25 years ago, on December 19, the IMMS Institute for Microelectronic and Mechatronic Systems started. Since then, 847 projects with 625 partners have been realized in Illmenau, 254 ASICs and 1142 wireless sensor nodes have been developed.
At the end of its 25th anniversary year, the IMMS Institut für Mikroelektronik- und Mechatronik-Systeme gemeinnützige GmbH (IMMS GmbH) looks back on its start. In the video »From one of the world's first USB hubs to AI«, actors from then and now span the arc from one of the first transfer projects launched in 1996 to current IMMS projects.
From the beginning, IMMS has set out to advance Thuringia by transferring research results into applications and products. Today, the state-owned company of the Free State of Thuringia and affiliated institute of the Ilmenau University of Technology supports companies in launching internationally successful innovations for health, environment and industry and accompanies its partners in their target applications from the feasibility study to series production.
»The fact that everyone knows USB today is also due to developers from Thuringia,« explains Dr.-Ing. Karsten Pahnke, managing director of emsys Embedded Systems GmbH, a staff member at IMMS until 1998 and responsible for USB developments. »In 1996, Intel, Microsoft and IBM had the idea of defining a standard that would be universal for PCs. In Thuringia, we realized early on that this meant equipping not only PCs but also devices with USB, and that this would require intelligent hardware and software in the device.«
The basis was the USB IC for PC mice from Thesys GmbH in Erfurt, which later became X-FAB and Melexis. Such an IC serializes the data between PC and mouse and exactly that is even more complicated if you want to connect several devices, Dr. Pahnke continues. The multiple distributor needed for this, the USB hub, was developed by the IMMS: »We were one of the first in the world to dare to do this.«
Initiated by requests from globally operating computer accessory manufacturers, who used the USB hub development for their devices, and after numerous USB workshop series and the publication of the first German USB book, the developers around Dr. Pahnke from the IMMS founded emsys Embedded Systems GmbH, which was dedicated to customer-specific development projects for hardware and software around USB. Even today, the focus there is still on USB, especially on sophisticated software developments for e.g. high data transfer rates with the lowest possible power consumption for battery-powered devices.
In addition, emsys also develops its own products in other areas, such as currently the network analyzer for the new 450 MHz network, which supports service technicians in the installation of smart meter gateways. The connection to IMMS still exists. Currently, both partners are working on edge AI systems for virtual security zones and their communication via mobile communications. »Here, too, it is a question of bringing as much performance as possible into a very small system,« summarizes Dr. Pahnke.
In 1998, the IMMS handed over the further developments of the USB standard into the hands of the spin-off companies emsys and Thesycon. Since then, IMMS has been developing mainly for small and medium-sized companies in the field of miniaturization and intelligent systems, which are seen as the key to new applications and products. One example is the Sonaphone, a novel digital inspection device that uses ultrasound to detect leaks in industrial equipment and can be used for preventive maintenance. The smartphone-like industrial measuring device, which has been on the market since 2016, was jointly developed by IMMS and Sonotec. IMMS implemented the digital components of the hardware and, among other things, developed software that makes the ultrasound data audible.
Prof. Dr. Peter Holstein, responsible for strategic development at Sonotec, brings up the research cooperation with the IMMS in particular for the success of the device so far, from which companies can benefit: »The small and medium-sized companies are usually extremely busy with everyday problems after all. At the same time, however, there is also the task of developing new products, of doing advance development, so that cooperation with research institutes is absolutely necessary in order to activate additional know-how.«
For the Sonaphone, thanks to joint development, many frequencies can be measured and evaluated simultaneously with just one device. Previously, measurements were much like listening to radio on only one frequency, Holstein continued. »You wouldn't get much enjoyment out of that. We sort of brought the hi-fi system into the ultrasound world.«
Today, IMMS is working with its partners on ultrasound monitoring devices with AI, among other things. »We are now trying to integrate these AI algorithms into the Sonaphone. In this way, we are now making the Sonaphone AI-capable, i.e. fit for the future,« explains Dr.-Ing. Tino Hutschenreuther, subject area manager for system design at the IMMS. The device is soon to operate in three channels to enable localization of the ultrasound source. »For this, we are using AI. That's also our goal beyond the Sonaphone: to realize AI for microcomputers in industry and here especially for adaptive edge AI systems.«
Then, as now, it's all about increasingly powerful and smaller systems. Today, the ICs developed at IMMS are only a fraction of the size of the USB IC back then and are only a few square millimeters small on average. With miniaturized systems and AI software, the IMMS would like to open up many new applications for the future, e.g. in the fields of environmental monitoring, smart city and life sciences.