As such, it will be easier for stakeholders in domains such as life sciences, industry4.0, and agrofood to recognize the added value of semiconductor technologies to achieve cost-effective manufacturing, and to open new application horizons.
The large number of sensors and actuators in industrial equipment or mainstream household devices is hard to ignore. Visual and touch interfaces are omnipresent on industrial equipment and all kinds of sensors that explain exactly what is going on inside the machinery.
It’s a bit like the evolution of household printer troubleshooting, guiding you step by step whenever a sheet of paper gets stuck or alerting you when an ink cartridge needs replacement. Nowadays, even an electric toothbrush comes with OLED screen and Bluetooth connectivity.
Imec has internally reorganized and upgraded its activities on sensor and actuator technologies to better cater to the evolving needs of this growing industry. A shift towards higher TRL levels in combination with more pro-active developments on specific applications are amongst the strategies, as Paul Heremans, VP sensors and energy technologies at imec, explains.
There have never been as many sensor and actuator devices in industrial and consumer devices as there are today. The industrial-sensors market exceeded $20 billion in 2019, according to a report by Global Market Insights. The demand in sectors such as manufacturing, energy and power, and healthcare will push global shipments of industrial sensors above three billion units by 2026.
This is a staggering number, yet only half of what is seen in the imaging industry. IC Insights estimates image-sensor shipments to surpass six billion units in 2020 already. This might not come as a surprise, knowing there’s an average of more than three cameras in each smartphone nowadays.
Imec’s focus is twofold: to enable miniaturization and to develop new sensor and actuator modalities, both by leveraging the available semiconductor expertise. As for new modalities, the development of a short-wave-infrared CMOS camera is an excellent example of a recent achievement. In 2019, imec demonstrated a camera-integrated solution allowing Si-based CMOS sensors to detect short-wave infrared wavelengths that are typically out of reach for them because of physical and optical laws. Scale-down was shown at IEDM 2020. Thanks to imec’s approach and expertise, such short-wave-infrared cameras can soon be made in high volumes at a much-reduced cost compared to today.
Another example is imec’s work on photo-acoustic imaging. In photo-acoustic sensing, a light source sends radiation of a specific wavelength into a sample, where absorption causes thermal expansion. This results in sound waves that can be picked up by a sensitive microphone. Photo-acoustic systems have a benchtop-size today and are extraordinarily sensitive.
For instance, they allow the non-invasive measurement of blood glucose levels, or the concentration of analytes in other contexts, with extreme precision. By using semiconductor technologies, imec aims to integrate ultra-sensitive microphones and light sources with high spectral purity onto a chip, bringing photo-acoustic sensing to the next level.