world’s smallest multiple sensors combined into the same chip, but at the end of the day if it doesn’t work, if it doesn’t give them what they want, then they can’t use it. So they are looking at discretes as well, so we are getting a lot of tracking with CCS811 or ENS210 for volatile organic compounds plus relative humidity and temperature. Longer-term those customers will expect us to put it into a single package, or a single combo device. So a combo chip is on the roadmap, but it’s not something that we will be bringing out soon..
YD: What can we wish you for 2016 and 2017?
PW: We’ll be very much focused on growing the business and adoption of gas sensors, starting with the lowest barrier to entry, which is smart homes. We are really starting to infiltrate wearable and smartphone applications. So the wish list for me would be to be able to convert one of those big tier ones into mass production, possibly second half of next year, and that’s what we’re working towards. That would be the wish list. The most important thing for me though is to make sure the use case is compelling enough that it doesn’t just get designed in and get designed straight back out. It needs to be compelling. So for us it’s developing that use case and make sure it sticks, and then the first big design win, and the following one, and the one after that. Then we’ll have to reduce costs and enhance the use case with combo chips. It’s not just gas, pressure, relative humidity and temperature, it could be light sensors, or microphones. We have a slightly different approach to our competitiors , not just looking at pressure and relative humidity; we’re looking at what other sensors can be combined.
YD: When do you think we will see ams’ gas sensors in a mobile phone?
PW: We’d be looking at volume production in the second half of next year, but you probably wouldn’t see it in the market until January or March 2018, it wouldn’t be launched until then. That’s the target and what we’re working towards with one or two customers. Again, for the mobile guys, you have to make sure that the use case is compelling, otherwise it’s a difficult sell. It needs to be compelling enough for an end user to use it on a daily basis. Measurements needs to be repeatable, reasonably accurate, and the device’s power consumption must be low. These are the areas that we’re focussing on, not just with gas but environmental sensors in general.
Paul Wilson – Senior Marketing Manager, ams Sensors UK
Paul Wilson, joined Cambridge CMOS Sensors December 2013 which was acquired by ams June 2016 and has over 20 years' international experience in marketing, product management, applications and development gained at Cambridge Silicon Radio, Wolfson Microelectronics, Freescale Semiconductor and Philips. Paul is a senior marketing manager in the environmental sensors business line at ams responsible for gas, relative humidity, temperature and pressure sensors designed for automotive and consumer applications.
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