Biosensors are still novel products, with only a handful of products on the market. We anticipate considerable growth in the markets for such products, but their novelty means that it is very hard to forecast the scale with any confidence. If the history of sensors and actuators based on microelectronics is anything to go by, we could expect massive markets to open up rapidly. For example, microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) have led to a number of successful products, with world markets in the region of $30 billion.
Sensor Manufacturing and Markets - What Will Happen in the Near Future?
For the immediate future, nanosensors could be relatively expensive, with high manufacturing costs for sensors and actuators. If we can achieve high volumes and low-cost products, the markets could be huge. The question is whether the increased capability of nanosensors will be sufficient to open up large markets quickly, and thus engendering a rapid decrease in costs. A related question is whether there will be scope for small firms to produce sensors and actuators based on nanotechnology.
Technical Challenges Faced by Manufacturers of Sensors
The major challenges in the manufacture of these devices are: Greater affordability, for example, in progression from MEMS to NEMS and nanoscale surface structuring over large areas; Greater reliability, for example manufacturing routes, and repeatability of functional responses; Effective biocompatible materials, materials for harsh environments, packaging and integration into macro systems; Fostering a successful marriage of bio and micro/nanotechnology technologies.
Global Competition in the Market for Nanosensors
The UK suffers one major disadvantage compared to major competitors, since these have strong infrastructures for Microsystems Technology (MST). For example, Germany has research strengths and manufacturing capability in MST. There is much activity in the interface between nanotechnology and biotechnology. Germany has growing strengths and capabilities in both fields. The US and Japan are now focussing major research efforts on these interfaces. Competition is also emerging from Taiwan, Korea, Singapore and China, rendering this a hotly contested field.
Sensor Design and Manufacturing in the UK
There is considerable expertise on the design side of sensors and actuators in the UK. But there is little strength in manufacturing. The capability in MST largely resides in the research base, and there is a lack of skills to take ideas forward into products. The UK has pockets of world-class research in the underpinning technologies. For example, the UK has strengths in functional materials, nanofabrication, nanometrology, biomolecular and biomimetic technology. Start-ups and small companies are pursuing biosensor technology, but no significant products exist yet. ‘Industry pull’ for these applications in the UK is not as strong as in competitor countries.
Challenges for Sensor Production the UK
Despite the difficulties, there is potential for technology to be developed, for example, through spin-off companies. A number of organisational changes could improve the climate, particularly more seed funding, and better arrangements for technology licensing. As with other areas, there are ineffective links between the users and the research base. We have also identified skills shortages as a problem once more, particularly manufacturing skills as well as multidisciplinary skills. The challenge will be to maintain and develop a strong research base in the UK, in such a way that it can complement areas of strength in the industrial base.
Challenges for the UK Drivers of Change
The availability of a wide range of increasingly sophisticated but cheap sensors will promote increasingly complex monitoring systems. System builders rather than sensor designers will drive the applications. Health, security, and environmental concerns will be major drivers.
Applications for Sensors in Health Care
In health, in the developed world there is increasing life expectancy. As the new technology becomes more commonplace and more affordable, global demand for products will increase. The market is demand led and long-term. Examples of specific applications that will emerge are personal health monitors, devices for on-site trauma treatment, devices for a ‘barefoot doctor’ and a wide range of aids for geriatric care. The primary restraint on increased use of sensors in health will be clinical approval, both for safety and cost effectiveness of the systems that emerge. Concerns over the use of the vast amount of data that could be collected will also be a restraint on the adoption of sensors in health care. 63
Applications for Sensors in the Security Industry
Security is the second driver for sensors and actuators. In the same way that nanosensors can provide ever more information on a person’s state of health, they can also provide more data to confirm a person’s identity or indicate the provenance of an object or document. Examples of specific applications that will emerge are: people sensing, asset tracking and identification, and chemical and biological agent detection. A key issue for security is reliability. ‘False negatives’ are unacceptable, while too many ‘false positives’ cause stress and inefficiency, and quickly cause people to ignore warnings. The primary restraint on the driver will be public acceptability. Concerns over privacy and civil liberties will dominate.
Sensors to Monitor the Environment and Industry
After monitoring ourselves for signs of failure, and others for signs that they intend us harm, our attention turns to our environment which we will want to monitor for changes that could threaten us, our descendants, or features of the natural world that we cherish. Examples of specific applications that will emerge are systems for monitoring and controlling industrial processes and waste dumps. Other distributed systems will monitor large areas, looking for unexpected changes, but they will depend critically on the technology to network a large number and variety of sensors, correlate the readings and produce reliable interpretations.
Regulation of Environmental Sensors
A key issue for the use of environmental sensors is regulation, which is a major incentive on polluters, or other responsible parties, to monitor emissions, environmental impacts, environmental quality and so on. The primary restraint here will be the cost of the systems - the lower the cost, the more parameters will be monitored.
What Will Successful Sensor Manufacturing in the UK Look Like?
A success scenario can be characterised in the following terms:
• In 2006 the UK will take the lead in supplying integrated multi-sensor systems and will be strong in sensor development, though manufacture itself may be global.
• The industry will depend on multi-function sensors. Detectors that are required in large volumes will come from numerous sources across the world; while tied suppliers will supply high specification detectors for niche products to the system integrators. Developments in sensors will be driven by what the technology can provide and by customer demand rather than suppliers. It will be important to develop IT tools to support systems and data analysis. Here the UK’s strengths such in fields as neural networks will be a significant advantage.
• Reliability is essential, and regulation and after sales service will be key differentiators in meeting insatiable market demand.
• Overall the scenario should be characterised by healthier, safer people.
What Factors Will Enable the UK to Achieve Success in Sensor Manufacturing?
The quality of research that UK companies can access is a critical feature here; but so, too, is access to appropriate sources of finance, especially for technology demonstrators, and supportive policy frameworks for the health service and other markets in the public sector. Other important factors include the availability of skilled people, access to fabrication facilities, regulation of environmental, health and safety issues, and the organisation of the industry and markets. Rather less important, but nonetheless significant, enabling factors include instrumentation and standards, ownership of research and the public acceptability of innovations, especially in the light of privacy concerns.
What Would Be the Indicators of Success for Sensor Production in the UK?
If we achieve this scenario, we will see the following indicators in the years to 2006:
• 10 per cent per annum growth in the population of trained graduates in relevant areas of UK nanotechnology.
• 100 per cent increase in the funding for technology demonstrators by 2004.
• The first major health field trails of nanotechnology-using systems - such as an integrated network of sensors - in a hospital by 2004.
• Demonstrated improvements in research and development related to this area, for example through publications, citations, patent filings increasing by 25 per cent by 2004 and 50 per cent by 2006.
• The UK’s share in nanotechnology-based sensor systems growing faster than our main competitors by 10 per cent per annum in 2006. 6
What Does the UK Need to Do to Make Sensor Manufacturing Happen?
If we are to achieve this scenario, we need the following:
• A considerable increase - perhaps a doubling - of research funding for sensors and actuators by 2004; new lines of funding for technology demonstrators; and industrial investment in prototype systems.
• Universities should be encouraged to support the area. Practical steps include: liberation of university staff time for R&D; longer term funding for individuals who can demonstrate the quality of their work and its relevance to user requirements; improved support for graduates.
• Regulations should be reviewed to examine their impact on innovation. In some cases we need more rapid approval process, ensuring that a device meets regulatory requirements, though it is important to retain public confidence in the regulations.
• Mechanisms to foster more effective technology transfer and better communication of technological opportunities and user requirements.65