CEO interview: Tronics’ Langlois makes moves in MEMS

Tronics’ Langlois makes moves in MEMS

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Pascal Langlois has been CEO at Tronics for ten months. He discusses plans for the company and directions for the complex and diverse MEMS technology sector.

Tronics Microsystems SA (Grenoble, France) was formed in 1997 as a spin out from the French government owned CEA-Leti research laboratories to commercialize customer-specific MEMS manufacturing technology.

In September 2013, the company appointed semiconductor veteran Pascal Langlois as CEO and there are signs that Langlois now plans to move things along; introducing new technologies, pushing into new application sectors and taking the company to an initial public offering (IPO) of shares.

Langlois had previously been chief sales and marketing at ST-Ericsson, the ill-fated mobile processor joint venture. Before that Langlois had served NXP Semiconductors as sales and marketing senior vice president. Before that he had come to Philips Semiconductors along with its acquisition of VLSI Technology Inc. in 1999.

But with a history in traditional CMOS integrated circuits Langlois has had to adapt. A MEMS foundry is not the same as a conventional CMOS logic foundry. It is much smaller in terms of wafer throughput – because MEMS elements themselves are so small – and much more diverse. Each product can require a unique twist on a more generic MEMS manufacturing process and the work Tronics does often extends into custom packaging and IP creation alongside its customers, which are more like partners. It even sees Tronics making some products under its own name, something that is frowned upon in the CMOS domain because of issues of competing with customers.

“We are doing a few things under our own name. High performance inertial accelerometers and gyroscopes are some of them. There are special reasons behind for that,” said Langlois. This is mainly where Tronics is manufacturing for military customers who wish the MEMS to be manufactured in continental Europe for strategic supply-chain reasons. “But foundry is the main part of our business with operations in Grenoble and Dallas with 70 and 20 people at those locations, respectively. About 70 percent of our revenue is foundry and the rest in other business,” Langlois told EE Times Europe.

To date Tronics has not generally tried to compete in the lower accuracy, fast moving consumer business. It prefers to build engineering relationships with customers and create high value add MEMS sensors. This is reflected in the breakdown of sales which is about 70 percent in industrial sector, 15 percent in aerospace, military and security and about 10 percent in life-sciences by way of so-called bioMEMS. “We have small percentage in the consumer sector,” said Langlois.

But Langlois’ background is in mobile and consumer electronics. Could that small percentage in consumer be about to change?

The company manufactures using a breadth of conventional MEMS technologies as well as developing new ones. “We are characterized by a great number and type of projects,” said Langlois. “We make inertial accelerometers, gyroscopes, also RF-MEMS switches, MEMS for blood diagnostics, for medical DNA, micro-mirror and optical MEMS technologies. We are a broadline foundry,” he said.

As well as offering diverse manufacturing processes, Tronics strives to maintain a diverse client base. “Some are fabless – we are supporting DelfMEMS in RF-MEMS for example; we have a number of fabless customers in consumer and things like disposable medical. But we also have OEMs that want to add miniaturization to their products and we have high volume semiconductor IDMs that want to outsource production,” said Langlois.

Tronics headquarters in Grenoble. Source: Tronics.

Is there a trend towards fabless customers as MEMS moves towards a fabless/foundry business model? It’s not as simple as that Langlois said. “There are many new customers getting interested in MEMS in all categories; fabless, OEMs, IDMs. Many are coming to us for our micromachining toolset to do things beyond classical MEMS; micropackaging, integration of optics and electronics, metal deposition and so forth.”

Piezoresistive M&NEMS

Tronics has 6-inch wafer fabs in Grenoble and Dallas. The first is capable of 10k wafers per year and the second 50k wafers per year. And for some consumer MEMS production Tronics outsources production to a 200mm wafer fab in Asia.

Could that partner be Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. Ltd., Globalfoundries or United Microelectronics Corp. all of which have initiatives to get into MEMS production?

Langlois declined to say who the manufacturing partner is, or to share information about Tronics’ own manufacturing capacity utilization. For now the manufacturing resources are enough he said. “We have plans to move to 8-inch wafers when necessary, within 2 or 3 years. Much of the equipment is already 200mm capable.” How soon that upgrade takes place may depend on whether a particular technology being introduced by Tronics finds favor in the industry.

In 2013 Tronics announced that had taken a license to industrialize CEA-Leti’s Micro and Nano Electromechanical Systems technology (M&NEMS), which is based on piezoresistive nanowires, rather than capacitive detection of moving mass. The promise was that the technology would allow inertial MEMS for accelerometers, gyroscopes, magnetometer and pressure sensors to be built on one manufacturing platform with a much smaller die area than conventional methods. The high-levels of integration and commonality should also simplify the control and readout circuitry resulting in smaller, lower cost, lower power consumption inertial MEMS sensors.

In February 2014 Tronics announced it had developed 6-degrees-of-freedom (6DOF) MEMS chips based on the piezoresistive nanowire technology and had an as yet unnamed lead customer (see Tronics prototypes piezoresistive 6DOF sensor). “We are making good progress. This is mainly an inertial product for consumer applications. We are also working on a 9-DOF MEMS component in design phase,” said Langlois.

But clearly the consumer market for inertial measurement units in smartphones and tablets is so large that if M&NEMS technology can demonstrate a clear advantage it could make a dramatic difference to Tronics’ production requirements or put pressure on it to share the technology with other manufacturers. Langlois indicates that will be a nice problem to have, if and when it arises, but for now Tronics has its license from CEA-Leti as well as patents of its own that it has filed and manufacturing know-how that is difficult to replicate quickly. “We also have TSV [through silicon via] technology which we are using with RF-MEMS and which could be applied to piezo nanowire,” said Langlois.

Time to IPO

The company is still privately held even though it has been in existence for nearly 20 years. But in the last few years – as MEMS have taken off in consumer but with increased adoption in other sectors as well – the market has started to move towards Tronics.

The company is backed by a team of venture capitalists including CEA Investissement, which specializes in nurturing CEA-Leti spin offs, but apparently is now profitable and doesn’t need to raise more venture capital. But it probably does need to pay back the patient money that has supported the company. “We are preparing for an IPO within about six months,” said Langlois. He added that the company would launch in Paris on the Euronext market.

So how does Langlois see the MEMS industry developing? Will it evolve into a fabless/foundry model following the blueprint established by CMOS logic (see MEMS imitates logic)?

Langlois does not see things so simply.

“Disruptive technologies can come into a market from time to time – like M&NEMS – and that could enable new foundries and a new generation of fabless startups. But that development could be specific to certain markets. The inertial MEMS sensor market is quite mature and perhaps that creates an opportunity to differentiate in design. In other markets technologies may be less mature, have lower economies of scale and the idea of deep partnership may remain.”

“The good news is there is a lot of growth for sensors. I am not sure whether it is a trillion but the megatrend is there. It is not just for the internet of things (IoT) but also for things like mechanical miniaturization, for things like more sensors in avionics, in life-sciences, more connected sensors and wireless.”

Langlois added that Tronics is already involved in work on sensor fusion where it has cooperated with Movea SA, another CEA-Leti spin-off that is being acquired by InvenSense Inc. (San Jose, Calif.).

“Sensor fusion is a discussion in itself but there is also the electronic treatment of the signal. There is the combination of the quality of the sensor and the mathematical capabilities. We have to enrich our capabilities in these fields,” he said. “But MEMS is a hot area right now. There is a proliferation of people coming with new ideas. It’s a very exciting area to be working in,” Langlois concluded.