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EETE OCT 2014

CEO interview: AMS’ Laney on driving a sensor-driven business By Peter Clarke Kirk Laney, CEO of Austrian mixed-signal chip and sensor company AMS, wants to leverage the opportunity that technology affords to create new markets for sensors and sensor interfaces. Kirk Laney was at Texas Instruments for 19 years up to 1998 when he helped organize a management buy-out of the optoelectronics division he was leading there. That became Texas Advanced Optoelectronic Solutions Inc. (TAOS) a company that Laney built up for 13 years before its acquisition by AMS “At TAOS we saw an integrated sensor opportunity in areas like ambient light sensing and proximity sensing and benefited in the smartphone space. Then there was the 2011 acquisition by AMS and I came along with the deal. And in 2013 John Heugle stepped down as CEO and I was asked to take over his position.” Laney makes the point that it had not been his intention to eventually lead the company when AMS acquired TAOS and that the deal did not represent some kind of reverse takeover. Nonetheless TAOS, which had been a foundry customer of AMS, added significant sales Kirk Laney, CEO of AMS. to AMS and under Laney the vision has become to make AMS into a sensor solutions company. “We want to leverage our competence in analogue semiconductor manufacturing and design. We have 400 analogue design engineers.” AMS is active in magnetic, optical sensing, sensor interfaces, power management ICs for things like motor control and short-range wireless communications but with 75 to 80 percent of sales in the sensor and sensor interface category, said Laney. “The Applied Sensor acquisition developer of chemical sensors complements our portfolio nicely. We continue to be opportunistic in terms of looking for companies to acquire.” AMS is generally oriented towards serving industrial, medical and automotive sectors with some sales into white-goods consumer and ambient light sensing in smartphones and tablet computers. Re-org Under Laney AMS has re-organized its business divisions. What was organized by end-market sector; automotive, industrial & medical, consumer, communications has been regrouped around sensor competencies, Laney said. This is an interesting reversal of the conventional wisdom of the 1980s and 1990s, which said companies should be end-user sector focused to help ensure that they were driven by customer demand rather than technology-push. The advance optical sensors division services LED-oriented business and is mainly about display management but is looking to grow with sensing and controlling. The sensors and sensor interface division is more general and less consumer oriented. It is selling multiple technologies into industrial, medical and automotive applications including components for LIDAR – light detection and ranging – and computer tomography. The emerging sensor technology business includes power and wireless management but is also looking to sensor-driven lighting. Laney is clear that the success achieved by TAOS in tuning the LED-driven displays of smartphones and tablet computers can be repeated by AMS around LED lighting with automatic colour and dimming control becoming the norm for reasons of power efficiency and people’s medical well-being. The same division is also looking at narrow-band spectral sensing and multichannel narrowband spectral sensing for lab-on-a-chip medical and food processing applications. Laney said he is excited about the opportunities. They are vast and largely untapped whether it is for authentication of coffee products or artwork, for measuring gases and chemicals in heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems or monitoring the quality of milk in China. The emerging technology division also demonstrates something of Laney’s painstaking and methodical approach to business and his desire to replicate the success of TAOS. In essence Laney believes the keys to success lie in the detail and getting those details right for the customer. “There’s a fine line between tracking the market and bringing out a disruptive part. At TAOS we created the market for display management. We thought it was going to be in laptop computers but, in fact, it went quickly with the introduction of smartphones. Now we are looking to add gesture recognition, proximity detection. We have to continually re-invent ourselves.” One thing that Laney is not interested in is moving AMS towards sensors that have become commoditized. “When we started TAOS we realized that CMOS image sensors were going to become a blood bath. We didn’t want to go there. The same is true of inertial MEMS – that is unless we can combine inertial MEMS sensors with something else and create value at a higher level.” In other words Laney wants the emerging sensor division to find the point where a novel sensor technology meets a business need and AMS can get all the details right for a customer and essentially create a whole new market, whether that is in the LED light bulb, in the HVAC thermostat, in the automotive cockpit or on the outside surface of the car, or in a medical, veterinary or dentistry application. 14 Electronic Engineering Times Europe October 2014 www.electronics-eetimes.com


EETE OCT 2014
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