TOKYO – Nobody would question Renesas Electronics’ MCU prowess in the automotive market. The Japanese chip company held the number three spot in the global automotive IC market in 2016, largely by leveraging the strength of its MCUs in cars.
But what does Renesas have up its sleeve in non-automotive segments?
In a recent interview with EE Times here, Sakae Ito, Renesas’ vice president for its Home and MCU division, revealed a host of new healthcare solutions. He also discussed Renesas technologies devised for ultra-low energy IoT end-node devices.
These include Silicon-on-Thin-Box (SOTB), Renesas’ version of FD-SOI, and an internally developed wireless technology to charge a small lithium secondary battery used in healthcare, wearables and hearing aids.
Of course, this isn’t the first time Renesas has touted SOTB. But now, the Japanese company is confident that it can slash power consumption in its MCUs, reducing, for example, a 20 mW Synergy microcontroller to 2 mW. The goal is a quantum leap in battery life in IoT devices that could lead to a “battery-less” product when combined with energy harvesting, according to the company.
Renesas promised to deliver working samples of SOTB-based chips in March 2018, with mass production slated for March 2019.
The Renesas division covering smart homes, smart factories and smart infrastructure is substantial. It generates about 300 billion yen in revenue (about $2.7 billion) per year, slightly less than half of the company’s entire annual sales.
The MCU business tends to sprawl far and wide among global markets, as with any MCU supplier. During our interview, though, we focused on Renesas’ healthcare solutions. These are gaining attention, says the company, from both consumers and healthcare providers.
Here’s a quick primer on the Japanese healthcare system: Everyone must join a public insurance program through an employer or the municipal government and pay a monthly premium determined by income. In exchange, citizens have access to government-approved medical procedures and prescription drugs, for which they pay 30 percent of the cost or less.
Under this single-payer system, Japan is nowhere close to experiencing the healthcare crisis the United States has reached. Yet, many experts in Japan are worried about a rapidly aging society and a shrinking pool of premium-paying workers. They predict that these factors will put strains on the healthcare system, even threatening its sustainability.
Against this backdrop, companies like Renesas perceive a growing demand by providers for preventive healthcare solutions. They want wearables or any other devices that can constantly monitor accurate biological information, outputting data that might detect signs of deteriorating health before the onset of full-blown illness, explained Makoto Mizokuchi, senior manager, Renesas’ healthcare solution department.
Accuracy of collected data matters
In short, the wearable device market in Japan isn’t just driven by Fitbit geeks and gym rats. An array of healthcare providers want these gadgets for preventive care on a national scale.
Many smartwatches and wrist-based fitness trackers already available on the market now come with heart-rate monitors. However, questions and criticism about the accuracy of their data linger, because an irregular exercise routine can easily throw off measurements. Wearable bands using optical or infrared sensors, moreover, need to be worn tightly enough for the lights to touch the user’s skin.
Renesas has developed a wearable pulse-sensing reference design, which it claims is designed to accurately monitor pulse even during vigorous exercise.
The key is a noise-cancellation mechanism — stifling interference caused by body movement — integrated into the pulse monitor, Mizokuchi said.
Accurate pulse monitoring opens the door to a host of opportunities for biological analytics. Pulse data can translate into pulse wave and sleep level analysis, said Mizokuchi. Pulse wave analysis, for example, can help detect hardening arteries and potential heart attacks. Sleep level analysis offers a window into the activity of sympathetic and parasympathetic nerves.