Proving the Business Case for the Internet of Things

AMS targets wearables in acquisition of CMOS sensor business from NXP

Steve Rogerson
July 28, 2015
To pave the way for its takeover of Freescale, Dutch electronics company NXP has sold its CMOS sensor business to AMS, formerly Austria Microsystems. The range includes devices destined for the wearables market, such as those that can detect breath alcohol levels.
NXP is facing regulatory hurdles worldwide as it tries to complete its takeover of Freescale, with some countries worried that it could have a monopoly in their markets. A key goal therefore has been to diversify itself of parts of its sensor business, hence this sale for an undisclosed amount.
“It was not that they had to get rid of it, it was just good timing for them,” insisted Peter Gasteiner, senior vice president for AMS in an interview with IMC. “The business is not significant for them in terms of revenue. They are in portfolio management activity and this did not fit significantly with their main interests and activities.”
The purchase mainly consists of IP, patents and various rights associated with these. Also, slightly more than 30 engineers are moving over from NXP to AMS. These were previously based in NXP’s facility in Eindhoven but AMS has now established a subsidiary called AMS Netherlands. AMS also plans to recruit to make up for the NXP corporate facilities no longer available.
“They did use corporate NXP resources such as the quality department,” said Gasteiner. “We will add that locally. Initially, just over 30 will be joining us. We have no real number on how many more we will add. We have a short-term goal to add about 16 to this group. Long term, it might go far beyond that.”
To house them, AMS is renting a high-tech building in Eindhoven. This will contain R&D activities but not manufacturing, which will continue to be handled by a third-party wafer fab in Singapore.
As well as wearables, the sensors can also be used in other mobile devices for weather alarms and humidity compensation for gas sensing.
“For us, this was an excellent addition to our capabilities,” said Gasteiner. “We already have gas sensors. We did not have humidity and pressure sensors, and we need these for things such as home automation, so this is a great addition for us.”
In home and building automation, distributed relative humidity (RH) and temperature sensors in combination with volatile organic compound (VOC) sensors will be able to monitor accurately the indoor climate and air quality, which will contribute to a more efficient use of the air conditioning and ventilation systems.
VOC and RH sensors can be used in the distribution chain of perishable goods such as food to monitor the quality during transportation and storage. RH and temperature sensors can also assist in improving the drying process of ink-jet printers by sensing humidity levels in the air and within the paper, and can assist in improving print quality for toner-based printers by sensing RH in the toner.
AMS’s gas sensor business is based near Stuttgart in Germany and this will continue but will work together with the new Dutch facility.
“We are merging the NXP business with our gas sensor business,” said Gasteiner. “These will be one business line.”
The sensors that AMS is acquiring can also be used in automotive applications for testing interior humidity and air quality, and then send signals for the vehicle to make appropriate changes in airflow for, say, defogging the windscreen.
“In automotive, we have been shipping gas sensors for many years,” said Gasteiner. “These test the air quality outside to control the flap that brings in air. Now, the next generation will add humidity sensors to help control the air in the cabin and start to clean the air.”
For pressure sensors, he said this was a particular attraction as the NXP units did not use MEMS that added an extra chip but rather were monolithic and can be on top of an existing CMOS wafer.
“This saves money and size,” he said.
According to an AMS statement, the newly enlarged line of environmental sensors is anticipated to drive high-value growth opportunities for smartphones, wearables and other mobile devices as well as for smart buildings and the industrial, medical and automotive markets. The smart sensor systems will combine intelligence, wired and wireless interfaces, and power management to increase human comfort, reduce energy costs, and provide additional safety and security.
“Environmental sensors can replicate and enhance human responses by monitoring and measuring smell, pressure and temperature,” said Thomas Riener, executive vice president at AMS. “By capturing this information electronically, data-driven decisions can be made automatically and efficiently. The acquisition of NXP’s CMOS sensor business expands our existing environmental sensor technologies and is a synergistic addition to our chemical sensor capabilities and smart lighting. This portfolio makes AMS the one-stop shop for environmental sensors.”
• In a separate move, AMS has launched a series of optical sensing modules – the TMx4903 – integrating multiple functions including universal remote control, barcode emulation, RGB colour sensing, and proximity and 3D gesture detection in a 5.0 by 2.0 by 1.0mm package.
The high level of integration in the modules can reduce board space requirements and lower cost while delivering capabilities required by today’s smartphones. By integrating multiple optical sensing functions, and an infra-red (IR) LED in a module, the devices help to simplify smartphone board layouts increasing flexibility to designers. The low-profile package also helps designers meet consumer demand for sleeker, slimmer and more aesthetically pleasing smartphone designs.
The module variants in the series – the TMD4903 and TMG4903 – perform colour and proximity sensing, and integrate an IRBeam IR pattern generator. This pattern generator emits remote control beam patterns for any standards-compliant consumer product. The URC capability is also compatible with the Android consumer IR programming interface for remote-control applications on smartphones. Mobeam 1D barcode emulation for use at retail point-of-sale (PoS) terminals is also supported.
The TMG4903 provides what is claimed to be the industry’s most advanced touchless IR gesture-sensing capability. The company’s 3D gesture technology enables the recognition of complex hand gestures, supplementing simple north-south and east-west 2D gestures supported by its first generation TMG3992 gesture sensor.
The TMx4903 3D gesture and proximity capability draws on the modules’ automatic adjustment of the IR LED’s timing and power output, reducing noise and power consumption while optimising sensitivity and dynamic range. It incorporates circuit techniques that reject ambient light noise.
Automatic calibration removes electrical artefacts caused by noise and optical crosstalk. This integrated intelligent LED drive capability eliminates the requirement for the application processor to control LED driving functions, which simplifies the phone’s software implementation and reduces processing capability required for instantaneous gesture recognition.
“Today’s leading smartphones are known for integrating cutting-edge technology, functionality and aesthetics,” said Darrell Benke, senior product marketing manager for AMS. “The space savings enabled by the use of the TMD4903 or TMG4903 help OEMs set new standards of integration in the smartphone industry.”
The TMD4903 and TMG4903 are available now in production volumes.