Microscopic yet indispensable to modern-day transportation and communication, microelectromechanical systems, or MEMS for short, are sure to figure prominently in our future. Their success story began in the mid-1990s with a revolutionary Bosch invention.
Synthetic sensory organs
When an airbag opens precisely and quickly, a skidding car recovers stability and traction, or a tilted smartphone screen rotates, it is a microelectromechanical system, or MEMS sensor, pulling the strings.
The internal silicon structures of these sensors, often just a fraction of a human hair across, can convert microscopic motions into electrical signals, process this information, and transmit it. In a manner of speaking, they are the sensory organs of the technical world.
As early as the 1970s, small instruments had been installed in devices and machines that could, for example, gage pressure or measure acceleration rates. But it was not until the mid-1990s, when Bosch achieved an engineering breakthrough, that MEMS sensor technology triumphed. Deep reactive-ion etching (DRIE) created comb-like structures with steep-sided walls. It also enabled engineers to downsize sensors to cut costs and scale up precision. Bosch licensed the process to competitors, but the invention was so inextricably linked with its inventor that DRIE became better known as the Bosch process.
What’s so special about the Bosch process?
As the new millennium approached, Bosch laid the foundation for market leadership among MEMS producers. In 1998, the company unveiled its first silicon MEMS yaw-rate sensor for use in the ESP® electronic stability program. Installed as a standard feature, this driver assistance system would become practically ubiquitous. Studies suggest that such systems save more than 10,000 lives a year, with much of the credit going to MEMS sensors.
ESP® applications initially tipped the scales of Bosch’s MEMS manufacturing brief toward solutions for the automotive industry. Keen to advance the state of the art, the company’s engineers sought to improve sensors’ ability to work at engine compartment temperatures ranging from 40 below zero to 135 degrees Celsius, while holding up to mechanical stress and electrical interference.
5 Bosch MEMS sensors
feature on average in every new car.
Boldness pays off
Bosch was quick to spot the growing potential of MEMS sensors for other applications — particularly for consumer products. In 2005, it launched a startup, Bosch Sensortec GmbH, to develop this line of business. This was a bold move, as the market for entertainment devices has a voracious appetite for new products. To win the race to market leadership, the company was compelled to step up its pace to satisfy this demand and go all-out in its efforts to reduce size, weight, power consumption, and cost. That boldness paid off. Bosch now manufactures more than four million MEMS sensors a day.
A positive influence
Consumer electronics now account for the biggest slice of the MEMS pie — 70 percent of the MEMS sensors made by Bosch. Sensors once found exclusively in upscale products now feature in simple pedometers used by recreational joggers.
Bosch’s efforts to adapt its research and development to consumer electronics in turn had a positive impact on the company’s automotive innovations. For example, a state-of-the-art ESP® yaw-rate sensor is so sensitive that it can detect the rotational speed of an analog clock’s hour hand, a movement that is all but imperceptible.
Milestones in the history of MEMS
This story illustrates Bosch’s ability to defend its lead in the fiercely competitive market for MEMS sensors, through innovation in both products and manufacturing processes. Bosch is now one of the few manufacturers worldwide to cover the entire value chain. The company is responsible for the development of MEMS processes, sensor design, evaluation circuits, the packaging, and test procedures. It also manufactures and sells the products. By optimizing the entire chain, Bosch was able to miniaturize sensors and achieve outstanding quality, leading to further groundbreaking innovation.
Five surface micromechanical processes developed by Bosch provide the technology that underpins MEMS production. One is the milestone APSM (advanced porous silicon membrane) for pressure sensors. This process creates a precisely defined cavity with a vacuum under a monocrystalline silicon membrane — a prerequisite for pressure sensors that are ultra-precise yet small and cost-effective.
How do MEMS sensors work?
Energy efficiency and data security
The story of MEMS innovations is far from over. A third wave of development opportunities followed in the wake of the initial groundswells of growth in automotive and consumer electronics sensors. The emergent internet of things (IoT) began to drive demand for connected sensors. Some of these sensors can actually process data, thereby reducing the data traffic in all system architectures.
And if they are battery-operated, they can also cut down transmission time and power consumption. Better energy efficiency and lighter data transmission loads are not the only benefits. These developments also enhance data security, one of the greatest challenges of our time.
If present forecasts are correct, it will take hundreds of billions of MEMS devices to meet future demand. The IoT itself is giving rise to an immense market. And for automated driving, cars will need MEMS sensors for self-localization based solely on acceleration and yaw-rate data without surround sensors or GPS.
Since redundant systems are a prerequisite for safe automated driving, MEMS sensors are again the key components enabling this form of mobility. The same applies to drones, another fast-growing market. And in the future, autonomous flying taxis are not going to take to the skies without the guidance of MEMS sensors.
The world of MEMS sensors
Artificial intelligence (AI) is also making inroads into these tiny sensors. Bosch MEMS sensors are now learning to interpret human gestures. This sets the stage for further advances in device utility. For example, smartphones could learn to respond to new gestures made by people with disabilities.
And pedometers could learn to adapt to the individual’s gait. MEMS sensors and machine learning – this pairing promises to be the next chapter in an ongoing success story. In marked contrast to their diminutive stature, the reach and impact of Bosch’s minuscule marvels is sure to grow.