Let’s start with the traditional approach. After spending the morning helping production with some tuning on an amplifier, you finally start reading through the 120-page RFP, SCD, and SOW for the new up-converter. At the end of the source control drawing there is an oddly shaped mechanical outline. The control signal is routed through a hermetic mico-D connector with a custom defined pin-out. While not ideal, the locations of the RF ports are manageable. The eight-month timeline to CDR appears reasonable. However, six months in and it becomes clear that it will take longer and cost more than anticipated. The back and forth iterations with the engineer supporting the custom designed digital control board seem to go on forever. The engineer working on the output module determines that she will need a new heat-sink to keep the devices from becoming too hot. The mixer is generating a spur that wasn’t predicted and somewhere a gain stage is oscillating. The frustrated program manager has to add this project to the long list of development jobs with irate customers.
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.