Wenzel Associates: Perfect Timing
Liz Ronchetti is Owner and President of Wenzel Associates which she co-founded with her husband, CEO Charles Wenzel. Liz has a BSEE degree from Worcester Polytechnic Institute and currently lives in Austin, Texas where Wenzel Associates is located.
MWJ: Wenzel has been in operation since before Reagan or the wireless revolution. How did the company get started?
LR: Just out of engineering school, Charles Wenzel and I were looking for opportunities to start a business based on the joys of engineering and science; I think this is a common occurrence when engineers get together. Our dad's each ran small business, which definitely inspired us both. We were very fortunate to have customers almost immediately, something that most start-ups strive for and we were willing to work outside a narrow focus.
MWJ: How have you managed to weather all the different business cycles since 1978?
LR: Uncertainty in business is certainly the norm. Fortunately, the business of precise frequency and low noise is critical to many industries. And our experience both in custom design and manufacturing high performance products has helped. Wenzel has always had a willingness to do hard projects that others might reject, which has kept us continually pushing the technology.
MWJ: Your website describes Wenzel Associates as a small, woman-owned company. What are some of the advantages of being small?
LR: As a company under $25M in sales, we are agile, but still have significant manufacturing and engineering resources. We have wonderful, dedicated people handling all aspects of our business. Customer support is very natural for all of our people, helped by the excellent access we have to each other. It is not difficult to actually talk to an engineer, walk over to a buyer or shout to a product manager (though we occasionally do send emails across the building.)
MWJ: Are women owned microwave companies a rarity in our industry or are there more of them than one would suspect? Is there camaraderie among women owners that translates into collaboration on a business level or impacts your operations in some other ways?
LR: There are lots of talented and capable women who are key people in the RF and Microwave business. They are business owners, managers for our customers and suppliers, and engineers. We find that there is a very strong collaboration among small businesses, but it isn’t a gender issue, more it is comradery among people who are handling the same challenges in the same business environment. These close ties definitely help when faster deliveries are required or when margins get slim and help is needed.
MWJ: Your company’s focus is on a number of microwave modules but notably ultra-low phase noise crystal oscillators and synthesizer modules. What are the primary markets for your products?
LR: Our market is pretty broad. It covers lots of military products; like military radios, secure communications, and satellite links. Our oscillators and synthesizers are built into radars of all kinds; surveillance, fire-control, and threat-detection. They are on airborne, ship-board and land based platforms. Military test sets are also an important part of our business. Non-military requirements are about half of our volume. Test equipment and telecom info-structure, for both time and frequency critical applications, are huge. There are also interesting applications in radio astronomy, high energy physics and medical equipment.
MWJ: What are customers looking for in your main products these days regarding performance, price, size, delivery, etc.?
LR: The applications vary. For portable equipment, size, weight and cost are critical. We have introduced our small Onyx series oscillators to offer very low phase noise with off-the-shelf deliveries and at relatively low cost. And we’ve worked hard to design standard configurations for the lowest phase noise available in the ultra-low noise Citrine oscillators, and our MXO (multiplied) line that is configurable but not custom and provides extremely low noise references to X-band and higher. In military systems, it seems that the larger prime contractors are finding themselves in tough competitive environments, so cost is very important. But having excellent state-of the art performance and a reliable fast production cycle is also critical as the prime contractors invest their own IRAD funds to develop the latest new products.
MWJ: Are you witnessing any significant demand in new markets based on high-rel parts and what markets are driving this demand?
LR: We’ve seen high interest in the technology associated with a new, more automated military. Navigation, surveillance and threat detection all require precise frequency and very low phase noise. As the threats become more sophisticated so must our military equipment. Wenzel’s very low noise oscillators and synthesizers are on new battlefield radars and drones and are used in IED detection, for example.
MWJ: . How do you address high performance and reliability from an engineering perspective?
LR: So many things go into high reliability engineering. Components are key and we have a lot of experience qualifying the more exotic parts. We do a lot of pre-testing, especially to guarantee very low phase noise performance under vibration. And to ensure timely deliveries we maintain in-house testing for thermal shock, shock and vibration, humidity, altitude and thermo-vac. Wenzel has also developed extensive systems to handle ITAR requirements, counterfeit parts, tin mitigation and military program concerns.
MWJ: In 2006, Wenzel purchased Croven Crystals. What drove that purchase and what has it enabled Wenzel to do from both a product line and business perspective?
LR: Croven Crystals has always played a huge part in our product line. They consistently build excellent, low aging, low noise crystals that are unsurpassed. It took several years of work and lots of smoke and mirrors, but finally in 2006, we were able to acquire Croven. As part of Wenzel, Croven has been able to "close-the-loop" on phase noise measurements, and especially phase noise under vibration testing and now they are able to supply us with consistently low noise, <2e-10 per G crystals in both HF and VHF frequencies. Special crystal development is ongoing.
MWJ: Do you see opportunities for space-based applications despite NASA cut-backs and if so, what are the engineering and business challenges to sell into that market?
LR: There is still a good business in Space oscillators and synthesizers, and as with all things, cheaper and better is important. Delivery speed can be very important in commercial space. Though NASA is not building all of the hardware themselves, they are collaborating both internationally and with the new burgeoning domestic space businesses. There is quite a bit of measurement science, especially environmental, that requires precision frequency components. As important are surveillance and monitoring space systems that more and more governments are demanding. Global positioning systems will require upgrades and improvements and new systems are in development. Lots of opportunities for Wenzel Associates and companies like ours.