December 2010 Executive Interview
Nik Chavannes received his MS and PhD degrees in electrical engineering from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH), Zurich, Switzerland. In 1996, he joined the Bioelectromagnetics/EMC Group (BIOEM/EMC) at ETH Zurich where he was involved in c...
MWJ: Schmid and Partner Engineering AG (SPEAG) was founded in 1994 as a spin-off from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH). Please give a brief history of the company’s conception and initial development.
NC: At the time SPEAG was founded in December 1994, its main objective was to further develop and commercialize the Dosimetric Assessment SYstem (DASY), which was the first electromagnetic near-field scanner optimized for testing mobile communications devices for conformity with safety guidelines and compliance with regulations. In December 2000, SEMCAD (Simulation Platform for ElectroMagnetic Compatibility, Antenna Design and Dosimetry), a novel and powerful tool for the analysis, design and optimization of antennas embedded in complex environments, was released. Upon this introduction, SPEAG became the only provider of a complete set of experimental and numerical analysis tools for the accurate characterization of the electromagnetic near-fields.
MWJ: Why was the development and commercialisation of DASY important?
NC: In 1992, the German Agency for Radiation Protection was the first agency demanding that the mobile industry demonstrate compliance of its devices with electromagnetic safety regulations. FCC followed in 1996 and subsequently most countries have adopted similar regulations. The ability to quickly put a reliable DASY system on the market at a time of steeply increasing demand from manufacturers and regulators was key to SPEAG’s wide acceptance and commercial success. Many governments acquired DASY systems to verify the results provided by the manufacturers. In cooperation with the IT’IS Laboratory, DASY has been continually improved and extended to provide customers with rapid access to new capabilities and improved accuracy without imposing an arbitrary schedule for release of product updates. By its commitment to a large R&D effort, SPEAG has maintained its position as the provider of the premier system for compliance testing and a variety of R&D tasks that require a high-resolution near-field scanning tool.
MWJ: How significant was SPEAG’s development of SEMCAD that you mentioned earlier?
NC: In the mid ’90s we had noticed a lack of appropriate simulation tools for virtual prototyping and optimizing of EM transmitters operating in the vicinity of the human body. SEMCAD’s design was begun with the same ambitious objective, namely, to become the provider of the premier R&D tool for EM simulation in electromagnetically complex environments. From the beginning, we ensured full compatibility with our measurement tools by using the same post-processor for direct comparison of simulation results with data obtained from prototypes.
MWJ: What are SEMCAD’s specific fields of application?
NC: SEMCAD is the premier tool for all applications requiring simulation of RF energy absorption in the body with utmost precision and high resolution within a complex and highly inhomogeneous environment. Wireless devices operated in complex scattering environments, mobile communications, medical systems, optical devices, are a few of the areas where SEMCAD has allowed designers to analyze and optimize ‘real world’ applications of RF technologies. Let me add that these successes would not have been possible without development of the most advanced numerical techniques and fastest solvers on the market. For example, SEMCAD was the first tool with which a phone was modeled based on the engineering CAD data set without simplifications.
MWJ: What sectors of RF and microwave technology does SPEAG address?
NC: SPEAG plays a significant role in two major markets: the wireless and medical device industries. In both sectors we are able to provide our customers added value through the unique combination of anatomical models, modelling and analysis tools, combined with instrumentation for reliable experimental validation and testing. Our customers care particularly about RF safety (in terms of SAR and localized temperature in the body) and optimization of device performance. In addition, we also deeply penetrate other markets where electromagnetics plays a growing role, such as the electrical power, automotive, aerospace and optical device industries.
MWJ: Which of these sectors is currently most active and has the latest developments?
NC: Currently, SPEAG is vey active in the design and analysis of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) systems. We developed novel algorithms for parallel transmit coils and started a new partnership with the National Research Council of Canada. As a result, we are currently the first and only vendor offering a platform for the simulation and performance analysis of transmit and receive coils. This capacity was supported by the development of a new time domain sensor. As in other areas, SPEAG will is the only company providing solutions for both modelling and validation, which is of great importance in the healthcare market where manufacturers and regulators need to know the correspondence between modelling results and systems placed in the clinic.
MWJ: SPEAG is involved with government agencies across the globe. What is the significance and benefits to the company from working with governments?
NC: Our collaboration with government has a very long history that, from the start, has been based on their trust in our problem solving expertise. We have proven ourselves in a large number of international exposure studies and risk assessments. SPEAG and our sister company Zurich Medtech AG (ZMT) collaborate as a renowned one-stop EMF vendor. We got to be number one in our field simply by understanding how to maintain close collaborations with agencies, regulators and standardization bodies. That has positioned us to anticipate new needs and trends and to work with government agencies on complex technical issues more as partners than vendors of a product.
MWJ: Would you consider SPEAG to be a truly global company? Are there geographical areas where the company is particularly strong and does it have plans for further expansion?
NC: SPEAG is truly a global company. Firstly, the great majority of our customers and partners are outside Switzerland and many are outside Europe. Secondly, the team is decidedly international, with employees from almost all countries where we market our solutions. As a result, not only have we been able to hire the smartest people from everywhere, but in parallel we have been able to gain an understanding of foreign markets from our in-house staff. Our dominance in near-field dosimetry makes us very strong in Asia, North America and South America, and Europe in the wireless industry sector. Medtech has already acquired significant market share in North America and Europe, with current expansion into several Asian countries.
MWJ: What is SPEAG’s strategy for staying competitive and developing its market share?
NC: We compete successfully by providing solutions of exceptional technical quality, ease-of-use, and ready access to our staff for solving unique problems in RF simulation and testing. We work hard to anticipate needs and trends early, maintaining a compelling international network of partners and experts, and finally, we maintain a powerful sales network.
MWJ: You mentioned the Foundation for Research on Information Technologies in Society (IT’IS), of which SPEAG was one of the founders. Briefly outline why IT’IS was formed and its main objectives?
NC: The R&D tasks facing SPEAG exceed its ability to undertake them in this competitive market. Our solution, therefore, has been to rely on close cooperation with leading universities and research institutions, such as ETH Zurich, where we started. In 1999, ETH decided to open its very successful research activities in RF technology, enabling a more dynamic operation and closer cooperation with small- and medium-size enterprises. The objectives of the independent, non-profit IT’IS Foundation were originally directed towards improving and advancing the quality of people’s lives through the safe and beneficial applications of electromagnetic energy in health and information technologies. Recently IT’IS expanded its focus towards novel diagnostic and therapeutic applications, in particular, cancer treatment.
MWJ: What role does SPEAG play within IT’IS and what are the benefits to the company?
NC: SPEAG is both an important sponsor and an indirect beneficiary of the research success of IT’IS. Through this collaboration we have been able to develop key components and procedures and to acquire knowledge through basic science well ahead of worldwide developments. It is also very important to acknowledge that some of these joint projects were also co-financed by the Swiss commission for innovation and technology (CTI).
MWJ: SPEAG also partners with a number of research consortiums across Europe. What are the benefits of such pan-European collaboration?
NC: Our carefully selected research consortia help us to identify trends and new market opportunities worldwide and most importantly give us access to the unique expertise available at these leading research institutions.
MWJ: What are the current areas of focus for SPEAG’s research?
NC: For the past year there has been a strong emphasis on medical devices, for which we developed a series of unique tools. One such computational tool is an exceptionally versatile temperature solver that can be coupled with our EM solvers. Others are our detailed anatomical human models that can be adjusted into various postures, which facilitates extrapolation to any patient population. We also give a great deal of development effort to specific post-processor tools. These tools enable our industry partners to obtain FDA approval in the US with less difficulty. Lately, we have begun to expand our capabilities in EMI/EMC.
MWJ: What is SPEAG’s policy on training and education?
NC: Education and technical skills are the essence of our company. We take pride in recognizing this in real terms through sponsorship of research at the IT’IS Foundation/ETH Zurich. The research is conducted by PhD students, many of whom have won prestigious scientific awards.
MWJ: What are the company’s key strategies for success now and into the future?
NC: Our strategy has three main features: Firstly, dedication to our core expertise in numerical and experimental near-field dosimetry, safety, and virtual prototyping; secondly, a commitment to educate and hire innovative scientists and engineers; and thirdly, performance of research in cooperation with an international network of leading universities.