Executive Interview with Dr. Samuel Cho
Microwave Journal invites Dr. Samuel Cho to explain his company’s global activity, how strategic partnerships have shaped its success and its continued commitment to GaN technology. He also considers expansion into new markets, the development of products at higher frequencies and environmental issues.
Dr. Samuel Cho is the founder and CTO of RFHIC Corporation. He was previously the president of MCC Inc. and has been involved in the development of RF and microwave components and systems for over 30 years. He has a BE degree from Kwangwoon University, a ME degree from Yonsei University and a PhD degree in RF and Microwave Engineering.
MWJ: Focusing specifically on the RF and microwave sector what are RFHIC’s main areas of business?
Cho: RFHIC is a manufacturer of active RF components and modules primarily for the wired and wireless telecommunication and broadcasting markets. The company was founded in 1999 and has been pioneering in the telecommunication and CATV component markets with new technologies and new product features ever since.
Major areas of business include base stations, repeaters, cable networks, LTE, WiMAX, UMTS, digital TV, radar, medical, military, and test equipment for infrastructure markets. Within the RF and microwave sector, RFHIC is focusing on three major areas of business: GaAs MMIC components, RF transceiver modules and Gallium Nitride (GaN) based wideband pallet power amplifiers.
MWJ: Although headquartered in Korea RFHIC is very much a global company. Please outline the reach of your worldwide activity and do you have plans to expand into other areas?
Cho: RFHIC currently has 29 international partners who are working together to serve over 1,000 customers across 45 countries. The company currently operates a US R&D Centre in Cary, North Carolina. And as we speak, we are spinning this off into a fully functioning independent US entity supporting customers and the sales network in the US. In addition, we plan to open a European office to do the same for our European customers.
Product wise, we are expanding into ‘Green’ Technology and utilizing highly efficient GaN technology to lessen energy requirements and to satisfy the demanding space constraints that our end customers expect.
Another area of expansion is in the frequency domain. Traditionally, RFHIC has focused on the market below 6 GHz but we are now planning to produce products, especially the power amplifiers, with offerings at higher frequencies in the C & X bands.
MWJ: Do you develop and market products for specific geographic markets and if so to what extent?
Cho: We focus on rapidly changing trends of the global market rather than on specific geographic markets, although we put a lot of effort into understanding each customer’s specific needs. We have witnessed that different geographical markets are becoming more interconnected and are increasingly following similar technology trends.
For example, Digital Pre-Distortion, envelope tracking, RF and optical integration, wide bandwidth coverage and multi-signal networks are some of the key features and technologies now being asked for by customers around globe. Also, the demand for very high efficiency, shorter delivery times, lower costs and the ability to satisfy custom development needs are simultaneously affecting product development.
MWJ: In 2004 RFHIC formed a strategic partnership with a GaN foundry service provider. What were the specific reasons for pursuing GaN and is the company committed to the technology?
Cho: Traditionally, high power RF and microwave markets were dominated by a handful of companies with an emphasis on silicon LDMOS, BJT or GaAs FET technologies. In comparison to those device technologies, there is no doubt that GaN is a ground-breaking technology in performance – broadband in nature and with an excellent frequency response. In addition, based on the technical benefits and having carefully observed GaN’s technical development over time, our company believes that the price and maturity of the technology will improve significantly in the near future.
Having taken the strategic decision to focus our efforts on GaN technology, we have invested in potential partnerships, capital equipment and R&D resources over the last five years. RFHIC is currently a fabless company performing all the backend process to build RF pallet amplifiers or high power amplifiers from bare GaN dies.
MWJ: The company has recently released medical treatment amplifies for hyperthermia treatment and RF ablation. Is the medical market an expanding one for RFHIC?
Cho: I have been serving the RF and microwave market for more than 30 years now, and I strongly believe that assisting the medical industry with good RF products and thus ultimately helping patients to be very rewarding. Working with partners to build a system to cure cancer is a cause I believe in and it’s a great opportunity to contribute something back to society.
RF and microwave technology can be applied to various real-life applications. The medical equipment market is one of many areas that capitalises on the reliable and stable performance characteristics of GaN.
MWJ: Are there other new markets that RFHIC is exploring in the RF and microwave sector?
Cho: The telecommunication and the broadcasting industries are now going through integration. CATV, FTTH, G-PON, digital TV and IP TV are all being affected by this trend, so RFHIC recently released various E-pHEMT MMIC series to meet the needs of the market.
Another sector we plan to enter is the market for high power (several hundreds watts) and high frequency pallet amplifiers for VSAT and microwave radios.
MWJ: RFHIC implements environmentally friendly policies. Please explain why the company views ‘green’ issues as being important and the extent of these policies.
Cho: Environmentally friendly processes and products are a major consideration for us and our efforts are key to fulfilling our social responsibility; RFHIC has been ISO14001 certified since 2005. We are also committed to increase the efficiency of our RF and microwave products. Digital Pre-Distortion, Doherty designs and envelope tracking techniques help build highly efficient systems with GaN technology. Also, GaN pallet amplifiers will increase the efficiency significantly and reduce the system size to a quarter by eliminating the need for cooling fans.
MWJ: What is the company’s approach to quality?
Cho: For active devices, which is RFHIC’s flagship product line, reliability is directly related to thermal management of the device. We utilise a very high resolution thermal microscope, which can measure the ‘junction temperature’ of the device under both RF and DC stress. This enables us to design our product accurately with a thermal budget from day one. All RFHIC hybrid components and pallet amplifiers go through rigorous environmental tests; high temperature aging and RF testing are included in the standard testing process. Then all testing results are automatically recorded and saved on a dedicated server.
MWJ: How important is research and development to RFHIC?
Cho: Research and development is the driving force for RFHIC. I started my career as an engineer and still have my engineer’s mentality. In order to expand our R&D effort and to also benefit our bottom line, we have established numerous joint development projects with conglomerates. Joint development is beneficial for both parties since the conglomerates will get additional R&D resources, and medium sized companies will get production orders for the developed product.
MWJ: As RFHIC is at the forefront of technology how easy is it for the company to recruit and retain high quality staff and what is its commitment to training?
Cho: Recruiting and maintaining great talent has always been a challenge. We opened our US R&D centre in Cary, North Carolina, to recruit US expertise and we work closely with local training organizations to provide customized training for our employees. We also send our engineers to the industry trade shows to get a feel for the competition and market trends, and we also encourage them to visit customers to help them to understand customers’ challenges and their needs.
MWJ: The economic downturn has been global. Can you give the perspective of an Asian company and explain whether RFHIC has been affected and how the company has reacted.
Cho: Korea has been one of the countries in the world to have recovered fastest from the recent global downturn, according to the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, and Bloomberg.
Recently I visited China, Taiwan and Japan for customer meetings and most reported that their orders are now increasing and expressed the need for faster delivery from RFHIC in order to meet their customers’ demands. In addition, large customers are trying to provide the best pricing by keeping the cost down. RFHIC is earning customers’ confidence by exceeding the customer’s requirements for low cost and fast delivery.
MWJ: What are the company’s goals with regards to developing new technology?
Cho: RFHIC is trying to apply RF and microwave technology not only to the telecommunication market but also to other markets such as semiconductor manufacturing equipment, home appliances, medical equipment, industrial equipment, the nano industry, the bio industry, RF plasma technology and even nuclear fusion applications. Integration will be the key for the next technical advancement and we will be serving these markets with products up to 20 GHz from 2010.
MWJ: After only a decade RFHIC has become an established global company. What strategies is the company employing to sustain that success now and into the future?
Cho: RFHIC is focusing on customer satisfaction and employee training because growth cannot be sustained without satisfied customers and highly motivated employees. Strategically, the emphasis will be on GaN technology. Together with our partner, Cree Inc., we will improve our position in the GaN market by providing low cost, highly efficient and size-conscious products using Gallium Nitride on Silicon Carbide (GaN-on-SiC).