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Executive Interview with Peter von Nordheim

March 14, 2010
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Peter von Nordheim was born in Zella-Mehlis, Thüringen, Germany. He attained his Dipl. Ing. Degree in Electrical Engineering at the Technical University of Munich in 1972 and joined Messerschmitt-Bölkow-Blohm (MBB) the same year, designing RF test equipment for Kormoran and Roland. In 1976 he was offered the Product Manager position at Omni Spectra GmbH, with responsibility for most of Europe. In 1978 he was promoted to Managing Director of Omni Spectra GmbH Germany and Omni Spectra SARL France. After MA/Com acquired Omi Spectra, von Nordheim founded Spectrum Elektrotechnik GmbH, opening the doors on April 1st 1981.

MWJ: What was the thinking behind the decision for you to found Spectrum Elektrotechnik GmbH in 1981?

von Nordheim: At that time there were several companies offering microwave products but they were not really listening to customer’s individual needs, especially those that were asking for smaller quantities of specials or modified components. These companies were geared up to sell catalog products and were mostly offering almost the same or similar product and quality, with the decision for purchase being mostly dictated by price. There was also a lack of top of the range products to give the customer the option to decide on quality, rather than just the price.

I remember that one of our first orders was for contacts for TWTs going into satellites. The purchasing agent had experienced quality problems with subcontractors at that time, and was looking for help. We satisfied his requirements with the very first order and have continued to manufacture these and other contacts ever since.

MWJ: Why did you focus on manufacturing RF and microwave components in the DC to 65 GHz frequency range in particular?

von Nordheim: It was actually the ’80s when Spectrum began making components in the DC to 26 GHz frequency range, as our first Scalar Network Analyzer covered this range. A few years later we expanded our test equipment with an ANA of up to 40 GHz, which increased to 50 GHz and has been at a maximum of 65 GHz since 1996. We can design and manufacture products well above 65 GHz but designing and manufacturing without testing does not work and we are currently looking at test equipment for higher frequency ranges.

MWJ: Please outline the standard products that the company develops and markets.

von Nordheim: We started designing and manufacturing piece parts for components and then designed connectors that were similar to other manufacturers’ standard catalog products but differed in shape or performance or both, as well as offering high performance cable assemblies. In-Series and Between-Series Adapters were added and we soon developed phase shifters up to 26 GHz to fill a gap in the market. Terminations, Opens, Shorts, CalKits all followed, broadening the product range.

We developed the Push-On Family, eliminating the need for time consuming threading, torquing, untorquing and unthreading. So, a simple push and pull achieved mating with any standard SMA, N, TNC and 7/16. We designed high power Push-On connectors, such as the SBX, SBY and SCC Series that were necessary for duplexers to be built on a modular basis. And as the need arose for coaxial Multipin Connectors we designed our SQ, TQ, IQ, BQ, CQ, and RQ Series, with up to 120 coaxial connections operating up to 40 GHz.

MWJ: What fields of application are they targeted at?

von Nordheim: The application is usually in state-of-the-art systems. Our 50 GHz phase shifters, for example, are used in 40 GBit data transmission systems. We service the commercial and the military markets. Our products are used in ship borne and airborne applications, in satellites and laboratory applications – basically wherever an instrument grade product is needed.

MWJ: Do you customize product and if so is it an important market for Spectrum?

von Nordheim: This is probably the most important market for the company. It was our intention from the very beginning not to manufacture what everybody already makes but to design a better product, eliminating hiccups and engineering just what is needed. We do not want the customer to buy a standard catalog product and modify it to his needs himself, rather we want him to tell us the mechanical and electrical performance he needs and then design and produce the product that fits his requirements.

MWJ: The departments within the company are set up as an intelligent network. Please explain this concept, how it operates and what it achieves?

von Nordheim: The philosophy at Spectrum Elektrotechnik GmbH is based on the creative concept of Entrepreneurship, whereby teams of individuals act as a small company within the corporate structure, specialize in a particular product and manage each of our product families.

Therefore, for the production of each product, our entrepreneurs can give every project their undivided attention. No compromises are made and no details are overlooked. Every team remains alert to customer requirements and maintains complete communication with them, which results in complete understanding, from the very beginning with the specifications, identifying goals and plotting the course of action. Questions are answered before they become problems, doubts are clarified before they lead to a misunderstanding, guiding every project through design, manufacturing and testing, until the ultimate objective is reached – delivering quality products on time and within budget.

There is one simple reason for adopting this approach – customer satisfaction

MWJ: Geographically the company has sales representatives across all continents. Has it been easy to set up and how important is this network for continued growth?

von Nordheim: About 75 percent of Spectrum’s sales are outside of Germany, which indicates just how important our international connections are. It has not been easy to find the right representatives who know the companies and their products and needs in their respective area. Unfortunately, there are some representatives out there who just want to add us to their list of clients without knowing or understanding the business we are in and expecting us to compete only on price.

Fortunately, we have some very good representatives and we also work with a handful of OEMs who appreciate how our product fits with their components. However, we are always on the look out for anyone who has a technical background and an understanding of our products.

MWJ: A few months into 2010 are there geographical markets that are particularly strong or which Spectrum would like to develop?

von Nordheim: For our products we see growth all over the globe. Modern systems need state-of- the-art products and components designed by using new and revolutionary thinking. The market in Asia is still growing and we would like to get a bigger share of the business for our high end products. We even see some growth in South America and we would like to find representation in these countries.

MWJ: How many employees does the company currently have?

von Nordheim: We currently employ 55 employees. I believe that the number of employees is unimportant but more specifically having the right people in the right positions, and equipping them to do the best job they can.

MWJ: How important is R&D to Spectrum?

von Nordheim: Our engineering department currently employs eight engineers, which for such a small company demonstrates the value that we place on R&D. In fact, all our engineers are encouraged to identify the future technologies that will maintain Spectrum Elektrotechnik GmbH as a leader in microwave technology.

MWJ: Is the company able to attract and keep good quality engineers and trained staff?

von Nordheim: Fortunately we are blessed with good engineers and a trained staff that has been with us for many years, and will hopefully stay with us. Because of our reputation it is also not too difficult to attract qualified people.

MWJ: How important is investment in the latest design and manufacturing equipment?

von Nordheim: Designing state-of-the-art components means you have to have the best and latest equipment, and the trained staff who are able to operate it. We have increasingly been investing in more and different equipment so that we can be independent from subcontractors. We believe that it is easier and faster to cure any problems in-house rather than having to discuss them with subcontractors and waiting for them to find the solution.

We have almost everything in-house, including design centers in engineering, the best CNC machines that are available, a laser cutter, a pick and place center, stripping and cutting machines, equipment using four different soldering techniques in the assembly area, four ANAs, a fine leak tester, spectrum analyzers, oscilloscopes, etc., not to mention complete test centers for our star components, the duplexers.

MWJ: What specific new technologies is the company currently developing?

von Nordheim: We are currently deeply involved in the development of circuits for high power limiters working at L-band and C-Band. This technology is amazing. These limiters are smaller than a matchbox, yet are operating at power levels of several kW.

MWJ: What are the company’s key strategies that it is employing to ensure success now and into the future?

von Nordheim: Spectrum’s key strategy has always been and will always be: to be a leader in technology, not a follower, to design new products for future applications, to develop products that exactly meet the customer’s needs, to supply quality products of the highest standard and have a return rate that is as close to zero as possible.

MWJ: How does Spectrum approach promoting the capabilities of the company both to potential customers and also to a wide RF and microwave audience?

von Nordheim: We do this via sales calls, customer visits, by updating our Web Page and by advertising in international and domestic microwave magazines. Amazingly we also get recommended by our customers to new customers too.

MWJ: On a personal level you drive the company by working long hours and travelling worldwide. Is it worthwhile and can you continue to do so for the foreseeable future?

von Nordheim: I do all this because I enjoy it. I work long hours but still have time for my family. I travel around the world to see my main customers, my representatives and OEMs. Personal meetings are essential; you cannot do everything by mail or phone or telephone-conferences. Of course, I would like to find help, someone who has a good knowledge of the industry, some management capabilities and who, like me, enjoys doing the work. If there is someone out there that fits the description I would like to hear from them!

MWJ: How do you see the company developing in the next ten to fifteen years?

von Nordheim: Spectrum will continue to operate in the same way that it has done from the very beginning. We are very happy to serve this niche market for high quality and/or unique products. Spectrum Elektrotechnik GmbH is known worldwide as a leader in microwave technologies, and we want to make sure that it stays that way.

We also might have a closer look into the consumer market since we have already been forced by some of our customers to take orders for products that were causing difficulties with regards to quality and delivery. Our company will grow, but we want it to grow slowly and healthily, as we have done in the past and without changing our goals, or our image.

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