Twenty-ten, what was that all about? Throughout much of this year, forecasters puzzled over the direction of the economy. Was it heading for a double-dip recession or on its way to being stuck in a jobless recovery for the next decade? Elsewhere, a few optimists claimed to see the green shoots of resurging economic growth. Either way, predictions of a speedy recovery were far and few between. With such uncertainty about the future, what can be said about the health of the microwave industry in this tenth year of the third millennium?
Remember the tale of four blind men who felt their way around an elephant in order to understand what it was? Each one touched a separate part of the animal, such as the trunk or tail. After comparing notes they learned that they were in complete disagreement over the nature of the beast they could not see.
“And so these men of Hindustan Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right
And all were in the wrong.”
If we were to reverse engineer this parable—replacing the elephant with the general economy—which body part should we assign to the microwave industry? Let’s look at some metrics.
The strong recovery of the wireless communications market, especially for smartphones and supporting networks, provided double digit growth for leading RFIC/MMIC front-end and related test equipment manufacturers. The financial reports and product/technology innovations of these touchstone microwave companies in 2010 projected the image of an industry that was sturdy under pressure.
RFIC manufacturers responded with technology that addressed multi-band, multi-mode phone requirements, while improving linearity and efficiency (see September cover), test manufacturers responded with equipment that was faster and more accurate (phase noise, dynamic range, etc.), supporting nonlinear device characterization (see March cover) and MIMO-enabled network validation (see August cover). Meanwhile, network expansion in emerging markets helped fuel growth for passive component, cable and connector manufacturers. Clearly the microwave industry helped other markets move forward.
The abundance of applications enabled by high-frequency electronics, including mobile Internet, Wireless HD, M2M, low power RF Smart Grid, medical microwaves and RF plasma lighting—to name a few on the commercial side—suggests that we are an industry supporting mammoth-sized markets.
A review of the most popular online Microwave Journal news items for any given month shows interest evenly split between defense-related items (contract wins, mergers and market reports, i.e. GaN and radar) and commercial ones (Femto-cells, LTE and mobile phones/networks), suggesting an industry that is broad.
Sturdy, supportive, forward moving and broad—perhaps the high-frequency electronics industry is one leg of the general economy.
As the war on terror shifted focus from Iraq to Afghanistan and beyond, many companies pursued the defense and aerospace markets. Ad-hoc personal communications, UAV command and control, surveillance and IED counter-measures all helped drive defense R&D spending (see January, August Supplement and October cover stories), which in turn helped the microwave industry weather the economic storm.
This year, the MWJ/EuMA Defense/Security Executive Forum at European Microwave Week focused on where and how microwaves will spearhead systems targeting conventional and asymmetric threats. Will tension on the Korean peninsula or at airport security millimeter-wave backscatter machines escalate? In either case our technology is likely to play a role. Perhaps we are the pointy tip of the elephants’ tusk, protecting the economy from harm.
Economic anxiety in the broad economy swayed the American electorate to the right. Was this past election about jobs or government size and spending? If it is the latter, the United States might pursue an austerity plan similar to England and Greece. It would be unfortunate if defense cuts impacted the industry that provides such economic benefit and jobs, improves security and will help save global energy costs (see this month’s cover story).
A drastic cut to defense R&D funding is eerily reminiscent of when the banks stopped lending money. Over the past several years, the microwave industry has been poised to capitalize on the high demand for broadband wireless just as the financial markets seized up and companies without capital were laid to waste. For microwave applications, the need and technology was there; the funding was not. I’ll leave it up to the reader to decide what part of the elephant best describes the financial markets.
This past year’s editorial theme focused on the microwave supply chain with special reports on defense funding and procurement, surveys on competing suppliers and technologies and more. 2011 will be the year of the microwave engineer, with special editorial focused on your accomplishments.
The industry is full of many brilliant and inspiring individuals, some of whom passed away in 2010 including: Henry Riblet (co-founder of Microwave Development Laboratories), Roger Sudbury (MIT Lincoln Lab Director, IEEE Fellow), Harry Rutstein (President of Dorado International), George (Frak) Grund, (President of PamTech), Harold Harrison (co-founder of Aertech Industries) and Michael Cobb (Raytheon, friend and mentor to many); all great guys and tough acts to follow. But we stand on their shoulders and reach for the sky, tall and strong, just like the leg mistaken for a pillar in the old folk tale. So get busy, get writing and let’s talk. Have a great year.