Now that the year is winding down and we are feverishly completing our final shipments for 2010, it is time to look back and see what we accomplished over the last 300+ days. By most accounts, 2010 seems to have been a very good year for the RF/microwave industry. While it is true that Marki Microwave is a small player in a very big and diverse industry, I feel that my particular vantage point gives me some insight into what we are seeing both economically and technologically. I want to talk about some of the trends I have been seeing, and how Marki has been able to take advantage of a few of them. Since Marki is a private company, this is just about as close to an investor conference call as it gets for us, but I would imagine that much of what I say will be true for the big boys in the industry like Hittite and Triquint and Avago.
Broadband, broadband, broadband
I am obsessed with bandwidth, and I’m glad to see that the industry is too. Since Marki specializes in broadband components such as mixers, couplers and power dividers, I am always excited when a customer comes along and needs a power divider from 1 to 65 GHz, or a mixer from 10 MHz to 12 GHz (T3-12) . Interestingly, we have witnessed a very strong push this year from customers with very large bandwidth requirements. I believe this is coming from several trends. First, RF designers are finding that it is cheaper (and more elegant) to design a system with a few expensive, very broadband components than a lot of cheap, narrowband components. Many of our customers have gravitated towards our T3 mixers for this reason; they find that they can avoid investing in extra mixers, switches and amplifiers by using a single mixer that can cover the whole band and can be used with a flexible LO drive. Yes, the T3 might be 5x the cost, but they have purchased 10x less parts, and this translates to quicker design turn around and a lower risk of failure during board integration. This insatiable need for bandwidth is strongest in the test equipment and surveillance area and if anything, the demand is increasing. Another trend pushing the need for bandwidth is flexibility. In my opinion, the wireless area is over-populated with commodity components. While this is good for making your iPhone inexpensive, it is generally bad for military-type folks who need to communicate far away from the overpopulated low-GHz bands. I went to MilCom in San Jose a few months ago, and the JTRS radio was the big hit. One of the key benefits of this radio is its ability to work over a multitude of bands with untold numbers of modulation formats. Simple commercial components designed for the wireless industry do not satisfy such requirements, in part because they are designed with cost in mind, not flexibility in performance and application. Many customers call me nowadays with these flexible bandwidth requirements in mind, I expect it to continue into 2011.
High power and high linearity
If you are like me, you are sick of hearing about high power amplifiers, or PA’s for those who have been living under a rock. I estimate is that there are about 3,649 companies marketing themselves as PA experts, and apparently there is enough business to go around. OK, I am exaggerating, but PA’s seem to be the soup-du-jour (that’s the soup of the day for you ‘Dumb and Dumber’ fans). As a general trend, however, we do see that people are very concerned with the science of high power RF signals, and the components that can perform well at these powers. For Marki, we have enjoyed this push in the form of our high linearity mixers, yep, the T3’s again. I have written an app note about the T3’s, these mixers are amazing and offer the high IP3 and 1 dB compression in the industry. I am also seeing many inquiries for higher power couplers and combiner/splitters. I have put this on the To Do list for 2011.Why the need for more power and more linearity? There is no single answer to this question. In truth, the push for power and linearity stems from both commercial and military applications, alike. The “sexiness” of PA’s is explained by the fact that people want to transmit more power more efficiently for less cost. Hence, you see all those articles in the journals about GaN, GaAs, Triquint, Cree, PAE, etc. The quest for linearity stems from the trend of employing complex modulation formats to push more data down the pipe and the need for higher dynamic range systems. Components that can achieve better linearity performance through metrics like 1 dB compression, spurious response, and two-tone intercept all cater to these modern systems.
Surface mount to higher frequencies
There is a saying in the field, “the money’s in the packaging”. The modern incarnation of this trend is that components makers are being pressed more and more to offer higher frequency surface mount packages for their products. At Marki, we are unique in the fact that we are the only hybrid mixer maker that offers surface mount packaging beyond a few GHz. As opposed to GaAs mixers and LTCC mixers, hybrid mixers are challenging to make surface mount because they require suspended substrates that must float physically far away from ground. This poses a challenge for the packaging because the signal must therefore travel a long distance vertically before entering the circuitry. Marki solved this problem by building a 50 Ohm transmission line directly into the side of the metal carrier. We call this our ‘EZ’ package and is offered for mixers up to about 30 GHz. Amazingly, I have been getting calls over the past year where people want to go to even higher surface mount frequencies beyond 10 or 20 GHz. This trend is justified because surface mount assemblies are lighter and smaller (and cheaper if done correctly), but the designers still have many challenges to overcome. For one thing, surface mount assemblies to 40 GHz, for example, require an expert-level understanding of microwave packaging science and mechanical layout/design. In other words, even if the manufacturer can provide the components to 40 GHz, the system level assembly is still going to be a big headache. The mistake I have witnessed is when people underestimate the difficulty in building surface mount assemblies above 20 GHz or so; it is full of pitfalls and requires an experienced hand. Nevertheless, the trend continues, and I don’t imagine it is going to fade.