In an ironic twist, the terrible disasters that struck Japan and Thailand in 2011 actually helped to expand the market for automotive MEMS sensors and actuators, as car electronic systems makers sought to expand their supply chains to mitigate the risk of supply shortages. Automotive MEMS revenue in 2011 amounted to $2.2 billion, up 16 percent from $1.9 billion in 2010, according to IHS iSuppli. In a remarkable reprise, last year's growth continued the notable 28 percent expansion that the market saw in 2010 as it accelerated out of the endemic global recession of 2009. The growth rates for 2010 and 2011 are well above average when compared to the 7 to 9 percent annual expansions in sensor sales that took place regularly before the last recession.
This strong growth performance indicates the disasters of 2011 did little to dampen the market. "Automotive system makers learned the lessons of the 2009 downturn well," said Richard Dixon, senior analyst for MEMS and sensors at IHS. "After suffering short supplies of parts during that year, the companies expanded the number of sources for components, including MEMS sensors. When supply-chain disruptions appeared in 2011, in some instances these companies were able to re-qualify parts from new sources. This helped MEMS sensor sales stay on track for the year."
Even after the impact of the disasters dissipates, the automotive MEMS market is set for more good news. The expansion of the market during the next few years is projected to be more rapid than was initially expected, equivalent to a five-year compound annual growth rate of approximately 10 percent starting from 2010. This means that by 2015, the automotive MEMS industry can expect revenue to top the $3 billion mark.
The major engine of long-term growth for the market is the use of MEMS sensors in government-mandated automotive safety measures, such as in electronic stability systems (ESC) and tire-pressure monitoring systems (TPMS).
Another factor contributing to growth is the increased car production as new markets for the automotive industry expand. Although car production last year was only 3 percent above the extraordinary 25 percent increase of 2010, the rise in the total number of light passenger vehicles produced -- now exceeding 75 million units per year -- was enough to drive overall higher levels of inventory for automotive MEMS sensors.
Four devices account for the majority of automotive MEMS revenue: pressure sensors, accelerometers, gyroscopes and flow sensors. Together, these four devices account for 21 out of 24 identified applications for MEMS in the automotive space, and represent nearly 99 percent of the entire value of the automotive MEMS market.
Prospects for 2012
Slightly lower revenue growth of approximately 7 percent is anticipated this year, due in part to a reduction of inventory later in the second half of 2012, IHS believes. The cuts in inventory, however, will be offset by an expected increase in car shipments up to 6 percent, along with the increasing impact of safety mandates. In particular, this year also will see Japan adopt a mandate on ESC within its shores. Japan's adoption is expected in October, similar to a timeline projected for Europe, where new models will be fitted with ESC to detect any discrepancy between the driver's intention and the actual motion of the vehicle -- with the ESC system automatically intervening if needed to prevent dangerous skidding.
By 2014, all existing vehicles in Japan as well as new, so-called "mini" vehicles will be outfitted with ESC -- the latter being a local class of vehicle with dimensions smaller than 3.4 meters in length and an engine capacity of 660cc or less. The ESC mandate in Japan is expected to impact a total of 5 million vehicles in 2012, according to IHS Global Insight.