by Ted Heil, President – Mini-Circuits
MPD: The defense market for RF and microwave components through subsystems appears to be more lucrative than in recent years, especially in the area of electronic warfare. If your company sells into the defense market, what are your thoughts about how it will perform in 2017?
In spite of the budget constraints that remain in place in the US and Europe, at Mini-Circuits, we’ve experienced recent growth in the defense market, mostly as a result of the contracts awarded to defense primes last year for next generation long-range radar programs, as well as modernization programs for our naval fleet. The DoD Budget Proposal for 2017 shows most major programs funded at similar levels as in 2016, but we’re obviously watching the transition to the incoming administration and the changes in defense priorities that are likely to follow. The full extent of these changes remains to be seen, but we are anticipating future growth in the modernization of outdated systems, more R&D in EW surveillance and countermeasures, and possibly higher levels of procurement spending than we’ve seen in years, all of which will inevitably trickle down to the RF and microwave supply base.
MPD: The fifth generation of cellular is rapidly approaching and the immense scope of 5G seems almost certain to present significant opportunities for the RF and microwave industry. What is your perspective on this issue?
The myriad of proposals for 5G networks embrace lofty goals which will encompass both mobility and fixed wireless applications well beyond personal communications and internet access. In order to achieve the massive instantaneous bandwidth 5G will require, the industry has accepted the obvious solution to develop systems that operate up through the low- to mid- millimeter-wave bands, but the challenge lies in commercializing the technology affordably over those bands.
At those frequencies, cost is a challenge because there isn’t a good supply base of millimeter-wave RFICs. There’s a good supply base of single-function components, but you can’t meet the cost target for the dense deployment model of 5G building systems from this toolkit. The world today will use discrete components to prototype and pilot the solutions, but ultimately the RFIC supply base has to rise to meet the market demands. Companies making large investments in advanced silicon solutions have already made a lot of progress developing integrated transceiver chips that operate up to 60 GHz with CMOS and SiGe, and these will be the companies that serve the mass market.
That being said, as with 4G, there will be a peripheral market for passive elements like antennas that can’t be integrated with silicon. There will also be an equally complex test and measurement market for the development and qualification of these systems. Mini-Circuits’ broad range of high-performance components and test solutions are well suited to these high-mix areas and that’s where our focus is directed.
MPD: The Internet of Things (IoT) might better be called the Wireless Internet of Things, as without RF and microwave technology, little could be accomplished. If your company is selling into this market, please provide your perspective on IoT and its prospects for the RF and microwave industry.
Although Mini-Circuits doesn’t participate directly in the consumer markets that fall under the banner of IoT i.e. wearables, sensors, etc., we are deeply embedded in the IoT market on the development end of things. A plethora of startup companies developing products and applications for the IoT have come to Mini-Circuits to get started in the RF space and outfit their labs. This has been an interesting experience because the engineers we’ve talked to from IoT companies haven’t been traditional RF engineers. They tend to come from computer hardware and software application backgrounds, and because their products require connectivity, they’re learning about RF on the fly. Mini-Circuits offers them a big leg up in their development efforts, not just in terms of selecting components and kits for prototyping, test and measurement devices, or lab supplies, but also in the form of RF applications expertise through our strong technical field sales team, application notes, and direct access to knowledge resources they may not have in-house.
MPD: In your opinion, what are the RF and microwave technologies to watch in 2017?
As I mentioned, I think we’re going to see increasingly more integrated RFIC solutions in the millimeter-wave bands because of the big R&D budgets pouring into the 5G market. Within Mini-Circuits, we have several areas of focus that are exciting to us. These include extensions of our passive MMIC solutions into the millimeter wave bands. Another new technology that we believe will continue to gain momentum in the market is our line of reflectionless filters. Just in the last quarter, we’ve released new models with higher selectivity and higher rejection up to 40 GHz. We’re seeing more and more novel applications of these revolutionary products, and we believe as designers become more acquainted with their capability, reflectionless filters will become a standard building block to improve performance in a wide range of system designs. These products require high performance packaging that is both cost effective and minimizes parasitics at these higher frequencies. This is an area we’re investing to support many new applications in the 26 to 50 GHz bands.
We are also pursuing some interesting technology advancements in traditional areas. For example, in high-performance, lumped element and ceramic resonator filters, we have made great strides in outpacing the market to achieve Q’s that are not attainable with traditional construction techniques. Overall, it’s a mix of innovations in both new and traditional areas, across a wide range of applications that continue to drive technology forward at Mini-Circuits and in the industry.