Monday, January 14, 2008

"MEMS: the word for timing chips"

Today, quartz crystals provide the heartbeat for nearly every electronic system, with annual volumes approaching 10 billion units. Electronic circuitry alone cannot generate the precisely spaced pulses that keep gates in synchronization in digital systems, or the rock-solid oscillations that keep analog frequencies tuned. In this sense, microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) represent the final frontier in microminiaturization--downsizing this necessary mechanical reference signal from the millimeter scale of quartz crystals to the nanoscale of integrated circuits. Industrial giants such as Epson Toyocom Corp. (Tokyo)--the world's largest supplier--provide quartz-crystal timing chips. Two upstart makers of MEMS timing chips, SiTime Corp. and Discera Inc., think there certainly is room for them in this sector, with its mammoth volumes. But Epson and the other large timing chip companies are not going to sit still while the MEMS competitors carve out chunks of their lucrative markets. Epson is already offering "QMEMS" technology--downsized quartz-crystal timers that descend into the submillimeter-size regime. Startups will have only a few years' head start before Epson and the other behemoths respond to the popularity of MEMS timing chips with MEMS offerings of their own. SiTime and Discera have the biggest lead in the race to downsize mechanical timing references to the nanoscale. Both companies have invested several man-years of research and development effort into matching the precise timing signals of quartz crystals (which are based on the principles of physics governing piezoelectric materials), deploying tiny silicon mechanical structures--silicon "tuning forks"--with an equal measure of stability and precision. However, if SiTime and Discera do not carve out niches of their own soon, they risk being crushed by the deeper pockets of the established quartz-crystal chip makers.