For those not familiar with RFMW, tell us when and why the company was formed.
RFMW was formed in 2003 as a result of a major, broad line distributor dissolving their RF and microwave focused sales and management organization. My co-partner, Joel Levine, and I realized that there would be a huge requirement for a technically focused, RF and microwave adept organization to fill the void. So in July of 2003, we created RFMW, Ltd. and with the backing of several key suppliers, who were capable of reading the handwriting on the wall, began serving RF and microwave customers with the excellent service and technical support we’re now known for.
From your perspective as a distributor, what’s relatively the same and what has changed in the RF/microwave market since you launched RFMW?
What’s stayed the same is that customers still look for a partner they can trust. Someone who knows their applications and can offer them the best products for their designs. Someone who has their finger on the pulse of the industry and provides them with a service, not just a sale. Whether that’s keeping them abreast of the latest products important to their companies or letting them know of inevitable part obsolescence and offering component replacement support — RFMW’s goal is a great customer experience.
It’s similar for our suppliers. We choose suppliers with the best products. Most have a legacy of innovation and reliability. We trust that they are leaders in the industry, and our customers trust that we will guide them to the best devices for their designs.
As for what’s changed, the mergers and acquisitions within the industry keep it interesting for RFMW, our suppliers and our customers. The creation of Qorvo provides the industry with a powerhouse company offering products in a multitude of markets. API Technologies acquiring Inmet and Weinschel is another. Fortunately, we’ve had long relationships with these companies and have supported their customers through the transitions.
Technology wise, innovations in GaN processes and components continue to improve its acceptance into many new designs. We see lots of customers working with GaN components. We’re also seeing the use of high power MMICs as that technology improves. And we see more demand for integrated passive components, or IPCs, that combine multiple devices into a smaller footprint that reduces overall cost.
And RFMW has changed. We’ve had continuous growth over the years, in terms of the number of people working for us worldwide, the types of RF products we can offer and, of course, our revenue as we support an ever increasing customer base.
You call RFMW a pure play distributor. How does that contribute to your differentiation, your value proposition?
RFMW focuses on RF and microwave products, solutions and technologies — nothing else. Our sales team, the people that interface directly with customers, are intimately familiar with RF and microwave technology. They are regularly trained by either our suppliers or in-house programs, such that they can provide first call effectiveness to support design engineers, component engineers and production engineers with everything from selecting the latest SOI switch to recommending an RF test cable.
The few narrowly focused competitors we see are diversified into other areas, such as power supplies and solar electricity. Everything we do at RFMW serves the RF and microwave design engineer and the companies they work for.
Even by focusing on RF/microwave, it must be challenging to cover all products and applications. Are there areas where you’ve focused to develop expertise?
You’re correct. It is challenging. Even with our RF and microwave focus, there’s focus within focus.
Within the company, we have product and technology experts who support customers and act as information aggregators. By constantly working with customers and suppliers, these people have the inside track on the latest products and act as conduits of information from customers back to suppliers, letting them know the product performance requirements that determine the next generation of components. This enables our suppliers to create the best products for emerging applications.
We’ve developed four basic areas of expertise: RF power products, RF passive products, RF small-signal products and interconnect/test and measurement products. Of course, many different components fall into each category and some overlap, but our experts collaborate to best support our customers.
For the design engineer, what services do you provide beyond getting a quick turn on an order?
That’s an excellent question and a chance for me to talk more about our sales team. Our sales team is an integral part of the communication from customer to supplier. They provide component engineering support and communicate with the product managers. They have a broad view of the local markets in their territories and delve deep into customer designs.
Ideally, we like to get involved in the early design stages of a project, such that we understand the project goals and restraints. As microwave and RF professionals, our sales people have spent an enormous amount of time supporting a wide range of designs. Therefore, they have some insight into the challenges being faced and can offer helpful suggestions.
For example, a customer recently saw information on a new, very small SAW filter popular with cellular phone manufacturers. Knowing the cost pressures on cell phones, he rightly guessed that the part would be inexpensive and asked if he could get samples. Instead of getting him samples, we recommended an alternate, slightly larger and slightly more expensive part for his application. You may ask how that serves the customer. The answer is simple. When a cell phone manufacturer orders ten million parts for their production and then pulls in that order, all other orders for that part are set aside. The fifty thousand piece order, although extremely important to the customer, is a drop in the bucket to a supplier supporting cellular handsets. Also, the life cycle of that device is dependent on the handset. If the next generation moves to a different device, the supplier may obsolete the existing part. Letting our customer design in that SAW filter would have been a disservice, as they might have been unable to get that critical part for their manufacturing process.
So RFMW adds value both technically and commercially, with supply chain and product life cycle in mind. That’s value-added service that could potentially save a company from bankruptcy.
Of course, if a customer doesn’t want to engage our sales engineers, our inside sales team is also adept at supporting requests. We have customers who need help with something as simple as a BNC to N-type cable assembly. They quickly become frustrated with broad line and web-based distributors who ask for a part number, not understanding the semi-custom nature of the request. By contrast, when contacting RFMW, our sales team will walk customers through a series of questions that results in a cable assembly suitable to their needs.
And for those who don’t want to talk to anyone, our RFMW.com website provides search tools that allow a design engineer to compare products from multiple companies to find one best suited for his or her unique requirements. By utilizing web-based tools and RF adept service professionals, our customers get the best of both worlds.
What services do you offer the purchasing and manufacturing groups, to assist them with their roles?
Logistics, stock on hand and inventory management are what customers look for in a distributor. We support this by strategically profiling our inventory to meet customer needs. In short, our internal system tracks information regarding specific components from design-in through new product introduction (NPI) and all the way through production. And we do this anywhere in the world by having centralized product managers who control inventory levels, such that we’re prepared with the right parts at the right time.
We also support purchasing, manufacturing and even design engineering with other value-added services, such as tape and reel and die handling. Many times, a company needs smaller, NPI quantities before larger scale manufacturing. We help by providing short reels for product and process verification, enabling them to address any design or process issues before committing to higher volume orders.
For die handling, RFMW is an approved supplier for replating die products, as well as visual inspection, DC probe and dry box storage. Our replating service is very helpful for designers who want to try out a product but don’t want to buy the minimum order quantity imposed by a supplier. That’s especially important when individual die costs tens or even hundreds of dollars.
Beyond those services, we also help customers with hybrid assemblies, whether build-to-print or custom hybrids. RFMW can source the components or the entire assembly, depending on what the customer needs.
And, as I alluded to before, we’re very good with RF cable assemblies, whether general purpose, in-box assemblies or phase-stable test and measurement cables for a vector analyzer. We get a lot of interest in pigtail cable assemblies, commonly used to inject or sample RF signals during prototyping or testing RF circuits.
If we counted correctly, you represent some 40 companies. How much value are you able to offer your customers by stitching together products from various companies? Or does each design win stand alone?
Our goal is to support the entire RF transceiver block diagram from the antenna to the baseband modulators and demodulators. That’s always been our strategy, and our line card of suppliers reflects that. We have large suppliers with broad product portfolios, and then we fill in around those suppliers with more niche supplier products. Our goal is to have something for every RF related socket on the board and then support the RF test and measurement of those boards.
When we see a customer is using a T/R switch, we assume there’s an LNA for the receiver, a PA for the transmitter and an antenna to get the signals back and forth. We can offer products for all of those requirements or just the switch — however the customer wants to engage with us.
One of your strategies has been to grow geographically. How is that going, and what countries or regions do you cover now?
Growing geographically has always been a strategy of ours and fits with the desires of our suppliers and our customers. The biggest challenges are finding the right people to hire or organizations to partner with. I think we’ve done an exceptional job of finding people we can trust and who are driven towards excellence.
We currently have offices throughout North America, Europe, the Middle East and Asia, including China and Hong Kong.
You serve many customers and markets. Where are you seeing opportunities for growth, especially outside the areas that get all the headlines?
Right, what’s the hot, new trend? Wearables? 5G, LTE? IoT?
RFMW supports the infrastructure for these wireless products, as well as some interesting consumer products like wireless microphones or BLE (Bluetooth low energy) devices. We still do well in military applications. They don’t get the headlines but are important for our country. Military and first responder communication systems are something you don’t hear about — unless there’s a problem with them — but are extremely important for our defense. And there are still a lot of radar applications out there.
The RF/microwave industry is undergoing significant consolidation. How does that affect your business?
Here’s another area where working with a niche distributor can be helpful. Two of our largest suppliers, TriQuint and RFMD merged last year to form Qorvo. While other distributors and even the OEMs themselves struggled with the consolidation, our customers never saw an impact to their support or deliveries. We let them know right away what was happening and our strategy to support them during the transition.
Other examples, such as Aeroflex buying Metelics and then MACOM buying that division, are going the same way. We let the customers know what’s happening and that their supply will be unaffected as we work together.
Don’t get me wrong, the logistics in making that happen are immense, but our goal is servicing the customers and providing a good supplier experience, so we make it seamless for the benefit of both.
Generally, suppliers quickly recognize the value RFMW brings to them and the support we provide during transition periods — even when the companies doing the acquiring are not currently on our supplier list. We typically end up building a relationship with the new company, because the supplier values our team and our strategy as a true pure play RF and microwave distributor.