Sensor and Semiconductor Together Makes Sense – Verdicts of Alpha Geeks!

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Couldn’t more elucidate in saying that “What we feel is what we believe.” Interestingly, this is how technology has today changed the perceptions combining the physiological ‘Sense’ and technological ‘Sensor’ capabilities to define a Smart World. In few years, everything what we wear, think or even project is done through “Smart Things”. To that, we can keep the few words for the ‘Sensor Technology’.

The application of sensor technology has been found in almost every aspect of our daily lives, including safety, security, monitoring, awareness and surveillance products. As a technology that can be utilized in both micro- and nano-settings, sensor technology systems have found immense potential in various applications.

Today, the rational views revolving around sensors have well-justified that integration, precision, interactive, internet, data are all the stepping stones to the future and present of this potential technology. Presently, India not only flaunts its snowballing economic power but also influences worldwide through its growing ‘Digital Landscapes’.

The semiconductor industry is today logging growth with the proliferation of connected and IoT market. In BIS Infotech’s biggest survey, tech stalwarts have extended futuristic dialogue and also phrased every aspect on the given subject of sensors.  Here is what we collected after diving into the world of sensors.

Asking Raymond Yin- Director, Technical Content, Marketing, Mouser Electronics on the potential of sensors to shape the future of technology, said, sensors are critical to the Industrial Internet of Things (aka Industry 4.0).  They provide the interface between the physical world and the digital world of big data and therefore are the front line of how we gather information about the world around us.  The accuracy and repeatability of our sensor measurements will dictate how well we characterize our equipment and environment in creating the data that is passed to the gateways or the cloud for analysis.  Sensors are constantly evolving to meet the new requirements of Industry 4.0.  New manufacturing techniques such as MEMS, integration of multiple sensors, and even new sensor types are providing new innovative ways to perceive our environment.

Randall Restle, VP, Applications Engineering at Digi-Key Electronics, noted, The invention of the microprocessor brought a revolution in design as things analog and hardware-based were busily converted to digital and software-based wherever this could be done.  Then, there was the invention of the smartphone which made a display and wireless connectivity ubiquitous.  The only missing piece, and the one that represented significant design effort was the interface between the analog world and a host controller.  Thanks to PCs and smartphones, wireless connectivity is simple.  All of these past developments now put the focus on the sensor.  It is sensors that are driving new products and they will improve everyone’s standard of living.

Whereas, Sanjay Jain, Analog Applications Manager | MGTS, Texas Instruments India SC Sales & Marketing, noted, further elaborating on the future potential of sensors, said, From Driverless Tech in Automotive to Health Monitoring Needs in Medical to Factory Automation in Industrial needs to adding more features in Smart Phones and Fitness Wearables, every piece of technology is touched by Sensory Vision to make each of the existing technologies Smarter, safer, error-free and demanding minimal human intervention. It is due to Smart Sensors and their better integration and reliability that a lot of technologies which were limited by these implementation challenges have started to  revolutionize the way a lot of technologies are taking shape. In recent years, upcoming need for connected gadgets is driving up the IoT trend and hence the need for Smart Sensors.

Sanket B, Director, Sales & Applications – India, ASEAN countries, Australia & New Zealand, Maxim Integrated, elaborated, from the time we wake up to the time we sleep, sensors touch every part of our world. In the manufacturing environment, all products made require an array of sensors working in unison to help machines detect an object (or liquid), and then figure out its distance, colors, and composition. It also monitors its temperature and pressure. The more advanced systems now employ video processing algorithms, multiple cameras, and sensors to provide even more accurate event detection and driver alerts to enhance the safety of an automobile. These trends offer a wide array of sensors and sensor interfaces that significantly enhance the performance of industrial and automotive systems, as well as wearables and IoT applications.

With the evolution of the Internet of Things (IoT), sensors continue to influence people’s lives in many different ways whether it is wearables, implantables, smartfabrics or smartpills, improvements in micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS) technology and sensors have been one of the driving factors.  In turn, the demands of the IoT market have had a great influence on the development of sensor technology.  With more sensors now having digital interfaces, designing them is easier than ever, allowing for newer applications to be devised. Moreover, the declining costs and advancements in sensor technology make it accessible, widely used and an integral part of the 2020’s digital ecosystem.

Ravi Pagar, Regional Director – South Asia and Asean at element14, added, sensors will continue to have a huge role to play in its development across a whole spectrum of electronics applications, shaping the way businesses, consumers and governments interact in the physical world across various sectors, such as manufacturing, the connected home, transportation, utilities and agriculture as well as the smart home and industrial Internet of Things. Newer sensor technology has now integrated vital components of a smartsensor on a chip. It offers a controlled specification set across the operation range of a sensor. The underlying idea here is to integrate sensor technology at the silicon level itself. This is believed to improve power consumption while simplifying product development.

The evolution of sensors has also managed to rev up dynamic technological advancement in a holistic way, inspiring through creative use cases and enormous reduction in costs.

Randall Restle, purviews, the market is too broad to predict winning sensor technologies but MEMS probably leads.  Every smartphone includes accelerometers that are MEMS-based. Still, there are other technologies that are growing quickly.  It is surprising how many large original equipment manufacturing (OEM) companies, those who are fully able to design their own circuit boards, are using modules.  System-in-package (SiP) devices are available too.  The beauty of each of these packaging technologies is that they can contain multiple technologies without compromising each other.  As SiP manufacturer Octavo explains, power, clk frequency, transistor density, and voltage are normally tradeoffs in monolithic, integrated solutions but they are not tradeoffs in SiP and module-based devices.  The best chip dies can be combined to make never-before-available devices.  It may be the key sensor technology is actually a mechanical one: MEMS or form factors or both.

Sanket B emphasizes, at the heart of the sensors revolution is an exciting new technology called IO-Link, an industry-wide intelligent sensor bus which enables traditional sensors and actuators to become smarter. IO-Link is this magical technology that enables sensors to become interchangeable via a common physical interface that uses software in the form of a protocol stack and IO Device Description (IODD) file to allow a configurable sensor port. An IO-Link port now becomes the ultimate Universal IO that can morph into any type of sensor. IO-Link is a powerful technology that will play a pivotal role in factory, process, and building automation as well as other industries over time. It will save manufacturing companies billions of dollars per year while opening up new markets that allow more customization of products. It will continue to be one of the catalyst technologies that will unleash the true power of Industry 4.0 and Industrial IoT, and change the way we think of manufacturing.

Raymond Yin cites sensor usage in Industry 4.0 runs the gamut of types from environmental to positional to motion.  Recent innovations in sensor technology include the integration of sensors into a single unit.  This can include multiple sensor types such as temperature + pressure + humidity in a single semiconductor IC that reduces the overall footprint of the sensor node or several of a single type such as three accelerometers into a single IMU.  In addition, sensor fusion software and algorithms are becoming prevalent to make better sense of the picture these multiple sensors are painting for us. As far as new sensor types, the Time of Flight sensors for more accurate distance measurement and the mmwave sensors used in autonomous vehicles come immediately to mind.

Ravi Pagar, mentioned, the most popular sensors available are Pressure Sensors, Temperature Sensors, Image Sensors , Motion Sensors , Fingerprint Sensors , Level Sensors , Gas Sensors , Magnetic Field Sensors , Position Sensors , Light Sensors etc. Smart sensors primarily intelligent sensors embedded within instrumentation devices and have various applications like Gas, chemo, Biological, optical, mechanical and acoustic sensors, energy harvesting sensors continues to be huge focus areas. The demands of the growing wearables market, including the mounting benefits of wearable devices in the healthcare sector, is driving the increasing advancement of sensor technology  toward smaller, smarter, and cheaper sensors. Sensors for medical applications are another hot area: sensors that measure heart rate and blood pressure can now be woven into garments or hidden in your earbuds. Blood gas sensing can also be woven in, or done using breath sensors. Blood sugar tracking for people living with diabetes was a popular theme for devices this year.

Sensor Technology

Sanjay Jain, said, most of the Sensor Technology innovation is moving in the direction of offering the right amount of miniaturization and integration of Sensing element, signal processing and connectivity interface, thereby making it a Smart Sensor. By this kind of integration, a whole lot of performance parameters are guaranteed for that particular sensing element, which is otherwise a Product Developer’s challenge to meet stringent Design targets. The main principle of smart sensors is that combining sensor technology with silicon microcontroller not only offers customised outputs and interpretive power but also considerably improves sensor system capabilities and performance.

Sensors are revolutionary but it also adhere a major challenge, though not majorly on the component level but yes anything connected needs a high secure mechanism. Given the increasing interest in people-centric sensing

applications, the time is ripe to explore new security and privacy challenges.

Raymond Yin asserts that talking about the security is a far too large topic; he shares a gist that the sensors themselves do not pose a serious security threat in my opinion.  However, the overall system can be compromised in several ways.  There are many levels of security that need to be taken into consideration throughout the design of all Industry 4.0 systems including access security, authentication, data encryption, and secure boot for processors.

Accepting the fact, Sanket B, said, Yes! smart, connected devices are making our lives more convenient. But on the other hand, the proliferation of these devices also means that more data—including personal and/or sensitive information—is vulnerable to security breaches. Protecting data collected from sensors that is in transit and at rest has never been more critical. The Transport Layer Security (TLS) protocol, the successor to Secure Sockets Layer (SSL), prevents eavesdropping or tampering of data in transit as internet of things (IoT) devices communicate over the internet.

Randall Restle, educates, the devices communicating a sensor’s status is the only place security can be found.  Sensors, themselves, do not have security; they simply measure what they are tied to.  The interfaces from sensors to their host are nearly always I2C.  This means that security is relegated entirely to the host and solutions are ample here.  Nearly every wireless-based microcontroller has a solution for security but some are more secure than others.  Security is an issue but there are a lot of readily available technologies to evaluate.

Adding on the appropriate safety standards to deliver high-quality safety-first products, Ravi Pagar, adds, the level of regulation required for sensor-based devices is driven by the level of risk associated with the device – ensuring that they are electrically, chemically, biologically and physically safe for the end-user – and not more so than in healthcare devices.  Devices that are placed within the body, such as pacemakers, will require much more stringent regulation than other non-invasive devices and designers need to be aware of the relevant regulations whilst developing the product to ensure that they don’t hit obstacles to launch later in the design process.

Standards for regulation differ by region and type of use, for example whether the device is to be used for research or for manufacture.  For example, CE (Conformité Européene) marking (which indicates that a product complies with EU legislation and can be sold within the European Economic Area (EEA) is not required for investigational devices but is necessary for devices that are to be sold. It is also important to note that it is the overall design, which includes the casing, to component and power, must satisfy the required safety criteria.

Sanjay Jain, also explains, since Sensors form the most vital section for whole product in terms of reliably measuring real world parameters, especially in applications involving Human Safety, there is a greater amount of focus on  Sensor device to be error free in operation , self-healing with prognosis capabilities and also be compliant to safety standards. Again, it is due to these needs that Smart Sensors are gaining lot more prominence that can integrate the needed safety and compliance needs which are key to some of these Applications. For instance, a Steering Angle Sensor Product  in a Vehicle needs to have redundancy for reliable operation under all operating conditions and is governed by  ASIL Functional safety standards of ISO26262.

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Talking of the Indian scenario and the key sectors marking a strong indigenous growth, Randall Restle, said, Digi-Key sells worldwide via the Internet with over 1.3M parts in stock for overnight shipment however, we do not track what technologies are shipped where.  Needless to say, our shipments are up worldwide and India is certainly a growth market for us.

Raymond Yin, in his statement, pointed that India is on the same ramp as worldwide key markets driving sensor growth include consumer, automotive, industrial.

Ravi Pagar shared an anecdotal report, in which emphasizes, According to a report released by TechSci Research, titled “India Sensors Market Forecast and Opportunities, 2020”, India will log a CAGR of over 20 per cent from 2015-2020. This growth will be a direct outcome of rising automotive sales, increasing need for automatization in industries, increasing security concerns, and various technological developments in consumer electronics. Within the market, the fastest growing segments are gas sensors, image sensors, accelerometers, and position sensors. Automotive and consumer electronics industry are also significantly contributing towards the demand of sensors. The growth in sensor market can also be attributed growth of the industrial sector as a whole, and the introduction of Micro Electro Mechanical Systems (MEMS) sensors.

Sanjay Jain believes, sensor Market in India continues to expand. The proliferation in the use of sensors within Indian market has encouraged both suppliers and customers to invest significantly towards the growth of this market. According to a Market report,  India will log a CAGR of over 20 per cent from 2015-2020. This growth will be a direct outcome of rising automotive sales, increasing need for automatization in industries, escalating security concerns, and ongoing technological developments in consumer electronics. Automotive and consumer electronics industry are  contributing significantly towards increasing demand of sensors. For instance, Regulatory mandate of Emission control (Multiple Sensors in Electronic Fuel Injection needed for Emission control)and ABS (Speed Sensor, Accelerometer) in 2 Wheelers, Reverse parking Sensor solution in Passenger Vehicles are some of the examples of Growth Drivers in Automotive Segment.  Similarly, feature rich Smartphones and Wearables are the driving force for Sensor growth in Consumer Segment. Home Automation is another Key Segment adding up a whole range of sensors including Motion Detectors, Smoke Sensors, Gas leakage Detectors, Image sensors, to name a few. Public Initiatives including  Smart City Program will only be further fuelling  growth for Sensor Market with a whole lot of focus on Citizen safety and surveillance, Traffic Monitoring, Smart Street lighting, Water &  Automatic Electric Meters, etc.

Sensor devices

Pragmatic about the Indian scenario, Sanket B, concludes this market is an up and coming market in India. We are seeing traction in areas of workers’ health monitoring, predictive analysis of pre-existing medical conditions, etc. These are more on the health management side and being driven by quite a few start-ups. Of course, on the factory automation side the major multinational companies with R&D centers in India are looking towards Industry 4.0 where sensors are an integral part.

Amid the growing demand of nanotechnology, miniaturization is known to bring limitations in terms of precision, product reliability, performance. Raymond Yin mulls, in many ways, miniaturization has increased the level of precision and reliability in products.  I’m referring to the increasing use of MEMS technology in sensor fabrication.  Originally used for strain gauges, MEMS processes are now being used to manufacture accelerometers, gyroscopes, pressure, temperature, touch, proximity and other types of sensors.  MEMS increases the precision of many types of sensors while decreasing size and manufacturing cost.  Since MEMS sensors are made using standard semiconductor manufacturing equipment, capacity can grow with new wafer sizes and smaller structure sizes.

Giving real-life example, Sanjay Jain, points, with trend towards sensors everywhere for everything, there is a trend towards miniaturization of sensors and associated circuits while still offering acceptable level of performance. This does possess some challenges for the performance of the sensor itself as well as the associated building blocks to process the sensor information. Several of the sensors today are built to sense the physical environment, where the sensitivity of the sensor is directly related to the shape and size of the sensing element.

As an example, inductive proximity sensors are very commonly used for industrial applications. These sensors work with the principle that an approaching conductive target results in change of inductance which is detected by the circuits. The change of inductance is related to the size and shape of the inductive coils. However miniaturization demands that the coils be made smaller. To compensate for the loss of sensitivity the circuits now need to be made more precise and with lower noise such that the overall solution works as good or even better.

Another example is a capacitive sensor. Several capacitive sensors for pressure sensing use the principles of parallel conductive plate separated by an insulating material.

On application of pressure across the plate, the plates deflect causing a change in capacitance. Large the change in separation of the plates, larger is the signal generated. However miniaturization is causing the sensors to move away from physically discrete plates into MEMS domain, where the plates and their separation is becoming very small. The resultant deflection of plates to pressure change is now reduced to nano-meters to micro-meters range. The change in capacitance that results from such small deflections is in orders of smaller magnitude. Thus the associated electrical circuit to digitize the information grows up in complexity to achieve performance required of the sensors.

Semiconductor companies are constantly innovating to improve the performance of the systems despite constant challenges being posed by the miniaturization of sensing elements.

Underlining on the limitations in the process of miniaturization, Randall Restle, said, whereas integrated circuits have been noted to follow Moore’s Law, I haven’t heard about anything corresponding to multichip modules (MCM) and system-in-package (SiP) devices.  An advantage of these forms of packaging is that they do not suffer from the same limitations of wholly integrated circuits.  Cross coupling analog to digital currents can be totally eliminated when different dies are placed within the same package.  The same goes for power management; compromises are fewer in the newer packaging technologies so limitations are not seen for years.

nanotechnology

Accepting the fact, Ravi Pagar, elaborates, the ability to integrate miniaturized sensors, miniaturized actuators and miniaturized structures along with microelectronics has far-reaching implications in countless products and applications. For example, devices are being made using integrated circuit-like processes, which enable the ability to integrate multiple functionalities onto a single microchip. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that miniaturization can bring limitations, and the reliability of a device can be impacted  once it’s size approaches single atoms.

With the dynamic change of design in electronics, semiconductor companies are dressing to develop the foundation on how sensors are been developed, designed, matching standards. There are lacunas but at large the success story today in the electronic industry has become more challenging than just developing chips. There are strategies of development which companies are trying to fasten the Sensor first world.

Sharing his vantage, Sanjay Jain, said, Sensors for sensing real world physical stimulus bridge the gap between physical world and electrical world. Traditionally the semiconductor product development ecosystem has not dealt with such concepts. Since long time semiconductor products have dealt with electrical stimulus and electrical outputs. Bridging the gap between electrical world and physical world was done by variety of discrete sensors and actuators. As technology develops and new techniques are developed across a wide variety of technological fields, an opportunity has arisen for the different technologies to intermingle to provide a better optimized solution for the emerging world. This is forcing the traditional semiconductor design, development and manufacturing ecosystem to innovate and keep up with the progress. I would not say that there is a “lack of ecosystem”, however there is a need for learning and adjusting with new developments and find optimal productizable solutions for the same. Technology companies across the world are working on bridging those gaps.

Giving an example, Sanjay Jain, noted, traditionally semiconductor devices had electrical input and electrical outputs. During manufacturing, end of line quality control involved performing electrical tests on finished devices. These are done on highly automated test equipment which load the devices, provide electrical stimulus, measure the electrical response and filter bad devices from the good. As sensors to sense physical world get integrated the above process gets challenged since the stimulus now needs to be a physical world quantity such as humidity, pressure, exposure to light, gas etc. New test equipment now needs to be conceived which would allow the testing of finished devices. While solutions have been developed further innovation is required for them to match the throughput and accuracy requirements usually offered by purely electrical test equipment’s.

Similarly new packaging techniques are required to be developed. Traditional IC packages work to insulate the die (piece of silicon wafer on which circuits are built) from harmful effects of environment such as heat, mechanical stress, chemical interaction with environmental contaminants such as water and other chemicals etc. However when the sensor for real world gets integrated, the package needs to be redesigned such that the sensing element gets exposed to real world whereas the rest of the die remains insulated for reliability and longevity. As new sensing technologies get developed, it will call for collaboration across a broader spectrum of technical fields to produce solutions which solve the real world problems at the right cost and performance intersection, added Sanjay.

Texas Instruments

Breeding on the MEMS technology, Ravi Pagar, purviews, MEMS Technology is the primary technology on which semiconductor companies are integrating the fabrication of sensors along with digital electronics. It provides an efficient solution to the need for miniaturization without any compromise on functionality or performance. Micro Electro Mechanical System is a system of miniaturized devices and structures that can be manufactured using micro fabrication techniques. It is a system of micro sensors, micro actuators and other micro structures fabricated together on a common silicon substrate. Fabrication of MEMs device involves the basic IC fabrication methods along with the micromachining process involving the selective removal of silicon or addition of other structural layers.

Citing on the designing complexity of a custom board and Maxim’s role, Sanket B, thinks, creating a custom board with sensors can be complex, as designers must first build custom hardware and firmware to validate their concepts and then build prototypes before starting any field trials. From there, they generally spend a significant amount of time evaluating sensors and existing solutions.  One way that Maxim is solving this challenge is through its hSensor Platform, the only complete development platform today. It eliminates the extra 3-6 months it typically takes to develop a prototype by bringing all the hardware building blocks together on one PCB, as well as having readily-accessible hardware functionality with the ARM mbed hardware development kit (HDK).

Lastly, Randall Restle is convinced and believes MEMS is rolling the ball well for semiconductor companies, as he concludes, the ecosystem, if one exists, is the emergence of new companies making semiconductors available in alternative form factors such as modules and SiPs. MEMS is a technology and a methodology that is driving a lot of new sensor types but it will be their combination with other devices, possibly from multiple manufacturers, that makes new sensors.  In this sense, new entrants, new entrepreneurs are establishing ecosystems and not the traditional semiconductor suppliers.  The future is bright for these new companies as the manufacturing expertise for their highly integrated, hybrid packages more closely resembles printed circuit board design than traditional chip design.

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Niloy Banerjee

A generic movie-buff, passionate and professional with print journalism, serving editorial verticals on Technical and B2B segments, crude rover and writer on business happenings, spare time playing physical and digital forms of games; a love with philosophy is perennial as trying to archive pebbles from the ocean of literature. Lastly, a connoisseur in making and eating palatable cuisines.