(Image courtesy of Texas Tech University).

Chip Makers Build Fortunes From RF MEMS

There is "plenty of room at the bottom" for microelectromechanical systems, but the market for the technology is growing increasingly crowded.

In 1959, the physicist Richard Feynman delivered the famous line that there would be “plenty of room at the bottom” with entire industries using microscopic machines to assemble computers or medicine atom-by-atom.

Over the next six decades, electrical engineers found plenty of room to create these microelectromechanical systems – more commonly known as MEMS – with moving parts the size of bacteria. But the market for the technology has grown increasingly crowded.

Many companies are singing the praises of MEMS microphones and energy harvesters, but the fastest-growing MEMS companies are targeting RF filters and switches, a recent industry report said. The technology is proving incredibly useful for tuning antennas and routing signals through smartphones and other devices.

The report, from technology research firm Yole Développement, estimates that the MEMS market will grow from $13 billion this year to $25 billion in 2022. The report said that smartphone makers and others willing to pay for RF MEMS filters represent a market that will grow 35% over the next five years.

Filters, which tune into specific frequency bands and block out interference in devices like smartphones, are shuffling supplier rankings. Last year, Avago earned $910 million in MEMS revenue, moving from the fourth to the second largest supplier of the devices behind automotive giant Robert Bosch, the report said.

Qorvo has more than quadrupled its RF MEMS sales in the last three years from $145 million to $585 million. The company's strategy has been to tightly integrate its switches and amplifiers inside front-ends, which also contain filters that help devices simultaneously communicate over Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and cellular bands used in 3G and 4G networks.

These RF MEMS represent only part of the market. Last year, the third largest supplier Texas Instruments earned $800 million in MEMS revenue, but the company’s most lucrative business came from selling microscopic mirrors used in optical switches, bar code readers, and displays.

The growing number of frequency bands used for communications is increasing the number of filters inside smartphone. Luckily, MEMS are fabricated using the same technology as traditional semiconductors, using older equipment to keep costs down and volumes up.

Eyeing the budgets of large smartphone makers like Apple and Samsung, several start-ups are prying into a market largely controlled by suppliers including Qorvo and Broadcom. One high watermark came when Cavendish Kinetics, an RF MEMS company, announced this year that its antenna tuners had been used in a version of the Samsung Galaxy smartphone.

Other start-ups include Menlo Micro, a General Electric spinoff that last year released a switch that it had originally developed for remote-control circuit breakers. A smaller supplier Radant MEMS invented switches that can survive 1.5 billion switching cycles, which is important because, unlike semiconductors, MEMS switches wear down over time.

But not every start-up has lasted living in the shadow of major suppliers. Last year, France’s DelfMEMs closed down after it ran out of funding.

Several wireless giants are probing start-ups for new technology. Both Qorvo and Qualcomm, which has a fledgling filter business, have contributed to Cavendish’s $68.5 million in funding over the last decade. The investments, experts say, highlight how badly companies want parts that better tune, filter, and direct radio signals.

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