Lessons in RF Manufacturing from a Chicago Sausage Factory

People often say RF is black magic and it sometimes feels that way. I remember one evening I was called down to the production floor to help troubleshoot a technical problem found during swing shift. There was a product going through final test and it would only pass if held at a certain angle. At first I was doubtful that this was the case, but I held it in my hands, watched the performance on the network analyzer, rotated the unit, and saw the performance degrade. First we suspected the VNA cables, but a golden unit was solid regardless of its orientation. Then we performed the standard “shake while listening for something rattling test” but couldn’t hear anything—plus the repeatability seemed to suggest it wasn’t due to FOD. X-ray imaging didn’t yield any clues. Eventually, we had to send it off to de-lid, found nothing wrong, and after real-seal the performance was stable. The best theory we had was that the problem was due to flux improperly cleaned from a feedthrough.

It was this type of problem that drew me to RF engineering in college. Circuits that only worked when you placed a finger in a certain spot. The gain reduced by the microscope light. While it felt like black magic we all knew that in reality it was physics too complicated to be fully modeled. To this day, I still find these problems fun until all of a sudden a revenue commitment is missed.

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Swap Optimized RF

Smaller, Faster & More Affordable

During a Saturday afternoon of closet organizing, I found my first laptop from 2002—a Dell Inspiron 8200. I remember paying a premium—over $2,000 I think—for the Pentium 4 processor and the 256MB of RAM. It required 4.5A at 20V (90W) and weighed 8 pounds 3 ounces, which is just slightly less than the current weight of my two-week-old daughter. While organizing my closet, I was also listening to a podcast on my $250 phone that easily fits into my pocket and is far more powerful than the old laptop.

Both consumers and defense primes are demanding increased performance, in smaller packages, at lower prices. We have come to expect this level of improvement in each new smartphone generation. Addressing new emerging threats in the defense space requires a similar advancement. In this third post of my series on the intersection of the RF commercial and defense industries, we will examine the need for products that are smaller, more capable, and less expensive. Packing more circuitry into smaller areas is no easy task and to be successful, a company must embrace innovation and modular design—the subjects of my first and second posts in this series. This applies to designing a smart phone or a radar system.

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IMS 2018

IMS 2018 Re-Cap

It was a week of cheese steaks, US history, and ten thousand RF and microwave professionals. The International Microwave Symposium, or IMS, is an annual event that brings together the latest research from academia, hundreds of companies, and presentations from the most knowledgeable experts. This year we all gathered in downtown Philadelphia to learn what’s new in the industry.

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Modular RF Architectures

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.

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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.

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