Market Watch

MEMS Motion Sensor Market Continues Hot Growth Streak


Pressure sensors, dual-axis gyroscopes and Chinese-made smartphones all help fuel expansion

The formidable success story of microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) motion sensors in handsets continued last year following a strong 21 percent jump in revenue, boosted by the stronger-than-expected performance of a number of key growth drivers, according to the latest semi-annual IHS iSuppli MEMS special report on motion sensors in mobile handsets and tablets, from information and analytics provider IHS. 

Revenue last year for MEMS motion sensors amounted to $1.34 billion, up from $1.11 billion in 2011. The robust growth followed on the heels of a phenomenal 85 percent expansion in 2011, after the market surged from $599.6 million in 2010.

This year will see another 13 percent expansion, to be followed by two more years of double-digit increases before the market starts moderating in 2016 with $2.21 billion. By then, more than 6 billion motion sensors will ship in mobile handsets and tablets, up from just 1.6 billion units in 2011.

Overall, motion sensors will continue to see good growth in the next few years because of four key factors—the robust sales of smartphones and tablets; the boom of Chinese smartphone makers; the fast adoption rate of pressure sensors; and the addition in some cases of a second gyroscope in the camera modules for optical image stabilization. Earlier forecasts showing the market would slow by 2014 will no longer be true given new vigor in the industry because of these four variables, IHS iSuppli believes.

Winning circle brings new vim to the market

First initiated by Apple in its iPhone for auto screen rotation, motion sensors have grown to become one of the most dynamic segments in the overall MEMS market, paving the way for next-generation, gesture-based menu navigation in the user interface of cellphones.

While accelerometers and electronic compasses are already standard in smartphones, other MEMS devices are also gaining heavy traction.

Pressure sensors that can help with indoor navigation came to greater prominence in 2012 as Samsung adopted the MEMS device in high-end smartphones more aggressively than expected. After Samsung, Sony and other smaller handset manufacturers, such as Xiaomi from China, also started equipping smartphones with pressure sensors.

A new motion sensor likewise made headway last year in the form of dual-axis gyroscopes, intended for optical image stabilization (OIS) in the camera module of handsets. The new sensor is in addition to the 3-axis gyroscope already found on the main printed circuit boards of handsets. As the camera function increasingly becomes a key differentiator in mid- and high-end smartphones, OIS will become a key feature in camera phones of more than 8 megapixels—exemplified by the Nokia Lumia 920 at the end of last year.

Also helping spur the motion sensor market in 2012 was a dramatic surge in the number of legitimate, officially sanctioned smartphones in China—as opposed to the hordes of illegal, gray-market handsets still widely proliferating in that country.

The number of authorized smartphones produced by Chinese handset original equipment manufacturers (OEM) exceeded 150 million units last year, up from 67 million in 2011. The Chinese-made handsets now all feature at least one accelerometer, with compasses and gyroscopes expected to be integrated later. Smartphone shipments from Chinese OEMs will continue to climb in the next few years, further stoking the MEMS motion sensor market for handsets.

Combo sensors enjoy fast growth

While discrete MEMS motion sensor devices like accelerometers, gyroscopes and electronic compasses continue to be the major revenue earners, the combo sensor market—in which several sensors are integrated into a module to help improve overall reliability—is also expanding rapidly. 

In terms of revenue, approximately 16 percent of motion sensors were shipped as part of a combo sensor in 2012, up from just 3 percent in 2011, on the way to 53 percent by 2016. Six-axis inertial measurements units (IMU) comprising a 3-axis accelerometer and a 3-axis gyroscope in the same package will be the most popular combo sensor, ahead of 6-axis compasses and 9-axis IMUs.

Controlling the market: the biggest buyers—and their suppliers

Apple and Samsung were the biggest buyers in 2012 of motion sensors in handsets, accounting for 57 percent of consumption, up from just 25 percent in 2009. The American and South Korean giants have now surpassed Nokia as the top purchasers. Also rising to become a major force is the group of Chinese OEMs including Huawei, ZTE, Lenovo and Coolpad, along with a number of other smaller China-based players.

On the supply side, four suppliers claimed 84 percent of total motion sensor revenue last year. French-Italian STMicroelectronics led the field with a 48 percent share, followed by Japan’s AKM with 18 percent, German-based Bosch with 10 percent and InvenSense from California with 9 percent.

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