It is pointed out that Korea urgently needs to foster the state-of-the-art sensor industry before it can reinforce its competitiveness in the emerging Internet of Things (IoT) and preempt the market.

Among the component technologies necessary for IoT, Korea has global competitiveness in Things, such as communication technologies, TV and consumer electronics. In contrast, Korea is much less competitive than the US, Japan and Germany when it comes to sensors, and has much fewer companies specializing in sensors. For Korea to become a true powerhouse in IoT, experts agree, the country needs to grow fast in sensors.

◇ Diversification and high growth of sensors are ‘Big Trends.’

According to the Korea Electronics Technology Institute, more than 200 sensors of over 30 types are recently used in ordinary passenger cars. The number more than quadrupled compared to the 1990’s. The number of sensors used in cell phones increased from 4~5 in 2000 to more than 20 in recent years.

The demands for convenience and safety are increasing and the interaction between devices and people is expanding. It is quite natural that the demands for state-of-the-art sensors should sharply increase in this process. Sensors are regarded as the core element in reinforcing competitiveness in future industries, e.g. robots and medical devices, as well as in existing major industries like automobiles and mobile devices.

“Without precise sensing, smart home or telemedicine is virtually useless,” said an industry insider. “Assuming that a large number of sensors are installed in various things, demands for precise sensors will increase explosively.”

◇ Future-oriented state-of-the-art sensors must be targeted.

Sensors are devices that perceive the external environment and convert it into electric signals so that higher systems can easily process it. State-of-the-art sensors, combined with the semiconductor and nano technology, drastically enhanced the ability to sense the external environment. Intelligent sensors with built-in signal processing, such as data processing, automatic calibration, self-diagnosis and decision-making, are appearing one after another.

Sensors, which used to simply measure flow, temperature and exhaust gas, evolved into acceleration and light sensors, collision avoidance sensors and image sensors in the 2000’s. More recently sensors with advanced functions are appearing, e.g. intelligent collision avoidance sensors, radars, autonomous driving sensors, acceleration sensors and ultrasonic sensors. Demands for multi-sensors, including visual and tactile, 3D vision sensors and bio sensors, are increasing as well.

The Korea Electronics Technology Institute forecasts that △ Micro Electro Mechanical Systems (MEMS) sensors △ CMOS image sensors (CIS) △ Radar system on chip (SoC) sensors will lead the entire sensor market in the future.

“Original technologies are very important to sensors and the technological barrier is quite high,” said a KETI insider. “It is difficult to bring about good results in all fields in a short period of time, and it is necessary to select a strategic field expected to grow fast and conduct targeted R&D and then commercialize.”

◇ The cooperative ecosystem between large corporations and specialized companies is important.

As of 2013, Korea accounts for only 1.7% of the global sensor market. The US, Japan and Germany are leading the market with a combined market share of 63.0%.

A sensor industry insider said, “Korea is technologically inferior to advanced countries when it comes to high-performance state-of-the-art sensors, and less price-competitive in general-purpose sensors.”

The government began to foster state-of-the-art sensors this year. It is planning to invest KRW150.8 billion (government KRW114.7 billion, private sector KRW36 billion) in the next 6 years and promote state-of-the-art sensors. Not only for the sensor industry itself, but also for responding to the IoT, Korea needs to speed up its R&D.

Cooperation in the private sector must be increased too. Sensors are characterized by ‘various small quantity batch production.’ Strategic development in conjunction with customers and reinforcement of the ecosystem is important. Large corporations in need of sensors, preparing for the IoT on a large scale, such as Samsung Electronics, LG Electronics and SK Telecom, and specialized sensor makers can work together.

The industry advises that Samsung Electronics and SK Hynix, specializing in memory semiconductors, should more aggressively develop promising next-generation sensors in order to promote system semiconductors.