Giovanni Nisato, a researcher from the Swiss Center for Electronics and Microtechnology, cited both opportunities and challenges ahead. Like many researchers, he has focused on fitness devices migrating to more accurate health monitors. Nisato described (below) a simple 50 x 50cm mat of woven capacitive sensors, noting difficulties from culture to interconnects. “The textile industry is very complex and they don’t think in terms of electronics, that’s a cultural gap to bridge…encapsulation is a technical hurdle, dealing with hard to measure stresses and strains, and protecting layers can easily break,” he said.
Dexter Research Center in Dexter, Mich., a small town better known as the home of a maker of cornbread and muffin mixes, showed its portfolio of 40 thermopile sensors shipped in 800 different configurations.
Before the show began I attended part of a day-long seminar a colleague previewed on sensors printed on plastic, flexible materials. Its early days for the field which nevertheless opens some very interesting doors. The energy harvesting insole (above) from TE Connectivity is a good case in point. Imagine generating energy as you walk around the show floor, powering your digital camera. Of course, the shoe-worn device only generates 0.3 millijoules per step so at best you might get off one extra shot.
They are used in a laundry list of applications including gas detectors in cars and medical anesthesia machines to fire-suppression gear and non-contact temperature sensors. The company is a stone’s throw from Ann Arbor, home of the University of Michigan, and plenty of technical talent.
The EcoReco electric scooter, a prototype from a Silicon Valley startup, gives Rohm’s RPR-0521RS proximity and ambient light sensor and Kionix’s KXG03 6-axis accel-gyro combo sensor a ride. The Rohm sensor calculates the rider’s weight to optimize acceleration. The Kionix part lowers driving noise, automates brake and turn-light signals will automatically send a message to the user’s emergency contact in the event of a crash and sounds an alarm when someone tampers with its lock.
The sensor is based on a polarized piezo film that harvests energy when stretched. TE imagines uses in a wide variety of areas including finger, wrist and chest-worn wearables. While capabilities are still rudimentary, consultant Roger Grace noted the plastic-based devices sport costs that can be two orders of magnitude less than silicon components, showing a popular graph making the point.
One of the most compelling visions for wearable systems involves circuits woven like textiles into shirts and other clothing. University of Michigan associate professor Max Shtein gave several examples of early efforts in the labs. He described a mix (above) of thermoelectric devices on woven mats, load-bearing antennas for aircraft made from copper-coated Kevlar fibers and extruded fibers for sensors demoed at MIT. The new Advanced Functional Fabrics of America Alliance aims to “reinvigorate [a textile] industry that’s been in race to the bottom to the cheapest production methods” with customer-driven projects, he said.
TTI Inc. (Fort Worth, Texas) raffled off a drone packed with sensors from Amphenol, Hamlin, Honeywell, Littlefuse, Omron, TE Connectivity and TDK to raise the level of excitement at the show. Brian Wellhouse, TTI’s sensor manager (holding the drone), says the distributor carries 273,710 sensors of more than three dozen types from more than a dozen vendors. TTI is seeing more design wins for sensors these days although business this year so far is about on par with 2015. The general trend in sensors is to lower power, multifunction devices, typically supporting Bluetooth Low Energy, Wellhouse said.
Silicon Microstructures Inc. (Milpitas, Calif.) claims its SM5G will be the smallest relative pressure sensor when it is released in August. The MEMS-based device uses a deep reactive ion etch process and re-designed package to shrink below the competition. The chip aims for use across a wide variety of market from consumer dishwashers to industrial fluid controls and blood pressure cuffs.
Sensirion (Westlake Village, Calif.) is working on a multi-pixel gas sensor, a single device with a sensing membrane divided into four sections, each one checking for a specific gas. The hybrid gas sensor, due out next year, is the first in a planned road map that could eventually lead to a component checking for dozens of gases. The company got its start about 15 years ago with combo temperature/humidity devices that sold for $10-15. Today the polymer-based capacitive-sensing part (shown mounted to a pcb above) sells for less than $1. The cost reductions came thanks to smartphones that used such parts by the millions, forcing the company to re-invent its manufacturing process for high efficiency.
After Christopher Melkonian (above) got his PhD at the University of Toledo in Ohio, studying III-V materials and silicon germanium, he found a local clean room, refurbished its gear, bought some more equipment and set up Midwest Micro Devices. The MEMS and specialty fab now has one shift running a variety of four–inch wafers. The fab makes everything from highly reliable temperature sensors for the Department of Defense to novel peel-off RF components printed on wafers and has room to add hundreds of wafers a month. “Because we were a green-field design we have no worries about CMOS cross-contamination, and that allows us to do some very out-of-the-box designs,” he said.
Coto Technology (North Kingstown, RI) showed its tiny molded Reed switches (placed on a business card above), magnet-based devices used in device docks and even cardboard packaging to create a great out-of-box experience. Open a lid which contains a magnet and the switch is tripped, turning on the gadget inside which politely says, “Hello.”
Swiss pressure sensor maker Keller AG displayed a giant mockup of one of its pressure sensors to show how it has integrated electronics under the piezoresistive diagram, eliminating a small external pc board. The device which handles pressures up to 1,000 psi and sells for about $120 even comes in versions that work when bathed in oil.
The company aims to step more deeply into security, working with an Italian entrepreneur setting up a novel motion detector. The Inxpect system uses an off-the-shelf radar chip to detect motion as well as to measure distance, position and direction of movement of an object—even discriminating between people and pets. The prototype system shown in a 3D printed housing could come to market before the end of the year.
Magnasphere (Waukesha, Wis.) showed its magnetic switches (above) it claims are resistant to tampering and work even when immersed in water or separated by thin layers of Plexiglas or stainless steel.
Synkera Technologies Inc. (Longmont, Colo.) got a design win for one of its gas sensors in the Levl device that debuted at the Consumer Electronics Show in January. Fitness buffs will use the gadget, due out next year, to check the carboin dioxide level in their breath to see whether they are burning fat. The custom chip inside is one of a wide family of indoor, outdoor and industrial gas sensors Synkera designed to detect everything from methane to ozone levels at accuracies to parts-per-billion. Prices range widely from $50 to less than $5 depending on volumes. Chief executive Debra Deininger says she serves a broad range of designs but has yet to see the excited talk about the IoT reflected in her revenues.
PNI Sensor Corp. (Santa Rosa, Calif.) showed sensor hubs for Android phones and wearables. Its Sentral A fuses data from a nine-axis accelerometer, GPS and magnetometer. The 1.6 x 1.6 x 0.5 mm device, delivers 2 degrees RMS accuracy while consuming less than 150 microamps at a 7 Hz update rate. The A2 version takes inputs from three additional sensors and has found use on Asus and Sony smartwatches.
Sensors Expo 2016 attracted dozens of vendors showing product portfolios packing a variety of technologies to address a wide range of markets.
SpecSensors (Newark Calif.) showed a carbon monoxide sensor for home use that sports 84% of the accuracy of a $10,000 instrument, but costs just $20, and fits on a credit-card sized board that enables a system selling for less than $300.