We recently published a review on the current status of MEMS microphones. While Knowles Acoustics remains the market leader, companies such as Sonion and Akustica are also going after this exciting opportunity.
We spoke with Dr. Jacob Philipsen, President of Sonion’s MEMS division, about the company’s current activities, competition, product pipeline and the process of transferring the microphone technology from a university lab prototype to a mass produced commercial product.
MEMS Investor Journal: Sonion is primarily known for its micromachined microphones in the MEMS industry. Are there other MEMS products which Sonion currently has on the market?
Dr. Jacob Philipsen: No, Sonion provides miniature components and solutions to devices enhancing personal communication, such as mobile phones, headsets, hearing instruments etc. Our MEMS microphones are part of this portfolio, but Sonion's other products are all non-MEMS.
MEMS Investor Journal: What about other MEMS products which are currently in your R&D pipeline?
Dr. Jacob Philipsen: Our MEMS R&D pipeline also focuses on MEMS microphones.
MEMS Investor Journal: How did Sonion get into the MEMS microphone business?
Dr. Jacob Philipsen: It was a logical step for a leading supplier of miniature acoustical components. The vision of improving and miniaturizing microphones led Sonion to start collaboration on MEMS with university researchers in the early 1990’s, leading in the mid-1990’s to the establishment of a Sonion R&D team dedicated to the development of MEMS microphones. Originally, the target application was hearing instruments, since the superior stability of the silicon microphones makes them ideal for hearing instrument application, but today our scope for the MEMS microphones has expanded into several high volume markets including mobile phones, headsets, cameras, laptops, etc.
The activities started out at university cleanroom facilities, until we in 2003 opened our own cleanroom for volume production.
MEMS Investor Journal: Akustica recently launched its MEMS microphone. How does their product compare to yours? What are their advantages and drawbacks as compared to Sonion’s mics? Also, what about MEMS microphones from Knowles Acoustics and MEMSTech?
Dr. Jacob Philipsen: An important difference between our products and the products of Knowles, Akustica, and MEMSTech is that our devices, thanks to a proprietary chip scale packaging, are much smaller than the competing microphone products. Our DigiSiMic™ measures only 2.6 x 1.6 mm2 in footprint, and our analog SiMic™ only 2.4 x 1.6 mm2. Height is only 0.87 mm.
Also, the signal-to-noise ratio of our device is superior to competition – we are 4-5 dB better on SNR on both the analog and digital MEMS microphones.
Akustica and MEMSTech seem to align their footprint with Knowles' in order to act as second sources to Knowles, and that may of course serve as an advantage to them.
MEMS Investor Journal: Have you seen any other MEMS microphone competitors emerge recently?
Dr. Jacob Philipsen: Infineon is said to have a production of MEMS microphones, mainly for automotive applications. Several acoustic companies including AAC and BSE have announced a release of MEMS microphones this year.
MEMS Investor Journal: How big is your MEMS microphone business today in terms of revenue and units shipped? What is the expected revenue and profit growth rate for the next three years?
Dr. Jacob Philipsen: I am sorry, we don't publish this kind of information. What I can say is that we launched volume production in Q4 2005 and have been ramping up since. Next year, we will open a second MEMS production facility in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam – our present production is located at our headquarters in Denmark.
MEMS Investor Journal: What would you say is the biggest challenge in terms of convincing customers to buy your products versus the traditional microphone technologies?
Dr. Jacob Philipsen: I don't consider the challenge very big anymore, as most mobile phone manufacturers today use MEMS microphones to some extent. But in the beginning, we of course had to build up trust with customers that these devices could be mass manufactured in high, consistent quality. Also, customers need to rethink the way they build in microphones in their products, especially with a device as small as ours. But once you turn that around and start seeing the build-in possibilities enabled by the size, it instead becomes a key selling point.
Jacob Philipsen is the President of Sonion MEMS, the MicroElectroMechanical Systems division of Sonion. Sonion is a leading provider of electroacoustical and electromechanical solutions for hearing instruments, mobile terminals, headsets, and medical devices. Sonion has more than 3000 employees in its facilities in Denmark, Poland, the Netherlands, the USA, and the People's Republic of China. Jacob Philipsen joined Sonion MEMS in 2003 and has led its transition from a technology company to volume manufacturer of the world’s smallest silicon microphones.
Prior to joining Sonion, Jacob Philipsen held executive and management positions in Danish and European companies manufacturing wafer-based integrated optical components for optical fiber communications.
Jacob Philipsen holds a M.Sc. and a Ph.D. from the Technical University of Denmark.