Mixed Signal/Analog

Micromachined ultrasonic transducers are taking off

25th July 2018
Alex Lynn

Ultrasound has a very old history. The ecosystem is mature and there are numerous applications and technologies. As part of this ultrasound industry, the semiconductor technologies supporting micromachined ultrasonic transducers were developed a long while ago, but the market never responded.

However, today the ultrasound sensing market is showing an impressive resurgence: new applications along with improved manufacturing capabilities and advanced technological readiness are driving the impressive growth of micromachined ultrasound transducers. 

Yole Développement (Yole), the market research and strategy consulting company, has revealed the total ultrasound modules market recorded sales of $2.1bn in 2017, and expects a significant CAGR of 18% between 2017 and 2023. The market in 2023 should reach $5.7bn. 

Yole’s analysts propose today a comprehensive technology and market report dedicated to ultrasound sensing technologies: Ultrasound Sensing Technologies for Medical, Industrial & Consumer Applications report. This analysis provides an in-depth understanding of the ecosystem and its players. It points out the key technical insights and technology trends and related challenges. The report also details the forecast metrics of the ultrasound transducers.

For decades, micromachined ultrasonic transducers, either in the form of PMUT or CMUT, have been knocking at the door of mass-markets. Dr Marjorie Villien, Technology and Market Analyst at Yole, stated: “At last, mass-market is about to happen. At Yole we identified four concurrent factors explaining this timing”.

First, applications are pushing for these technologies. Medical ultrasonic imaging will democratise into general practitioners and even homes, thanks to cheaper and smaller probes. In parallel, in consumer applications, ultrasonic fingerprint sensing allows for under-the-display operation, resulting in all screen smartphones just ten years after the iPhone removed the keyboard. Secondly, the technology is ready. 

Dr Alexis Debray, Technology and Market Analyst at Yole, added: “PMUT, which requires a thin, controlled piezoelectric film, has benefited from this technology’s increased usage for inkjet printhead. Meanwhile, CMUT also requires a delicate manufacturing process with large and thin membranes, in which mechanical stress usually remains.” 

Thirdly, several industry players have consistently invested in these technologies, thus readying the supply chain: Hitachi and Philips for CMUT, Dimatix and STMicroelectronics for PMUT, and GlobalFoundries and Silex for both. 

Last but not least, assembly is an important part of manufacturing, especially if mass market is targeted. Companies like Tong Hsing Electronic, Philips, and SilTerra have readied the supply chain. This alignment of favourable factors, similar to an arrangement of fortuitous stars, has set the stage for MUT's arrival in several applications and markets.

In 2017 the biggest ultrasonic sensing market was park assist with about $2bn, followed by automation with more than $550m the same year. 

Jérôme Mouly, Technology and Market Analyst from Yole, said: “The impressive growth of the ultrasound sensing modules market is coming from emerging applications; fingerprint and medical. Therefore, fingerprint sensing will achieve the biggest growth, and with the integration of PMUT is poised to see the largest changes in terms of technology. From a small market in 2017, fingerprint sensing will reach $2bn in five years thanks to its integration into smartphones.”

The medical ultrasound market will also see many changes with the arrival of new products like the $2,000 Butterfly IQ ultrasound probe. This handheld, low cost device will reshape medical ultrasound usage, with new customers such as primary care, emergency physicians, and nurses being able to use imaging as an everyday tool. Ultrasound could be the new stethoscope.

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