Based on the indicators we have been watching, the RF industry seems to have completed another economic cycle. When the cycle hit bottom in Spring 2009, no one would have dared to predict a rapid recovery that equaled or exceeded 2008 business levels.
Today, the industry faces new questions about additional capacity expansion and the impact of Long Term Evolution (LTE). It is also battling challenges with defense budgets in mature economies. Against that backdrop, let us examine a few important industry drivers and see if we can detect patterns and opportunities:
Wireless: Wireless communications in all forms is now being driven by “edge of the network” opportunities. These include the increasing penetration of mobile communications around the world, especially in emerging economies and in applications that rely on wireless networks coupled to sensor networks to measure the real world. The number of edge-of-the-network devices of all types is increasing at a geometric rate and will soon exceed 10 billion devices.
Aerospace/Defense: This is a tale of two worlds, one emerging and one maturing. Emerging economies are rapidly growing their defense spending while mature economies are struggling to maintain their existing force, components and infrastructure. Even with these differences, both worlds share a common theme: achieve lower costs across the board.
Research: With government budgets under pressure, research funding will become a target of cuts. Overall growth in research spending is centered on life sciences, food safety and medical applications. One consequence: Spending on electronics research is increasingly focused on supporting these initiatives.
The Cloud: While “the cloud” seems to be drifting through the hype phase, this infrastructure approach has the potential to deliver many useful benefits. The path from here to there contains both opportunities and challenges. The key challenges include security and availability, both of which will require large cycles of investment and deployment.
Going Green: This multi-decade trend will transform energy supply and demand. However, the same issues that apply to the trends above also apply here—lower costs, security—and those challenges are compounded by the need to control the grid remotely.
Looking at these trends through the lens of test and measurement (T&M), five conclusions come into focus:
Edge devices become smarter and cheaper. Increasingly, edge-of-the-network devices are a blend of electronics and a real-world sensor (e.g., gas detection, separations, pressure, etc.). The electronics are in service to the sensor and network as well as the analysis that turns data into insight. Electronics must be low-cost, reliable and generally invisible. RF design, characterization, test and maintenance of these solutions must be appropriate to the role electronics plays.
It is all about cost of test. Whether in high-volume wireless manufacturing or in high-mix/low-volume applications, total cost of test will be the key driver. That cost includes much more than instrumentation: the costs of fixturing, software, service cycles and repair must all be added to the total cost envelope.
“Multi-discipline” is the key concept. Today’s leading researchers are applying electronics to solve a wider variety of problems than ever before—and all facets of electronics will be used. As with edge-of-the-network devices, researchers are experts in their own domain and use electronics as a means to an end. Software, bench tools and measurement accessories must be designed to enable the researcher to modify the equipment to their specialized purposes. RF/MW plays a key role here in both communications/control as well as stimulus/response in certain applications.
The Cloud = Performance. Here is where the electronics industry really shines. Continuing contributions from semiconductors, channel designs—copper, optical or wireless—between subsystems and software will improve the performance, reliability and security of the core of the Internet. High speed digital is all about excellent microwave design at the physical level. Understanding surface roughness of copper traces is an excellent example of this trend.
Green = Green, as in money. The electronic industry is again at the core of the green revolution and will play a major role in reducing costs and improving performance. Smart meters are just the start of this revolution and RF again plays a key role in enabling distributed energy generation, utilization and management.
Is this a bright and rosy future? No—growth in any of these areas can be dampened by uncertainty in the global economy—and the certainty of more shocks and future downturns. Even so, today’s trends offer significant opportunities for T&M vendors to add value to a wide variety of companies around the world. For our industry, the key to success is not just watching or pursuing these trends but harnessing them to our advantage.