Voice human-machine interaction is making noise in the MEMS industry – An interview with Infineon Technologies

The popularity of Voice Personal Assistants (VPAs) such as Siri by Apple, Alexa by Amazon, and the Google Assistant, is pushing audio technologies into new systems. Such systems are adopting VPAs as a new human-machine interface. Well-known examples include smart speakers and wireless earbuds, two markets that are booming with unsustainable growth over the last one or two years.
Thanks to the penetration of audio features in new systems the MEMS microphone, microspeaker and audio integrated circuit (IC) market will expand from $14B in 2018 to $21B in 2024, at a 6.6% Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR), according to Yole Développement’s Microphones, microspeakers, and audio solutions 2019 report. In this market, the MEMS microphone share will reach almost $2B in 2024.
In order to gain insights into these new markets and technologies, Alexis Debray and Dimitrios Damianos, MEMS market & Technology Analyst at Yole Développement, discussed them with Dr. Roland Helm, Head of Sensors at Infineon, one of the two main leaders in the MEMS microphone die industry.

Audio MEMS Ind ecosystem 2018-2024 forecast - Yole

Alexis Debray (AD): Infineon is a world leader in MEMS microphone die fabrication. Could you provide a short overview of your business as of today? What is your role? What are your responsibilities?

Roland Helm (RH): Infineon is developing and manufacturing microphone modules and bare die MEMS and application specific ICs (ASICS) for microphones.
Our products include a wide portfolio of microphones for specific high audio quality use cases as well as cost-optimized voice pick-up.
The portfolio is specially optimized for applications like smartphones, true wireless stereo (TWS) headsets, medical devices, laptops and tablets as well as voice-controlled devices.
MEMS microphones are part of a wider sensor portfolio including automotive sensors, 3D sensors like time-of-flight (TOF), radar or ultrasonic, pressure sensors, optical sensors and environment sensors.
I am Senior Director, heading the Sensor Product Line. I am responsible for the microphone, pressure sensor, optical sensor and environmental sensor consumer business.

Courtesy of Infneon Technologies

Dimitrios Damianos (DD): The MEMS microphone business is special, with its low margins and high quantities shipped annually. We are seeing a lot of differentiation coming. What is your perception on piezoelectric tech, optical microphones, etc? Have you seen any hardware and software differentiation coming? How are you differentiating yourself from the competition?

RH: We are investing heavily in development of MEMS technology. We are also executing technology innovation projects and collaborating with research organizations as well as startups. We currently see the advantages of capacitive sensing. The piezo value proposition is still not confirmed for signal-to-noise ratio (SNR), dynamic range, robustness or current consumption. Other technologies like optical may have advantages in niche applications, such as extremely loud environments.
Infineon differentiates with high-end performance and low cost. Our high-performance MEMS are the third completely newly-developed technology generation, reducing the acoustical hearable noise continuously. On the cost side we use our technology to get cost-optimized good-enough performance on a smaller die with fewer layers. On the ASIC side we differentiate with the highest acoustical performance at lowest current consumption, offering analog or digital interfaces with specific differentiating power and performance modes.
On the software and algorithm side we see and are part of fast-paced developments especially connected with artificial intelligence/machine learning. Short-term acoustic system performance is improved with software, but the better software requires even better signal input from improved hardware in the long-term.

AD: From selling traditionally microphone dies and ASICs, Infineon has started also selling complete packaged MEMS microphones. Are we seeing a change in Infineon’s business model, from a MEMS microphone manufacturer to a vertically integrated player doing manufacturing, packaging, testing and selling?

RH: To drive innovation Infineon offers the highest performance MEMS modules in addition to the existing bare die model. Infineon still retains its existing business model, offering a secure supply to its bare die customers. In addition Infineon now offers its own highest acoustic performance microphone modules.
To further drive microphone acoustic performance to its physical limits in the smallest possible packages, modules need to be developed as critical building blocks together with MEMS and ASICs. Testing of very low noise levels is becoming an increasing technical challenge. Here Infineon is driving innovation.
With the offering of Infineon’s own microphone modules we also increase the closeness to our innovation-driving customers and this way we can better collaborate to secure improved acoustic system performance, secure that codecs and algorithms match the increased microphone performance.

DD: Your dual backplate technology renders microphones ultrasensitive, achieving a 70dB SNR. You have announced that by the end of 2019 another type of microphone will be available, with dual membrane technology, reaching 75dB SNR. What markets and applications would need such a sensitive microphone? At what price could it be available?

RH: While the dual backplate technology is defining a truly different MEMS system with exceptional dynamic range, the self-noise of the MEMS due to backplate ventilation is still the main contributor. With the next sealed dual membrane (SDM) technology we are keeping the truly different approach for high dynamic range and taking out this biggest noise contributor. We are reaching 75dB(A) SNR in small analog interface modules.
All markets needing high SNR lowest hearable noise are hungry for this approach. The highest demand is from headsets, for example with active noise cancellation (ANC), laptops for conferencing, smartphones for high quality zoomed audio tracks of video recordings, as well as all high-quality audio systems.
For the high-end the cost and price is increased by adding chip area and layers. For mid-range and low-end we continue to further improve our technologies for a better cost position at the same performance.

headphones Infineon
Courtesy of Infneon Technologies

AD: Voice is changing our everyday lives as a basis for human-machine interaction. Voice Personal Assistants like Siri and Alexa are becoming the standard in smartphones and smart speakers. How do you see MEMS microphones fitting into this voice Internet-of-Things?

RH: MEMS microphones are the enabler for voice user interfaces. We see many customers adding voice or even replacing touch with voice as the main interface. Especially in acoustically harsh environments and cases with background noise, reverberation, low voice levels, and recording voice from distance MEMS microphones are defining the user experience.

DD: Do you see other emerging markets and applications?

RH: We see many new fields which could become the next high-volume consumer applications enabled by MEMS technology, but nothing specific. It starts with professional music recording, goes to user audio experience in artificial reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR), matching the video experience, and ends at devices like smart glasses. Also we see many emerging use cases in medical, automotive, manufacturing and automotive. As an example a self-driving car will also need to listen to its environment to hear ambulances, for example.

AD: What is Infineon’s microphone roadmap? Does it include other technologies, ASICs, edge computing, pre-processing, or algorithm development?

RH: We continue to improve our broad portfolio from best audio performance to most cost-efficient sound transducers with analog and digital interfaces with even lower current consumption. We will make sure that our sensors are not only designed for artificial intelligence, machine learning and edge computing, but also have the part of the audio processing integrated that is needed in smart low-power edge computing sensor systems. We also will extend our business in neighboring areas like ultrasonic applications. We will also drive other sensors with acoustic sensing, such as photo-acoustic environment sensing.

PMM voice control Infineon
Courtesy of Infneon Technologies

DD: Would you like to add something for our readers that you deem important and was not addressed?

RH: The microphone business is exciting one, where we can drive features and user experience with the number of microphones, and their performance. The call to the industry is to drive further improved audio processing in hardware and software. This also includes adding sensor fusion and including information from other sources, extending and improving the audio system by knowing the context, like whether it’s outdoors, following sound sources, like a person speaking, but also detecting events like window glass breaking.


Dr Roland Helm Infineon

Dr. Roland Helm joined Infineon in 2003 after working in a technology start-up and in a business consultancy. Since 2006 he has been responsible for the consumer MEMS business. He has been growing the MEMS microphone business from technical feasibility to significant market share by focusing on customer requirements, partnerships, leading performance MEMS and ASIC designs as well as high volume manufacturing and delivery capability. Now he is extending the microphone business to a consumer sensor MEMS business with pressure, optical and environment sensing. He is passionate to match new technology to the needs of modern society.
Roland has a Ph. D. from Technical University of Munich where he majored in physics.


Alexis Debray - Yole Développement

Alexis Debray, PhD is a Technology & Market Analyst, Optoelectronics at Yole Développement (Yole). As a member of the Photonics, Sensing & Display division, Alexis is today engaged in the development of technology & market reports as well as the production of custom consulting projects dedicated to the imaging industry.
After spending 2 years at the University of Tokyo to develop expertise focused on MEMS technologies, Alexis served as a research engineer at Canon Inc. Over 15 years he contributed to numerous projects of development, focused on MEMS devices, lingual prehension, and terahertz imaging devices.
Alexis is the author of various scientific publications and patents. He graduated from ENSICAEN and holds a PhD in applied acoustics.

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 works with his team every day to deliver valuable technology & market reports covering 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 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 reports

Microphone, Microspeaker and Audio Solution Market and Technology Trends 2019

Microphones, Microspeakers and Audio Solutions Market and Technology Trends 2019
The voice-based world is shaking up the audio industry, making it worth $20.8B in 2024.

Source: https://www.infineon.com/, http://www.yole.fr/

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