Can you tell us how Knowles Precision Devices was formed as well as what acquisitions you have made since then and how those have contributed to your product portfolio?
The Knowles Precision Devices we know today has been evolving since 1985 when Dielectric Laboratories (DLI), which invented the single-layer capacitor, was acquired by Dover Corporation. Since then, Knowles was spun out of Dover, and we expanded our portfolio of specialty components and industry expertise through strategic acquisitions of six companies – Novacap for high-reliability MLCCs, Syfer for demanding commercial/industrial MLCCs, Voltronics for precision variable capacitors, Johanson Manufacturing for variable capacitors for RF and microwave, Compex for single-layer capacitors, and DITF for its thin-film expertise.
We’re in a market where the competitor and customer bases are really fragmented, so acquisition is a cost-effective and efficient way to add to our product portfolio and bring a wider offering to our customers. And as all of our acquisitions thus far have been technically strong companies, they have introduced us to new technologies and manufacturing techniques, making us more competitive.
Are there specific markets or applications Knowles Precision Devices supports?
In summary, we don’t want to be in the commodity component business. We want to do things that are hard, which is why we focus on four key markets – military/defense, medical, telecom, and automotive. Each of these industries has a challenging technical moat around it full of niche applications that require the type of high-performance components we produce.
For military radar and electronic warfare equipment, there is a premium on really small filters that can operate at high frequencies with excellent rejection, and our custom ceramics allows us to do that. Our high-reliability capacitors are rigorously tested to ensure they can perform fail-safe in implantable medical devices such as pacemakers. For telecom, we are providing High Q MLCs to several base station OEMS, and we have years of experience at mmWave frequencies, allowing us to meet the demands of new 5G telecom equipment, including RF filtering in small cells. Finally, our high-voltage capacitors are well aligned to the ever-increasing voltage and temperature needs of electric vehicles (EV).
Do you see any regional differences in demand or design challenges around the world?
Yes, we do see regional design differences, especially in the telecom and EV markets, that we need to account for. For example, as 5G continues to expand, we see that the major network equipment manufacturers need to build devices at a variety of frequencies depending on the geographical market they are selling into. And, with EVs, some regions, like China, focus solely on building battery-powered EVs while others, like Japan, prefer hybrid vehicles. This means components rated for different voltage levels are needed in each country. As a global specialty component supplier, it’s important for us to be at the forefront of these regional trends.
Knowles Precision Devices is one of the few companies offering compact 5G mmWave filters, what makes your technology such a good fit for this application?
Our mmWave filter technology is uniquely positioned for 5G FR2 applications because our custom dielectric can be packaged into filters that are 20x smaller than current alternatives while still being implemented in surface mount packages. And, we can do this while maintaining superior performance including 3GHz of bandwidth, greater than 50dB rejection, and temperature stability from -55°C to +125°C. And because of our experience making similar filters for military radar applications, we have an enormous installed base of working mmWave filters. We really understand this space.
What are some of the unique technologies you offer in your capacitor solutions?
Knowles is a collective of experts, including ceramics scientists and electrical and mechanical engineers, who help us accelerate innovation, especially with the materials we use. As a result, we’ve not only created unique custom dielectrics, but we’ve also developed patented flexible termination technology, FlexiCap, which improves our response to mechanical stress as well as stacked capacitor technology, StackiCap, which significantly reduces component size.
What types of design challenges are you solving in the high-reliability medical markets?
There are a couple big challenges in the medical device market. First, medical equipment is highly scrutinized for quality and safety to ensure long-term success in the human body. Therefore, we design our capacitors to comply with reliability specifications such as MIL-PRF-55681 and MIL-PRF-123.
Another unique challenge for imaging applications specifically is that no component, including capacitors, can have any magnetic properties. We address this by offering non-magnetic capacitors with silver/palladium (Ag/Pd) terminations, instead of nickel, as well as custom non-magnetic hardware, which not many suppliers can do. However, one newly emerging challenge is that the cost of palladium has more than doubled in just the last year. For customers who want similar performance at a lower cost, we offer base metals as an alternative to palladium.
What are the primary design challenges you are seeing in the area of electrification of vehicles?
EV manufacturers are moving to higher voltage battery systems, which means all components now need to withstand extremely high voltages and temperatures, yet still be compact. We’ve developed an MLCC that is the first AEC-Q200 approved capacitor to support voltages up to 4,000Vdc. Additionally, automotive assembly imposes unique stresses on components. So we offer FlexiCap MLCCs, which protect the ceramic from mechanical stresses, reducing the likelihood of catastrophic failure from cracking.
What solutions do you provide to the high-performance military markets?
We focus on helping our defense customers solve their most difficult design challenges. On the capacitor side of the business, that tends to mean high-reliability components with very high energy density. For microwave products, it is often small footprint solutions operating at high frequencies, like our RF filter designs for K- or Ka-band radar applications. We’re also a key supplier of single-layer caps to the defense market.
What technology challenges do you see emerging over the next couple of years?
In general, we see our customers continuing to ask us to help them solve increasingly challenging problems (higher frequencies, bandwidths, temperature ratings, etc.) as their technology advances, and we like it that way. Instead of having an office full of people performing open-sky thinking, we have our talented engineers focused on solving the highly challenging problems our customers bring to us. We love it when a customer says they can’t find a capacitor that can achieve their design parameters. We want EV and medical device manufacturers and telecom and military/defense companies to come to us with their hardest challenges and their technical sticking points. We have a deep bench on the technical side that is willing and able to work on custom designs that others can’t or won’t touch.
We know you are heavily involved as a volunteer with several organizations. Can you tell us a little more about those organizations and how you got involved?
As a former Navy Seal, I support the Navy Seal Foundation, an organization that funds initiatives to help improve the welfare of wounded warriors or the families of Seals that were lost in combat. Additionally, I’ve always been interested in helping contribute to improvements in our local healthcare and education systems. I was a Boy Scout Leader for many years when my kids were younger, but now I’ve shifted that time to serving as a board member for a local nonprofit hospital. Rural hospitals like ours are facing a tremendous amount of headwind due to the impacts of COVID-19, so I am currently trying to be helpful to the CEO in thinking about how to manage these headwinds.