Issue: Aug 2013


Optical controls to replace touchscreens



by Lenny Case

Rapid advances in the design and manufacture of integrated circuits (ICs) are seeing advances where it is becoming more cost-effective to replace touch screens with gesture controls. One of the leaders in the field is Belgian firm Melexis, which manufactures mixed signal semiconductors, sensor ICs, and programmable sensor IC systems. Their systems are found in nearly all automobile brands worldwide. Melexis is involved in many cutting edge new development areas such as: Human Machine Interface (HMI) and gesture recognition sensors, automotive CMOS cameras, an integrated LIN microcontroller family, 360-degree position sensors, programmable digital Hall Effect sensors, sensorless, brushless DC motor drivers, Near Field Communication (NFC) vehicle access ICs and many others. “Micro-machined silicon technology coupled with

Melexis mixed signal design has yielded infrared thermometers and pressure sensors that have opened new opportunities for our customers in leading edge systems for cars, appliances, industrial machinery and consumer goods,” says Peter Riendeau, Global Marketing Communications Manager at Melexis. In order to meet demand, Melexis has doubled the capacity at its Ieper facility in Belgium.

In March 2013, Melexis released a product family designed for easy implementation of robust optical proximity and gesture detection systems into automotive environments. Automotive HMIs need to be intuitive and safe to use, while new car buyers expect functions and features like Smartphone and media integration. Optical proximity and gesture detection enable a more intuitive HMI experience. Typical challenges for such systems are cost, sunlight robustness, electro-magnetic interference and mechanical integration constraints, while supporting multiple OEM configurations. Melexis’ MLX75030 and MLX75031 optical gesture and proximity sensing ICs address these challenges using the company’s proprietary integrated ambient light suppression, proven electro-magnetic compliance and flexible system architecture. The highly compact MLX75030 and MLX75031 feature two simultaneously operating light measurement channels which can detect the active optical reflection from a target.

The innovative ambient light suppression mechanism makes these channels highly tolerant to background light interference. Two additional channels are available to measure ambient light. In the same month Melexis introduced a new programmable Digital Hall effect sensor with superior functionality and performance. The MLX92232 features EEPROM memory allowing re-programmable magnetic switching thresholds including hysteresis. It can easily be programmed to meet any Hall Effect switch or latch specification for direct replacement of previous generation or competing Hall Effect sensors. The MLX92232 can be used to replace many inventory SKUs resulting in leaner manufacturing processes, reduced quality conformance expenses and lower inventory carrying costs. A novel 32 bit unique ID code in each sensor gives lifetime traceability.

Automotive Industries (AI) asked Françoise Chombar, CEO of Melexis, to what she attributed the company’s first quarter results for 2013 which saw sales up 6% cent from the previous corresponding year to reach nearly 62 million EUR.

Chombar: Despite the difficult economic climate Melexis has managed to witness double digit growth over the last fiscal year. This is mainly due to our focus on the relatively strong automotive sector, which now represents 84% of total revenue. Our automotive business expanded by 11.9% during the 2012 fiscal year - outpacing the global automotive semiconductor market by two percentage points. This is mainly because of our introduction of a large number of product innovations serving the automotive sector, with 15 new releases chalked up in 2012 - including the next generation of Triaxis Hall Effect position sensors, a MEMs-based monolithic relative pressure sensor, several BLDC motor driver ICs, a LIN-based RGB LED control ASSP and a multi-element infrared array.

AI: How do you see Melexis evolving over the next few years?

Chombar: The automotive semiconductor market is likely to remain vibrant over the coming years. Global light vehicle production is forecast to rise steadily, and the semiconductor content in cars will continue to increase. ZVEI (ZentralverbandElektrotechnik- und Elektronikindustrie), the German central association of electrical engineering and electronics does not expect any cessation in this trend before we reach 2030. The growth will be largely driven by the increased demand for ICs supporting greener, safer cars. Melexis’ evolutionary path is influenced greatly by these factors. The ever- growing Asian automotive market will also be an important contributor to how our company develops.

AI: Tell us a little about Melexis’ recent expansion of its production capabilities? Why was it necessary?

Chombar: It is through state-of-the-art production and testing that the company can realize innovative, high performance devices. We have invested heavily in these areas over the last year, with 10 million Euro spent on improving our test capacity and a further six million Euro going into the upgrading of our manufacturing facilities in Leper (which opened April 2013). The latter added 5,000 more square meters to the size of our operations at this site, doubling production capabilities.

AI: Tell us a little about Melexis’ 20-plus years of automotive experience – how does this helped your clients?

Chombar: The automotive electronics sector is not like other sectors, such as consumer electronics. Here the development timeframes are much longer and OEMs need to build relationships with their suppliers over many years, so that a deeper understanding of their ongoing needs can be cultivated. A semiconductor supplier cannot simply decide one day that they are going to move into the automotive business. There are major financial and technical barriers to entry that need to be overcome, as well as compliance with stringent industry standards. The decades of service that we have given to our automotive clients provide them with the assurance they need that their next generation models will be supported by innovative Melexis technology. We work in accordance with the highest of specifications. This requires our organization to set up routines that drive out variance and ensure we deliver exceptional quality levels consistently.

AI: How has Melexis helped in progression of human machine interface (HMI) technology and what further must be done in this field?

Chombar: The need for vehicle occupants to be able to quickly and easily control or gain access to information from navigation, comfort, entertainment and safety systems is leading to implementation of smarter, more intuitive HMIs. Optically-based proximity sensing systems, such as those based on our MLX7503x series of sensor ICs, will allow car manufacturers to add greater functional dimensions to touch-enabled HMIs. Simple gestures can be distinguished so tasks can be completed without any risk of driver distraction. In the future it is possible that, once this technology has been fully established, manufacturers might start to adopt an all-optical approach to HMIs with higher performance optical implementations replacing costly multi-touch touchscreens.

AI: Please tell us a little about your vision for Melexis’ automotive business – what role do you see your company playing in putting greener vehicles on to our roads?

Chombar: Melexis products are engineered to help bring about a sustainable future. Some 80% of the new product launches we made over the last year can be considered to be “green”. To meet the emission and energy reduction targets now being set by international bodies, innovative semiconductor technology will need to be developed. Melexis, through its ICs, will have an important role to play. Reduction in fuel consumption and the lowering of carbon emissions will result directly from improvements in sensing and actuator technologies.

Sophisticated sensor ICs will improve injection systems so that less fuel is needed. Advanced interface ICs for pressure sensors will allow better emission controls to be implemented. Use of superior bus networking ICs will translate into weight reductions in the wire harnesses of vehicles, while microcontroller products, such as our sensor-less BLDC motor drivers will prove critical in hybrid and electric vehicles as well as stop/start systems.

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