As the MEMS and sensors industry is facing commoditization pressures, many device makers are having trouble differentiating their products in the marketplace. How can companies better stand out from the competition by understanding how consumers rely on the sensors they produce? And, from there, how can they produce sensors that are more than just a feature in the overall system or device? To address these questions, we recently spoke with Dr. Kaigham (“Ken”) Gabriel who has a distinguished track record of success across the public and private sectors in our industry. Dr. Gabriel was the co-founder of MEMS startup company Akustica which shipped 6 million MEMS microphones before being acquired by Bosch. He has also held the roles of Deputy Director and Acting Director at DARPA, as well as Deputy Director of the Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) Group at Google. He is currently the President and CEO of Draper Laboratory.
MEMS Journal: Some industry observers say that the IoT is mostly about data analytics and software. Do you agree or disagree, and why?
KG: In general the IoT is mostly about software and analytics, but the best data analytics and software require a critical mass of quantity and variety of data. Without a large number and variety of sensors achieving that data is not possible. This can only be achieved if sensors are affordable and diverse.
MEMS Journal: What are the main challenges for the MEMS and sensors industry today? How do you see these challenges evolve in the next few years?
KG: The challenge for the MEMS and sensors industry is the same as that of any component technology. Systems make money -- in the consumers’ eyes they are the stars. Whereas components are character actors -- you know they’re there, you wouldn’t have the same experience without them, but you don’t remember their names.
It’s becoming more difficult to make money for sensor manufacturers. Despite real innovation coming from the sensors community, cost and delivery pressures continue to create barriers to success. These challenges will persist unless sensor manufacturers can generate recognition and support for their respective products from the consumers themselves.
MEMS Journal: Many sensors act as differentiating features in end-user devices, such as consumer electronics. Yet, at the same time, many large sensor makers cannot generate significant profits. Why do think this is the case and what do we need to do as an industry to solve this problem?
KG: Consumers don’t see the sensor or sensor manufacturers. This invisibility to the end user enables systems designers to drive down sensor costs. Consumers largely believe that the Instagram app is changing the orientation of their screen when they rotate their phones. They don’t realize that it’s the embedded accelerometer that enables that automatic orientation change. Sensor manufacturers need to be more of a discriminator and demand more visibility with the consumer a la the Intel Inside campaign.
MEMS Journal: What are the main MEMS and sensors activities at Draper Laboratory? How do you see Draper's role and niche in the MEMS and sensors industry?
KG: Draper applies its MEMS sensor expertise to build breakthrough capabilities where MEMS are vital, but they are not the only component. These systems range from strategic guidance, navigation, and control systems for submarine launched ballistic missiles to bioprocessing systems that identify deadly fungal lung infections in hours instead of days.
MEMS Journal: What is it like working at Google? What are some of the MEMS and sensors projects that you are working on there?
KG: There are lots of interesting things about working at Google, but working with systems and hardware are why I came to Draper. Questions regarding MEMS and sensors projects at Google should be directed to Google.
MEMS Journal: What are some of the most interesting MEMS and sensors projects which DAPRA is currently working on? What are some of the MEMS and sensors projects on DAPRA's agenda and roadmap for the next few years?
KG: It is inappropriate for me to comment on DARPA’s agenda and roadmap for the next few years. Some of the work Draper is doing to support DARPA programs includes the development of precision deep brain stimulation, prosthetics that move and provide sensation like a natural hand, nanometer-scale assembly, navigation-grade inertial measurement units based on MEMS, and space, temporal, and orientation information in contested environments.
MEMS Journal: What's biggest lesson that you learned during your experience with Akustica? What was your biggest accomplishment there and what was your biggest disappointment?
KG: Shipping more than 6 million units of Akustica’s MEMS microphone prior to selling the company to Bosch provided an enormous sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. There is no experience quite like conceiving of something, building it, and shipping it at those numbers knowing there is a demand for your creation.
A key lesson derived from that experience is that producing millions of components -- reliably and predictably -- is just as creative and demanding as the actual innovation or development of the product itself. This is something that I believe many engineers fail to realize. Being part of the process that takes something all the way to market, not just past the lab bench, is exhilarating.
MEMS Journal: What the most exciting new type of sensing technology that you've seen come out in the past few years?
KG: Interestingly enough, recent excitement in sensing technology isn’t really about new sensors, it’s about integrating sensors in new ways. Proximity sensors, for example, have been around for years, but they’ve only recently found their way into affordable automobiles around the world. Today, we’re beginning to see those sensors integrated with LIDAR -- a sensing technology that’s been around since the early ‘60s -- to provide even better situational awareness to drivers.
MEMS Journal: What type of sensor and for which application do you think will be the highest volume, in terms of units shipped per year, in 2020?
KG: I don’t know what the highest volume sensor shipped will be in 2020, but I think they’re going to be of greater diversity in terms of the physical energy that they detect and sense. I also believe they’ll have good-enough performance. However, what is likely is the integration of multiple sensors to extract the information needed from the environment that will provide much better situational awareness than any one super high-performance sensor itself could provide.
We’re already seeing the beginning of this trend in places like the IoT being used to detect weather patterns. It’s far better to have temperature, humidity, wind, and barometric pressure data at equal but relatively low resolution than a very high precision temp sensor alone.
Where we need to focus for 2020 is on the software and algorithms required to analyze and visually convey the information acquired by multiple integrated sensors.
Dr. Gabriel will be delivering a keynote talk at the upcoming Sensors Expo 2016 in San Jose, California. This article is a part of MEMS Journal's ongoing market research project in the area of MEMS and sensors industry trends. If you would like to receive our comprehensive market research report on this topic, please contact Dr. Mike Pinelis at email@example.com for more information about rates and report contents.
Copyright 2016 MEMS Journal, Inc.