Innovative RF Engineering Teams

In this series of blog posts I will explore various topics in the growing space that is the intersection of the commercial communications industry and the RF/Microwave defense industry. Gone are the days of plentiful cost-plus, multi-year development contracts and in their place we find an emerging competitive landscape. Nimble, technology-focused companies are taking the tools ubiquitous in the fast-paced world of commercial businesses and applying them to a new set of challenges found in the defense and aerospace industries. Just as commercial communication standards fueled rapid growth by allowing the re-use of modular components, disruptive companies are now working to apply these same methods to the RF defense industry. However, to be successful is no easy task. With a much smaller available market, these innovative companies need a thorough understanding of current and future market trends in order to define their technology road-map. We are now in a critical time for the defense industry with massive growth opportunities for innovative companies and a slow decline for those who fail to adapt.

It’s become a common story throughout the RF defense industry. The same conversations are heard in the lunch room, whispered in cubicles and discussed over dinner after a conference. The subject matter experts are retiring. Other engineers are leaving to build the next smartphone app. It’s becoming harder and harder to recruit the next generation of engineers with competition from companies like Google and Facebook. The once cutting-edge RF/microwave design houses are limping along by making minor updates to legacy programs, and in the process, keeping their limited engineering resources busy with paperwork.

With these challenges, innovation doesn’t happen by accident. Instead it requires a company committed to building the teams and establishing a culture where innovation thrives. In this first post of my series on the intersection of the commercial industry and the RF/Microwave defense industry, I will begin with some troubling trends that impede innovation and then conclude with Mercury Systems’ approach of addressing these challenges to build a world-class engineering team.

Nearly all of us have had the experience of redesigning a product due to an obsolescence and it’s rarely an exciting project. As a result of the countless mergers many of the go-to microwave FETs are becoming obsolete. We all know the steps: review the requirements, choose a device that we have used in a previous design, adjust the matching and bias, then build up the circuit and measure the performance. It is important work but no one would call it innovative. Even the design of a new LNA often involves the same technologies that have been used for decades: discrete devices, series feedback and matching networks on low-loss ceramics. We are all too familiar with the nickel-plated, aluminum housings that package these circuits. This technology is the bread and butter of the field, but in order to be truly innovative engineers must be challenged—and not just challenged by finding new ways of mixing together the same ingredients.

An outcome of this type of routine work—especially when combined with the hours of tedious documentation updates—is that the lack of opportunity for innovation demotivates engineers and pushes them to seek employment elsewhere. With fewer engineers the company is further prevented from innovating, resulting in a cycle towards commoditization and a purely “build-to-print” capability.

When we turn to the commercial communication industry we see examples of the magnitude of the innovation we are striving to achieve. In order to support the massive increase in bandwidth required for data-hungry smartphones the industry couldn’t stick to a cookie cutter design with minor modifications. In the following posts we will explore some of the specific technical leaps that allowed this rapid innovation in the commercial industry and how they can be applied to the RF defense industry. In this first post we start with the fundamentals—effective engineering teams.

Innovation requires more than being smart—it requires the ability to integrate multiple technologies—and this requires multi-disciplined, cross-functional teams. To achieve the most compact form-factor for a GaN SSPA, the RF designer needs to have a basic understanding of the thermal constraints and the types of signals it will be amplifying. Designing an OpenRFM transceiver requires an understanding of communication protocols, transceiver architectures, and digital processing. On top of this, the design team must be experts in the use of advanced modeling software, reliability analysis and the manufacturing techniques required for production. The most successful innovation also requires a thorough understanding of the application in order to develop a technology ahead of the customer request so it can be rapidly applied to multiple products.

In order for engineers to have both technical depth in their area of expertise and up-to-date technical breadth of the adjacent disciplines they must be challenged, mentored, and given the opportunity for continued education. Since even the most gifted engineers can’t be experts in all fields, the company must establish a culture of respectful collaboration. Not only does this foster innovation, but by creating a positive work environment it attracts top engineering talent. Instead of a downward cycle towards commoditization, we find a positive cycle towards cutting-edge innovation.

It is more than the free food that attracts engineers to a career at Google—it’s the knowledge that they will have the opportunity to be a part of true innovation. By giving engineers the opportunity to innovate, companies in the RF defense industry will also be able to recruit top talent, drive innovation, and deliver cutting edge products.

At Mercury Systems we call it Innovation that Matters and it is one of our core objectives. See our careers page to learn how you can be a part of this exciting, innovative team.

Part 2 in the series is now available. Learn how Mercury takes a key technology that enabled the proliferation of advanced consumer devices and applies it to the RF defense industry.