One of the key findings from KPMG’s annual Global Semiconductor Industry Survey is that semiconductor executives are predicting strong growth in the sensor sector. Sixty-one percent of survey respondents predict sensors will provide the biggest opportunity for growth next year.
Sensors are key to automotive technology applications, touch screens, wearables and the Internet of Things (IoT), said KMPG. "Competition in the industry has never been more intense as the bar is raised constantly for new product introductions and the time to market for each new design is consistently compressed," said Packy Kelly, KPMG Global Semiconductor Practice leader, in a statement.
An example of raising the bar, is Texas Instruments’ announcement this week, claiming the industry’s first flexible high frequency 13.56-MHz sensor transponder family, targeting industrial, medical, wearables and IoT applications. The highly integrated ultra-low-power RF430FRL15xH system-on-chip (SoC) family combines an ISO 15693-compliant Near Field Communication (NFC) interface with a programmable microcontroller (MCU), non-volatile FRAM, an analog-to-digital converter (ADC) and SPI or I2C interface. The NFC sensor transponder is optimized for use in fully passive (battery-less) or semi-active modes to achieve extended battery life in consumer wearables, industrial, medical and asset tracking applications.
But TI isn’t the only semiconductor maker making a big push into the sensor sector, and NFC is not the only application with growth potential. Other semiconductor suppliers, including Broadcom, Intel, Marvell, Microchip, Nordic Semiconductor, and QuickLogic, to name a handful, are making big plays in the sensor fusion arena, along with TI, which offers low-power processors with advanced sensor fusion capabilities.
If you look at the wearables market, for example, which extends across many industries including consumer, medical, military, and IT, these applications all need to process the data from the sensors, which is making sensor hubs a growing market for the semiconductor industry. Sensor hubs are used to offload tasks from the application processor, which cuts down on power consumption to improve battery life in the devices. IHS forecasts that shipments of sensor hubs will reach 658.4 million units this year, up 154 percent from 259.6 million last year.
“A sensor hub is a low-power processor that can be used to perform calculations on data from sensors, the hub thereby saving power on a device by off-loading such tasks from the power-intensive application processor,” said Marwan Boustany, senior analyst for MEMS & sensors at IHS, in a statement. “The use of sensor hubs is increasingly crucial because of the push for ‘always on’ sensors used for activity monitoring, voice-command operation and contextual awareness.”
Boustany added: “By centralizing sensor processing in a more efficient way through sensor hubs, power usage and battery life are optimized.”
In a discussion earlier this year with Boustany and Tom Hackenberg, senior analyst for MCUs & microprocessors at IHS, they explained there are four approaches for sensor hub implementation - a dedicated microcontroller (MCU) that typically offers ultra-small footprints and ultra-low power, an application processor-based hub with integrated sensor, a sensor-based hub with an integrated MCU, and FPGA-based solutions. These different approaches open up huge opportunities for new architectures and solutions across the industry.
Just this week, QuickLogic announced a TAG-N wearable sensor hub evaluation kit in collaboration with Nordic Semiconductor. It offers a small factor making it suitable for development and testing of wearable devices, and it supports always-on capability with built-in pedometer, gesture, and context algorithms. The kit incorporates the QuickLogic ArcticLink 3 S2 ultra-low power programmable sensor hub, QuickLogic-developed algorithms, and a direct connection to a Nordic Semiconductor nRF51 DK, Nordic's all-in-one, multiprotocol development kit for ultra-low power wireless development on the nRF51822 SoC. The Nordic nRF51 DK enables OEMs to test, evaluate and develop Bluetooth Smart (formerly known as Bluetooth low energy) enabled wearable devices. The price: $249.
QuickLogic also recently launched a qualified vendor list program for sensor hub platforms. The initial QVL includes a variety of sensor models and types from AMS, Analog Devices, Bosch, InvenSense, Kionix, Murata, and STMicroelectronics. The program is designed to streamline the design process for OEMs and help them choose sensors pre-qualified by QuickLogic. The idea is to speed up development, lower costs and reduce risks. QuickLogic's ArcticLink 3 S2 sensor hub platform provides OEMs with a complete solution that includes the programmable CSSP device, Android or RTOS software drivers, and sensor algorithms for user transport, activity, gesture, and context determination.
Similarly, Microchip partnered with leading sensor manufacturers, including Bosch and Movea, to develop its low-power sensor hub solution, making it easy to implement sensor fusion with a large number of supported sensors. The SSC7102 is touted as a low-power, flexible and turnkey sensor hub that consumes ~4 mA while running complex sensor-fusion algorithms, resulting in longer battery life for Windows 8.1 tablets, laptops, ultrabooks and smart phones.
In September, Broadcom claimed the industry’s first global navigation and sensor hub combo chip, which delivers always-on location and sensing for on-the-go mobile applications. A key function is the tight communication between Wi-Fi and sensors, which increases positioning accuracy and enables location-based services in many environments, said Broadcom. The Broadcom BCM4773 “adds a new layer of intelligence to location technology on mobile devices by integrating the GNSS chip and sensor hub into a single combo chip,” while minimizing battery drain.
In addition, Broadcom's architecture enables information from Wi-Fi, Bluetooth Smart, GPS and micro electro-mechanical systems (MEMS) to be calculated on a single SoC instead of the application processor, which delivers more than 80 percent power savings by offloading tasks from the application processor. Another benefit: it lowers cost by reducing board space by 34 percent.
Another enhancement comes from Marvell. In November, Marvell unveiled its octa-core 64-bit 5-mode 4G LTE ARMADA Mobile PXA1936 SoC targeted for high performance smartphones and tablets globally. The new 5-mode 4G LTE mobile processor features 8× ARM Cortex A53, advanced graphics and security functions, high performance image processing, and sensor fusion capabilities. The PXA1936 is part of Marvell's 64-bit mobile LTE SoC family, which also includes the ARMADA mobile PXA1908. The PXA1936 features Marvell's low-power sensor hub technology. The processor will be available soon for the smartphone and tablet market and is expected to ship in devices by early 2015.
And we can’t forget Intel’s Atom processor Z34xx series (Merrifield) sensor hub solution. The Intel 2.13 GHz Intel Atom processor Z3480 offers smart performance and long battery life for Android smartphones and tablets. This is part of Intel’s bigger push into the IoT. A few days ago, Intel unveiled its Intel IoT Platform, an end-to-end reference model designed to unify and simplify connectivity and security for the IoT. The company also introduced integrated hardware and software products based on the new platform and an expanded ecosystem of system integrators.
There is no doubt that the IoT and wearables are more than buzz words for electronic component manufacturers. If security issues, in particular, can be resolved, driving higher adoption, I expect more players to enter these markets throughout 2015.