After two straight years of blockbuster expansion, the market for magnetic sensors experienced lower than expected growth in 2012 due mainly to depressed automotive sales and a diminished industrial sector, according to the IHS iSuppli. Revenue for semiconductor based magnetic sensor elements, integrated circuits and switches amounted to $1.57 billion last year. While last year's takings represented a 6.4 percent increase over 2011 revenue of $1.47 billion, growth in 2012 was much lower than the 44 percent surge of 2010 and the 21 percent hike of 2011. Double-digit expansion had initially been forecast for 2012, but a cooling in the magnetic sensors' most important market of automotive resulted in shaving off growth points, resulting in the annual increase topping out in just the single digits.
A more optimistic outlook is in store this year in light of a projected 8 percent revenue increase to $1.70 billion. Two more years of expansion north of 8 percent will follow, before revenue growth moderates in 2016. By then, revenue will have crossed the $2 billion threshold.
"The less-than-stellar results of last year came on the heels of a weakened automotive sector, an area responsible for nearly half of all semiconductor magnetic sensor sales," said Dr. Richard Dixon, Principal Analyst for MEMS and Sensors at IHS. "While North America and the emerging countries in South America helped prop the automotive space with healthy sales, China -- a major engine of automotive growth -- did not perform as well, and conditions were also dismal in debt-laden Europe."
Another segment that suffered last year and contributed to woes was the industrial sector, where magnetic sensors are used in manufacturing and automation as well as in energy generation and distribution. The industrial market is not expected to recover until 2014.
The overall slower growth last year in both automotive and industrial was offset somewhat by a vibrant wireless and consumer sector, which saw magnetic sensors being increasingly deployed in devices like handsets, tablets, game consoles, MP3 players and digital still cameras.
In particular, mobile handsets have proven to be a hotbed for new sensor implementations. For instance, the expanding use of dedicated optical image stabilization modules in camera phones is benefiting linear Hall integrated circuits. Many smartphones that suffer from image shake due to high megapixel count are, in fact, the happy recipients of image-stabilization benefits made possible by magnetic sensors.
Automotive drives future growth
Plenty of growth opportunities continue to be open for magnetic sensors moving forward. The automotive sector alone for the sensors will top $1 billion by 2016, with market drivers to come from the mandatory fitment of steering wheel and wheel-speed sensors for vehicle dynamics systems. Other uses include turbo-charging for engine downsizing, while angle and linear sensors will be utilized in transmission systems in addition to drive-by-wire systems to provide inputs from acceleration pedals and throttle control positioning.
At present, magnetic sensors play a key role in vehicle safety systems demanded by mandates. For instance, electronic stability control (ESC) systems engineered to help prevent vehicle skidding are a potent driving force in consumption, given the use of relatively expensive steering wheel angle, and increasingly, torque sensors, as well as of four wheel speed sensors as part of the associated anti-lock brake system. Other major applications include seat positioning as part of an airbag system that accommodates its occupants, and electric power steering motors.
Also serving as an important source of growth for the sensors in the future will be the industry and energy segment. Though revenue here is small at just slightly more than $100 million by 2016, prices for the sensors used in this market are much higher than those to be found in consumer goods and appliances. Market drivers here include better performing electric motors that require less electricity via feedback control, as well as improved efficiency power conversion in solar inverters for predominantly commercial applications of photovoltaic installations. For industrial motors, efficiency standards are driving the use of feedback loops and sensors.
Other expansion opportunities for magnetic sensors will be found in position sensing, including applications for general industrial purposes; current sensing in medical applications; and in tools, aerospace compasses, switches; and encoders.
Technology splits change the market
As differing technologies become available for magnetic sensors, the mix in revenue value will also change over time. By 2016, 70 percent of magnetic sensor market revenue will come from Hall effect integrated circuits, while the remaining 30 percent will be split among magnetic resonance type technologies led by anisoptropic magnetoresistance (AMR), giant magnetoresistance (GMR) and tunneling magnetoresistance (TMR).
Providers of Hall technology sensors include Japan's Asahi Kasei Microsystems, the leading volume supplier of Hall elements and integrated circuits for a range of applications; followed by Allegro Microsystems, a significant Hall IC supplier company based in Massachusetts.
Germany's Infineon Technologies is also introducing additional devices to its portfolio of Hall sensors for automotive applications, in addition to expanding its MR device range. Meanwhile, Micronas from Switzerland is a key supplier of linear sensors and now of 3-D Hall, while Belgian based Melexis supplies Hall integrated circuits and was first with 3-D Hall ICs. Austria's AMS likewise has 3-D Hall products that it expects to bring to market in the near future.