How MEMS actuators power emerging applications
Microelectromechanical system (MEMS) actuators transform electronic signals into something that can be sensed or touched by the end user and create an immersive environment.
Microelectromechanical system (MEMS) actuators transform electronic signals into something that can be sensed or touched by the end user of an electronics device. A case in point: MEMS actuators such as print heads in inkjet printers transform electronic files into text or beautiful images. In 3D printers, actuators can produce real objects. Inside smart glasses, tiny MEMS mirrors can create virtual objects. It’s no surprise integrating these powerful devices into the end products is a multidisciplinary enterprise.
SEMI spoke with Anton Hofmeister, group vice president and general manager of the MEMS Actuator Division at STMicroelectronics, about MEMS actuator trends. Hofmeister shared his views at the SEMI MEMS & Imaging Sensors Forum as part of the virtual SEMI Technology Unites Global Summit.
Q: What is the difference between MEMS devices that sense and MEMS devices that actuate?
Hofmeister: MEMS sensors gather data from the world around us including motion, pressure and air temperature and transform them into an electrical signal. Actuators work the other way round. They receive an electrical signal and transform it into some well-controlled actuation such as ejecting a fluid, moving a membrane or deflecting a laser beam.
Q: How can MEMS actuators’ integration be simplified to be embedded in new applications so they appeal to consumers?
Hofmeister: The challenge of integrating MEMS sensors into devices has been simplified by demo kits and evaluation boards, which customers use to embed the sensor into a system. MEMS actuators are more difficult to integrate. They often power the core function of a system and therefore require deep system understanding. Reference designs are a big step forward in simplifying integration. MEMS micro-mirror projection for augmented reality (AR) glasses is an example of a complex system that requires multiple types of components to function. Together with several partners, STMicroelectronics recently announced the LaSAR Alliance, which will develop reference designs to enable the AR glasses market.
Q: MEMS sensors and actuators are considered the backbone of many consumer products. Are MEMS actuators also mostly used in automotive?
Hofmeister: The widest use of MEMS actuators has so far been in print heads for inkjet printers. In recent years, we have seen actuators adopted in emerging applications ranging from piezo heads for 3D printers to MEMS mirrors for laser beam scanning systems or 3D sensing solutions for consumer applications. The first high-volume application in automotive will likely be MEMS mirrors for LIDAR systems.
Q: What market growth trends do you see for MEMS sensors and actuators?
Hofmeister: The sensorization trend, which aims to collect data from homes, cities, factories, cars and personal devices, continues to drive the adoption of sensors and actuators for a wide variety of applications. While the last wave of MEMS growth was triggered by one end product – the smartphone – the next wave will be driven by multiple applications and use cases in industrial, medical, automotive and personal electronics.
Q: How can technology unite us?
Hofmeister: In recent months, we have all experienced vividly how vital technology has become. MEMS, and semiconductors in general, are an integral part of many products and services that make our lives easier. Communications technologies have been particularly important during this pandemic, whether using the personal devices as our interface to the digital world or the complex infrastructure that they operate through. I hope that my participation at the summit helped increase awareness of the new possibilities and opportunities that technologies like MEMS actuators have to offer to create products and services that further improve people’s lives.