iSentek's innovative sensors not only support consumer products but have also achieved fruitful results in emerging applications such as EVs and drones.
With the advent of the era of Internet of Things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI), the importance of sensor components that play “sensory” in electronic devices has become increasingly significant. Sensors are not only the key to the “smartness” of various systems, but also an indispensable element for making end products meet the requirements of various safety and energy-saving standards. Headquartered in Taiwan and established in June 2011, iSentek is a MEMS sensor designer who is optimistic about the development prospects of this market and is committed to developing its own technology and providing customers with complete solutions.
Max Lai, founding chairman and CEO of iSentek, said that the emerging applications that were popular in the market ten years ago were IoT, Industry 4.0, and smart phones that have been rapidly popularized since their birth in 2007.
“From a technical point of view, sensors play a key role in all these applications. Only with sensors can those devices that were originally dead objects have the ability to perceive. From an industrial perspective, Taiwan already had at that time a complete electronics supply chain, including various PC, consumer electronic system manufacturers, and strong upstream semiconductor companies but lacked local sensor component suppliers. Most of the sensors were imported from Europe, the United States, and Japan. This has provided a good opportunity for iSentek. We believed that a local technology firm that could produce sensors independently would not only make the entire Taiwanese electronics industry more competitive, but would also fill the long-term gap and meet the needs of local customers,” said Lai.
iSentek’s R&D team specializes in various types of magnetic sensing technologies, including Planar Hall, Vertical Hall, AMR, TMR and fluxgate; the current product line includes current sensor, angle sensor, linear sensor, e-compass/magnetometer and switch sensor, and will continue to expand the product lineup.
Lai said that in terms of applications, iSentek’s sensors not only support consumer products such as mobile phones and smart watches but have also achieved fruitful results in emerging applications such as electric vehicles (EVs) and drones in recent years. Among them, EV applications are mainly based on the Residual Current Detection (RCD) required for charging, and the drone application is dominated by e-compasses with high precision and low power consumption, for which iSentek has captured a market share of up to 80%. He also revealed that with the help of factors such as the global COVID-19 pandemic and the pursuit of clean energy by countries around the world, he is optimistic that medical devices and energy storage system (ESS) applications will take off. So, iSentek is also actively investing in research and development for related products.
Figure 1: iSentek’s milestone of leading edge solutions.
Committed to research and development of own technology
Although sensors are almost ubiquitous and indispensable in today’s electronic devices, they still receive far less attention than main processors, microcontrollers, and other components that act as the “brain” of the system. In fact, one needs extensive and profound technical knowledge to produce the seemingly inconspicuous sensors, because they are the quintessence of knowledge across professional fields such as physics, machinery, materials, electricity, etc., while customized design and adjustment must be carried out in conjunction with the end application so as to meet the required accuracy level and to fully utilize the overall system performance. As Taiwan’s semiconductor industry chain leads the world in terms of integrity and competitiveness, iSentek’s biggest competitive advantage over overseas suppliers is its closeness to customers and awareness of their pain points.
“Different applications have different requirements for sensing accuracy and measurement range, and it is necessary to select suitable sensors according to individual circumstances,” Lai said. “We don’t sell single sensor components to customers but provide them with complete solutions. Therefore, starting from the system circuit design layout, we must have close communication with customers to understand their system specifications – including CPU/MCU architecture and other sources of interference in the system – as well as sensor accuracy, temperature, stability and other parameters; in addition to hardware components, we also provide exclusive algorithm support.”
Lai emphasized that iSentek has been committed to research and development of its own technology since its establishment and hopes to provide customers with a new generation of sensor solutions. In the past ten years, iSentek has accumulated many R&D achievements on innovative technologies, including three-dimensional sensor planarization technology, whose related papers have been published in IEEE and other international conferences or academic journals; iSentek has obtained 67 technical patents (with 19 more still pending). He also pointed out that in addition to the technological innovation of sensor architecture, iSentek has also invested a lot of resources in developing exclusive formulas for material innovations that can improve sensor performance.
Quintessence of Cross-domain Knowledge and Cross-industry Cooperation
Sensor technology innovation not only needs to be realized through the combination of cross-domain knowledge, but cross-industry cooperation is also very important. Taking the RCD of EV charging equipment as an example, Lai stressed that the leakage current sensing function is critical to the personal safety of the end user, and it is thus necessary to work closely with the customer during the design process to ensure that the final result can meet the safety requirements.
“Currently, most of the charging pile makers are concentrated in Taiwan or mainland China, and our advantage of being close to customers is thus reflected. Not only are we close to downstream system manufacturers, because of the centralized nature of Taiwan’s semiconductor industry chain, but we are also very close to wafer foundries, packaging and testing plants; therefore, any technical communication can be carried out quickly, which can greatly improve the efficiency of new product development,” Lai said.
Because of its rich experience in alliances with different industries, iSentek is also confident in the development of energy storage systems and medical equipment applications that are particularly promising. Lai said that the energy storage system is bound to have considerable demand as the world’s major economies move towards the application of green renewable energy.
The current sensors are also needed inside the energy storage system; the current sensors with high precision and high dynamic response range are an important key element in the energy storage system. The development process requires closer cooperation with customers so as to solve problems that may be encountered in practical applications, and continuous adjustment must be carried out so as to produce the best results.
The same is true for medical equipment. “We are not medical professionals, but we listen carefully to the needs of our customers and solve their problems from the perspective of our specialized sensor technology.” Lai believes that not only because of the COVID-19 pandemic but also because of the complete broadband network infrastructure, the experience of seeing a doctor without having to go to the hospital or the clinic has made telemedicine more acceptable to the public. Therefore, the demand for medical equipment such as the pulse oximeter for personal use will inevitably increase. In the newer applications for energy storage system or medical equipment, iSentek will first cooperate with local customers in Taiwan and then turn the accumulated experience into the competitiveness to penetrate the international market. At present, iSentek has bases in the United States, mainland China and other places, from which localized technical support can be provided to customers.
Looking to the future
As various electronic devices continue to move in the direction of intelligence, and new applications such as the so-called Artificial Intelligence of Things (AIoT) and autonomous vehicles are emerging, it is expected that the market demand for sensors will increase not only in quantity but also in quality.
“Take sensors as an example. Their required parameters for resolution, accuracy, and range will be raised higher and higher,” Lai explained. For example, the motor control of an EV needs to be very precise, so that the vehicles does not get stuck during rapid acceleration/deceleration. Smart vehicles combined with autonomous driving functions require immediate response, and these safety applications will require more sophisticated sensors to support.
Figure 2: iSentek’s product & technology roadmap
Therefore, from a technical point of view, a new generation of TMR (Tunneling Magnetoresistive) and AMR (Anisotropic Magnetoresistive) sensors that can provide higher resolution and large range are inevitable to replace the traditional Hall sensors in many applications. In addition, the sensor itself also needs to add more intelligence—so how should the sensor be made intelligent? Max Lai said that making some improvements in the algorithm and matching the microcontroller is one way, and the other is to reinvent the sensor’s own architecture. However, the latter is the “secret skill” of various manufacturers. So, iSentek will not disclose its detail, but users can expect the future sensing systems to be smart enough to identify signals and specific events more accurately and respond to them more quickly.
The research and development of smart sensors that combine AI and even neural networks needs the cooperation with other companies with relevant technical expertise. Therefore, Lai believes that more examples of cross-industry alliances and cross-domain cooperation will be seen in the sensor industry. No matter how the market changes, iSentek will continue to provide customers with complete “both software and hardware” sensing solutions. In response to growing needs, iSentek is currently expanding its team and looking for interested engineers to join in the exploration of sensor technology so as to move towards the goal of realizing the vision of “perceiving the world and creating a happy life”.