by Chris Dugan, President, Knowles Precision Devices
MPD: How is your company addressing the many constraints that the pandemic has placed on business operations?
The former mayor of Chicago was fond of saying “never let a good crisis go to waste.” Though the COVID-19 pandemic has caused our business a lot of disruption, it has also forced us to examine who really needs to be on-site, how many meetings we really need and how we communicate with our team and our customers. Our IT team did a great job getting people the tools they needed to work remotely, and now most of our office workforce is either working remotely or only coming into the office a couple days a week. For those continuing to work in the office, we implemented more frequent cleaning and disabled some of the card access readers for contactless entry into non-classified spaces. We also split up lunch periods to minimize the number of people in the cafeterias at one time. The transition was remarkably smooth.
State and federal essential worker regulations allowed us to keep production running for the components we manufacture for essential and medical devices. Since our frontline manufacturing and engineering staff cannot take their work home, we developed procedures to keep the employees who must come into our facilities safe. After ensuring that everyone had the right personal protective equipment (PPE) and knew how to properly use it, we changed the shift patterns and breaks to minimize crowding within the facility and to reduce the number of people attending shift meetings.
Additionally, from a supply chain perspective, we have managed risk and ensured business continuity based on strategies we already had in place. The supply chain team identified suppliers that were showing signs of stress, and held weekly calls with them to determine whether we needed to bring in some temporary inventory to reduce our risk.
Our staff quickly adapted to new ways of working, which meant we could continue to be productive and collaborative internally. This has allowed us to efficiently and effectively serve our customers from a distance. We also developed new ways to engage with and support our customers, including hosting an increased number of webinars and virtual events. We have taken advantage of the work-from-home model to push some training out to our global team. We have engineers, finance staff and other specialists recording 45-minute training events to improve our team’s understanding of our markets, products and business model. Additionally, some of our customers are using the work-from-home format as an opportunity to focus on new design challenges, so our design activity has actually gone up during the pandemic.
MPD: The adoption of open architectures is accelerating in many markets, from wireless to defense. Do you feel your company and the RF and microwave industry as a whole benefit from this initiative?
The short answer is yes, I believe both the RF and microwave industry as a whole and Knowles Precision Devices are benefiting from the proliferation of open architectures. To expand on that, with the widespread development of projects such as O-RAN, there is essentially more room at the table for vendors of all sizes to contribute to solving today’s RF and microwave challenges. As a result, we are seeing a steady stream of different approaches and innovative technologies emerge. This is great news for the industry because it increases the diversity of solutions available, and diversity is always a good thing as it keeps the industry agile and constantly advancing.
Additionally, the advancement of open architectures has created constantly evolving and unique new challenges for RF and microwave engineers to address. This means there are more opportunities than ever before for RF and microwave engineers at companies of all sizes to step up and help solve these diverse new challenges. For Knowles Precision Devices, this is great news. We thrive on doing the hard things and taking on the toughest RF and microwave engineering challenges out there. We choose to take on the complex challenges because of our commitment to supporting innovation and because, frankly, the hard stuff is interesting.
MPD: Technologies such as direct RF sampling are reducing the number of analog components in receivers and, increasingly, transmitters as well. Do you feel that the “digitalization of RF” will have an impact on your business?
As the industry continues to innovate its approach to radio, there will always be a need for RF components. However, the specifics of that need will continue to change. One of the biggest shifts we are seeing today is the “digitization of RF.” Since no one has found a way to digitize the radiation itself (yet), a transition from analog to digital needs to happen which still requires RF circuits to help the signal on its journey. However, the specifics of the signal’s journey are continually changing, which is creating new and exciting challenges for RF engineers to address.
With RF sampling receivers, for example, the journey analog signals take between the antenna and the analog-to-digital converter (ADC) is shorter. This reduced distance has made certain components obsolete, but it has also created demand for components that can perform different jobs. For example, filters are required in both architectures, but the nature of the “jobs to be done” by filters is changing as the different architectures place an emphasis on different spectrum management challenges.
So, in summary, companies that have been making the same component for 20 years and haven’t invested in new technologies could be in trouble. We spend a lot of time looking at evolving design challenges and making sure that we have the necessary solutions. It is what our engineers thrive on, which means we are prepared to adapt to new challenges like these, as well as whichever ones the future may bring.