Semiconductors and Components

Magnetometers Resonate with Strong Double-Digit Growth in 2013

21 January 2013

The growing use of magnetometers or electronic compasses in smartphones and tablets for navigation and other advanced-motion uses will drive e-compass revenue up a strong 16 percent this year, according to an IHS iSuppli MEMS market brief from information and analytics provider IHS.

Revenue in 2013 for magnetometers is projected to reach an estimated $487.0 million, up from $418.3 million last year and from $390.1 million in 2011. This year's double-digit growth in magnetometer revenue will be the highest in the four-year period from 2012 to 2016, with the other three years averaging an expansion rate between 4 and 9 percent.

Magnetometers improve the positioning of handheld GPS devices like smartphones and tablets by providing heading information-the direction in which a person or vehicle is moving-with suf?cient built-in accuracy that allows the e-compasses to be used in location-based services and various other applica­tions. After Apple ?rst used e-compasses on the iPhone 3GS, this set the standard for smartphone-enabled navi­gation with intuitive auto rotation of maps, paving the way for the integration of magnetometers into smartphones with GPS as a must-have feature.

Today magnetometers can be found in more than 90 percent of smartphones and tablets, which together account for nine-tenths of e-compass shipments this year. A third opportunity will be in Ultrabooks as part of the laptop segment. Gaming is also a major platform, although the market here for magnetometers is quickly saturating.

E-compasses are likewise found in remote controllers, cameras, MP3 players and portable navigation devices, but their use in these applications remains negligible.  

Current integration schemes for magnetometers are dominated by the need for special placement of the device away from sources of electromagnetic interference. As a result, magnetometers will remain as discrete devices in order to retain flexibility for optimum placement. Manufacturers prefer, for instance, the combination of a 6-axis inertial measurement unit comprising an accelerometer and gyroscope, plus a discrete magnetometer included separately into the mix.

Even so, shipments are also rising of magnetometers as part of a 6-axis combo sensor that includes accelerometers, with 500 million pieces expected to ship by 2016. Low-end smartphones and feature phones-basically handsets without gyroscopes, another device to aid in navigation-will be the main opportunity for 6-axis compass modules, representing the ideal "plug-and-play" solution.

Software is a key aspect in the successful implementation of magnetometers, especially for tilt calibration and soft iron compensation, defined as the influence of steel, screws, battery contacts, and other elements in the phone and its environment that distorts the magneitc field. Location-based services and augmented reality, in particular, favor higher-sensitivity magneto-resistive technologies, in addition to magneto-inductive approaches.

There is also strong interest from mobile handset manufacturers in so-called magnetic gyroscopes to replace the microelectromechanical (MEMS) gyroscopes in low-end smartphones and feature phones. Such a requirement calls for a good hardware-performance compass as well.

Among magnetometer companies, Japanese-based AKM leads the market. AKM furnishes to all Top 10 handset makers, as well as being sole supplier to Apple and provider for Samsung's top-end Galaxy SIII and Note 2 smartphones. AKM, however, is facing pressure from other suppliers now able to ship in volume, and the company has had to cut its magnetometer prices, eating into its own revenue. It is also seeking success in combo sensors, as well as with lower-noise magnetometers with higher pointing accuracy.

Yamaha, also from Japan, is second to AKM in importance with its giant magneto-resistive (GMR) compass. Samsung is its top customer, but Yamaha is also successful with Chinese manufacturers like Lenovo and Japanese-based Kyocera and Fujitsu.

Other significant magnetometer suppliers include Alps, another firm from Japan; German maker Bosch Sensortec, a new player with its flip core technology; and French-Italian entity STMicroelectronics, whose customers include Sony Mobile and Chinese handset manufacturers. American firms Memsic, Honeywell and Freescale are also important producers.

Read More >> Magnetometers in Mobile and Consumer Applications

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