The MEMS market for pressure sensors in the high-value military and aerospace segments will enjoy brisk double-digit growth this year, with plenty of room left for future expansion in a broad range of lucrative applications. Revenue for pressure sensors in both military and civil aerospace applications will reach $35.7 million by year-end, up 20 percent from $29.7 million last year, according to IHS iSuppli. By 2016, military and aerospace related MEMS takings will reach $45.5 million, equivalent to a healthy five-year compound annual growth rate of 9 percent.
"While MEMS pressure sensor revenue from both sectors is relatively small and cannot match the scale generated by the much bigger MEMS automotive or consumer segments, steady growth is assured for the next few years, especially because very few other devices can withstand the sort of extreme operating environment in which the sensors are used," said Richard Dixon, Ph.D., principal analyst for MEMS and sensors at IHS.
The military and aerospace segments are part of the so-called high-value MEMS space that also includes medical electronics. Here, average selling prices for sensors and actuators are much higher than in other comparable MEMS segments. Overall, the high-value MEMS industry will be worth some $283.6 million this year.
The MEMS military and aerospace segments are projected to thrive despite pressure from the ongoing global economic crisis and a constrained U.S. defense budget—both of which have led many military and civil aerospace programs to scale back, slow down or even terminate programs.
The reasons for optimism are twofold. On the military front, the continued focus on long-range air and sea power -- as well as on drones, surveillance and reconnaissance or smart weapons -- will drive electronic content. The U.S. government's plan to transition to a smaller and smarter force with future reductions affects only troops and personnel on the whole, and not weaponry systems.
Meanwhile on the civil aviation end, a recovery that began last year is still unfolding, thanks to strong demand at the pan-European entity EADS for its Airbus A320, and to U.S. based Boeing for its long-delayed 787 Dreamliner wide-body passenger jet made of carbon composites. Both EADS and Boeing have received orders for more than 2,000 large planes, helping commercial aviation to grow 24 percent this year.
Delivering performance in an extreme environment
A closer look at the main military and civil aerospace applications also reveals a lengthy list in which MEMS pressure sensors are used. These include air data systems; environment and cabin pressure; hydraulic systems in airframes; engines and auxiliary power units; and sundry other applications such as doors, oxygen masks, flight tests and structural monitoring.
Altogether, the number of pressure sensors employed in aircrafts, jets, turboprops and helicopters can be significant. A large jet, for instance, needs as many as 130 sensors.
For engines and other harsh places, as many as 13 engine pressure sensors and switches will be found in a luxury airliner, while smaller jets will typically have six to seven sensors. An additional five or six transducers are needed for the so-called full authority digital engine control or FADEC—an electronic engine controller and related accessories that receive and analyze multiple variables, including air density and engine temperature, for any given flight condition.
The price for MEMS pressure sensors in a first-level package for military or aerospace settings can easily reach or exceed $1,000. Compared to MEMS devices used in cars, the price differential is very large -- mostly due to the typically much higher performance requirements of the silicon element, and stability guarantees over a specified temperature range for up to 25 years, unlike 10 years for a vehicle.
Overall, MEMS sensors must withstand high vibration, high G-force impact and acceleration, extreme temperature and high pressure in the inhospitable environment that characterizes military and aerospace applications. Furthermore, the sensors must deliver flawless performance amid such challenging conditions with high accuracy, low drift and long-term stability. To do all this successfully, in very small package dimensions and low weight, explains why MEMS pressure sensors are able to dominate in military and aerospace applications.
Who makes what?
MEMS suppliers offer different levels of integration. For instance, Honeywell International of New Jersey can manufacture sensors as well as complete systems. Kulite Semiconductor Products, also headquartered in New Jersey, supplies sensors to Boeing, Airbus, Canadair and Embraer, as well as many helicopter and military programs.
Ohio based Eaton Corp. likely buys MEMS sensors and integrates these into pressure transducers, but it also makes subsystems in the same manner as Honeywell, while GE Druck of Massachusetts has a 4-inch silicon line in Leicester, U.K.