When thinking of high-performance electronics, timing devices aren’t the first to come to mind. However, they’re crucial to the success of new electronics. Timing devices provide the heartbeat in electronic systems by delivering a consistent signal that’s the reference to all other digital components. According to estimates by Dedalus Consulting and SiTime, timing is an $8 billion market that’s forecast to reach $10 billion by 2024, driven by the growth in 5G, IoT, automotive, and cloud segments.
Timing products generally fall into three categories—passive resonators, active oscillators, and integrated clock generators and buffers. Each of these devices plays a different and unique role in electronics. With increasing system complexity, bandwidth, and functionality, and all packed into a smaller-size packages, timing devices must evolve to meet the stringent demands of emerging electronics.
More Accurate “Real-World” Timing is Needed to Support Faster, Increased Connectivity
The 5G era will usher in 10X faster connectivity and 50X lower latency delivered through 100X more devices. Only then will we have new services such as autonomous driving, next-gen remote healthcare, and precision automated agriculture. Spectrum utilization must become more efficient to make this vision a reality.
Bandwidth will dramatically expand, while latency decreases, through the deployment of new 5G equipment—including many more radios and supporting infrastructure installed closer to the customer in less-controlled environments. Not only must timing become 10X more accurate, but these timing devices must operate reliably in the real world where environmental stressors such as shock, vibration, airflow, lightning surges, and electrical noise are omnipresent.
In contrast to traditional quartz-based devices, MEMS-based timing solutions have a resonator mass that’s 1/3000th the mass of existing devices, making them more immune to mechanical stressors. With such robustness, MEMS timing delivers more accurate, robust, and reliable performance in the real world, and therefore for successful 5G deployments, it’s expected to play a significant role.
Temperature, Temperature, Temperature
A decade ago, a smartphone had two to three wireless interfaces—cellular connectivity, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth. The data throughput of these interfaces has increased 10X or more, and more wireless interfaces such as NFC, UWB, and radar are now standard.
With the increased bandwidth, the performance of onboard processors has risen, and correspondingly, they run much hotter. The story is the same with infrastructure equipment, cars, and other electronic devices. Everything simply run much hotter, and not only that, but the temperature ramps are more dramatic and often in smaller footprints.
That presents a challenge for traditional timing devices, where stability is adversely affected by temperature. Newer MEMS timing devices are incorporating sophisticated temperature-compensation algorithms to ensure that they perform well in the presence of extreme and rapidly changing temperatures. MEMS timing solutions routinely maintain excellent stability at temperatures from −55°C to +125°C and can handle fast thermal ramps, making them a perfect choice for environments with temperature stressors.
Increasing Electronics Complexity: Smaller Size and Integration
Devices in the mobile electronics market, including smartphones, smartwatches, Bluetooth hearables and wearables, asset trackers, and personal medical devices, continue to ramp up in complexity. More electronics are packed into a system while it shrinks in size.
To meet these conflicting needs, the electronic components inside, of course, must also become much smaller and more integrated. A decade ago, a state-of-the-art oscillator had a footprint of 5 × 8 mm. Today’s oscillators are as small as 1.2 mm2 and are expected to shrink further in the next half-decade.
In addition, as the number of electronic functions increases in a system, timing devices will integrate the timing reference, frequency generation, and clock-distribution functionality all in one chip. Siliconization is one technology that makes such integration possible, primarily when the timing reference uses silicon-MEMS technology.
New applications and requirements elevate the importance of timing in the design process and consideration. Designers and manufacturers are looking beyond traditional quartz timing solutions.
Autonomous driving, 5G infrastructure, wearables, and aerospace-defense applications all demand more from their timing references. The reliability, size, power, performance, and resilience needed from these new applications are driving a new approach to timing. And just like other industries that have siliconized as they progressed, so too is the timing market.
Silicon accelerates innovation to help solve difficult timing problems. Whether driven by environmental considerations, stability at higher temperatures, or building complexity into a smaller space, timing becomes an enabler and a differentiator. The benefits of silicon-MEMS technology will enable this ever-evolving connected world we live in, from communications infrastructure and mobile-IoT to automotive and industrial automation.