Q: Is there a particular emerging application or technology that especially intrigues you?
A: As a manufacturer of systems that capture, digitize, record, store, and play back broad swaths of RF and microwave spectrum, two technologies in particular — analog-to-digital converters (ADCs) and digital-to-analog converters (DACs) and FPGAs — are of great importance to X-COM. The performance of both is steadily increasing. For example, ADCs now make it possible to directly capture and digitize more than 6 GHz of spectrum with high resolution, and DACs with similar performance can transform the signals back to analog form for transmission at any frequency within the range of a signal generator and upconverter. Loosen converter requirements for dynamic range and resolution and this ability extends to 10 GHz or more.
This was simply not possible until relatively recently and is a massive breakthrough for electronic warfare, radar, test systems, and any application in which bandwidth is “king.” It eliminates significant amounts of analog components and subsystems, reduces system size, weight, and power consumption, and allows the inherent benefits of processing signals in the digital domain to be achieved early in the receive path without intervening components.
The FPGA is the Swiss Army Knife of components, as the range of functions it can simultaneously perform is staggering. FPGA capabilities increase significantly every 18 months or so, and today they make it possible to perform signal processing, general-purpose processing, high-speed data communications, and other functions all within a signal device. Their ability to be re-programmed to perform different functions without hardware changes is a huge benefit, and is being realized in telecommunications, defense, and other systems -- with more to come.
Q: Are you experiencing any effects of the reduction in defense spending or are you anticipating any impact on your business?
A: The majority of X-COM’s customers are prime contractors or agencies of the Department of Defense, so a robust future for both is obviously vital for us, as it is for at least half of the RF and microwave community. Perhaps the most frustrating challenge is uncertainly about how and on what the Pentagon’s RTD&E and procurement budgets will be spent.
That said, there are many, many programs that require RF and microwave technology as well as the expertise required to produce cost-effective systems that employ it. Regardless of what ultimately occurs in Washington, the U.S. increasingly requires what this industry provides in order to upgrade legacy systems to meet current threats and to create new ones that are orders of magnitude more advanced than their predecessors.
The most essential capability for manufacturers to demonstrate is affordability, and this in turn requires implementation of new technologies in products that can perform multiple functions, more proficiently, in a smaller space. These are goals that X-COM is addressing with both its current and next generation of products, as no doubt many others in this industry are as well.
Q: China has long been considered the greatest potential global market for many companies in the RF and microwave industry. Do you feel this is still true? Are there other emerging markets that you believe will be lucrative in the next few years?
A: China continues to be extraordinarily appealing for those companies willing and capable of manufacturing or doing business there. However, countries that were once simply ignored have now been bolstered by huge amounts of foreign direct investment (thanks in no small measure to China’s insatiable need for raw materials), so both wireless and defense opportunities are now available in countries where they previously did not exist.
The most obvious example is in Africa, where some countries are developing either state-owned or private communications systems using wireless technology. Many are also expanding their militaries. So while the China market remains enormous, it is now complemented by many others that represent totally new opportunities.
Q: What do you believe will be the greatest challenge for the RF and microwave industry?
A: The greatest challenges for RF and microwave manufacturers in the future will be capitalizing on the aforementioned opportunities as well as making the most of emerging technologies, the most obvious of the latter being gallium nitride (GaN). As arguably the most important breakthrough in microwave semiconductor technology since GaAs discrete and MMIC technology emerged in the 1990s, GaN is already expanding its presence from defense system into commercial markets and its potential has only just begun to be tapped.
The industry will also have to grapple with the necessity of bridging the gap between digital and analog technologies, which it has resisted for decades. This is no longer an option, as digital components are slowly replacing analog components for performing various functions, a trend that will continue – and accelerate. The path in the future will be to integrate both technologies to meet future needs at less cost, in smaller footprints, and with greater performance.