Combo sensors are headed for another major growth spurt this year in the global microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) sensor market as revenue climbs an expansive 37 percent after two years of already phenomenal increases, according to new analysis from IHS Technology (NYSE: IHS).
Global revenue for combo sensors in consumer and mobile applications will reach a projected $608.2 million this year, up from $443.0 million in 2013. This year’s projected growth of nearly 40 percent continues the market’s rapid ascent, including an outsized 417 percent rise in revenue for 2012, and a near-doubling of the market after that when industry takings surged another 94 percent in 2013. By 2017, combo sensor revenue will cross the billion-dollar threshold and bring in $1.03 billion, as shown in the attached figure, equivalent to a four-year compound annual growth rate (CAGR) from 2013 of 23 percent.
Combo sensors are MEMS packages that mix together accelerometers, gyroscopes, magnetometers and pressure sensors, as opposed to these devices being implemented as discrete, separate items for their intended applications. In 2011 combo sensors accounted for only 3 percent of total revenue for MEMS motion sensors, but their share of the market has been rising steadily since then—up to 13 percent in 2012, to 25 percent last year, to an anticipated 33 percent by year-end in 2014, and to past the 50 percent mark by 2016 according to projections.
“The main reason for the success of combo sensors is their convenience,” said Jeremie Bouchaud, director and senior principal analyst for MEMS & sensors at IHS. “They are expedient for original equipment manufacturers (OEM) who can buy just one device instead of two or three separate MEMS sensors. They also lend themselves to easy implementation as all combo sensors can be sold as plug-and-play solutions with their embedded sensor fusion algorithms, making for easier, more elegant deployment.”
Six-axis IMUs take the lead
Among the various MEMS combo sensors that can now be found, 6-axis inertial measurement units (IMU) that blend a 3-axis accelerometer and 3-axis gyroscope dominated the space, taking 79 percent share of total combo sensor revenue, according to Marwan Boustany, senior analyst for MEMS & sensors at IHS. Six-axis IMUs have now completely displaced discrete gyroscopes—outside of optical image stabilization camera modules—in their use by several OEMs, such as South Korea’s Samsung Electronics and HTC of Taiwan, in devices like smartphones and tablets.
In second place last year with $85 million was the 6-axis compass that combines magnetometers, or electronic compasses, along with accelerometers in the same package. Samsung and fellow South Korean maker LG Electronics almost tripled their use of 6-axis compasses last year, mostly for midrange and low-end smartphones. And while current use outside of the Koreans was small, adoption of 6-axis compasses is likely to rise in the next five years, IHS predicts. A new generation of smaller devices and improved performance will prove attractive, and 6-axis compass shipments will enjoy a CAGR of 29 percent from 2013 to 2017, compared to just 9 percent for discrete magnetometers.
A third type of combo sensor, the 9-axis IMU integrating accelerometers, gyroscopes and magnetometers had a more modest market, with production in 2013 at 5 million units. Spearheaded by California-based InvenSense and French-Italian maker STMicroelectronics, this sensor format is popular in wearable electronics and can be found, for instance, in Google Glass. However, handset and tablet makers remain aloof to the 9-axis IMUs, with most manufacturers preferring instead the combination of a 6-axis IMU together with a tiny, discrete 3-axis magnetometer for more convenient placement on a printed board circuit while mitigating electromagnetic interference.
InvenSense also has a 7-axis IMU, which the company introduced at the Mobile World Congress in February, combining a 3-axis accelerometer, 3-axis gyroscope and a pressure sensor. Many OEMs have expressed strong interest in this particular combo device, and a rapid take-off for the format will lead it to surpass 6-axis compasses by 2017, IHS anticipates.
Smartphones and tablets are the biggest applications
With 95 percent of the market, smartphones and tablets last year represented most of the consumption for combo motion sensors, and both devices will still take up a substantial portion by 2017, estimated to be modestly down to 82 percent among consumer applications.
The next biggest opportunity for combo sensors is in wearable electronics, with 6-axis IMUs already found in smartwatches such as Samsung’s Galaxy gear. Nine-axis IMUs have also made inroads, most prominently in Google Glass.
Gaming is the third-largest application. Until recently limited to some 6-axis compasses, the gaming market for combo sensors took off after Sony adopted the devices—from STM for use in the PlayStation Vita handheld player; and from German maker Bosch for use in the PlayStation 4.
Samsung tops all buyers
The largest buyer by far of combo sensors last year was Samsung, which spent $183 million or 41 percent of the total combo sensor market in 2013. Its purchases included 6-axis IMUs from STMicroelectronics for the Galaxy S4 smartphone; from InvenSense for the Galaxy Note 3 smartphone; and from Bosch for some Samsung’s Galaxy Tab tablets.
Samsung was also the top purchaser of 6-axis compasses, increasing its share of the combo device market even though discrete implementations involving magnetometers and accelerometers on their own remain more competitive than 6-axis compass modules.
The No. 2 purchaser in 2013 was LG with $47 million or 11 percent of the market, almost equally divided between 6-axis IMUs and 6-axis compasses. LG’s top suppliers included Bosch, STM and InvenSense, in that order.
In third place was Japan’s Sony with $44 million or 10 percent market share. Sony’s buys went to its handsets, tablets and gaming devices; combo sensors were not yet in use last year for the company’s first generation of smartwatches.
Following the top 3 was a tight group of eight OEMs that collectively formed the next tier of purchasers, spending between $10 million to $16 million last year. The group included U.S.-based Amazon and Motorola; Xiaomi, Lenovo, Huawei and Coolpad from China; and HTC along with fellow Taiwanese maker Asus.
Notable consumer brands like Apple and Nokia had not used combo sensors in their devices as of last year, preferring discrete solutions. Both makers, however, will move to combo solutions within two years, IHS believes, which will add further to the market’s growth.
Trio supplies bulk of the market
Three suppliers—STMicroelectronics, InvenSense and Bosch—collectively accounted for 99 percent of the MEMS combo sensor market last year.
STM was No. 1 with 40 percent revenue share, thanks to its prominent exposure in 6-axis IMUs for Samsung, as well as a smaller 6-axis compass business with the Korean maker. STM increased its combo sensor takings to $179 million, up 79 percent from $104 million in 2012.
In second place behind STM was InvenSense with 38 percent market share. Its biggest customer, Samsung, made up 44 percent of the company’s combo sensor revenue, which climbed 110 percent to reach $170 million.
Bosch was third with $86 million last year, up 145 percent from 2012. The German maker is the leader in 6-axis compass modules with 57 percent of that market, while revenue for its six-axis IMU grew nearly sixfold as Bosch started shipping that device in volume to Sony, HTC and LG.