1. Microwave Components (MCI) is emblematic of many RF/microwave companies: a multi-generational family business focused on a fairly narrow technology or set of products. What is your unique story?
It is funny, but growing up in the business, I always thought that we (MCI) were unique, but as I have learned about other RF and microwave companies, many have started and grown in a similar fashion.
My father, Preston Smith, after serving in the United States Air Force, went to work as a technician/engineer for a few RF and microwave companies that were supplying components and subassemblies in support of our country’s defense. It was not uncommon for an engineer to encounter a problem with a component or supplier and believe they could provide a better, more cost-effective solution.
It was during that time, companies experienced difficulties getting miniature air coils. The quality of the parts varied greatly from lot to lot, and the deliveries were inconsistent, often causing delays in building next assemblies. My father worked evenings and weekends, in our family’s basement, to develop a process to manufacture copper coils. These coils were high yield, repeatable performance products that met the requirements necessary to be used in high reliability (hi-rel) markets.
Eventually, after acquiring and assembling enough equipment, his passion became our family’s business, which he incorporated in Massachusetts in 1978. For several years, MCI “employed” my mother, two brothers and myself. I literally grew up in the coil business, winding coils since high school!
2. Describe MCI's capabilities, your products and what differentiates them.
MCI manufacturers miniature air coils. As we are fond of saying, “It’s what we do. It’s all we do.”
MCI uses wire gauges from AWG #50 to #28 in a variety of materials (gold, silver, copper, gold plated copper, aluminum and nickel copper alloy), in both bare and insulated wire. MCI inductances range from <1 nH to 1000 nH, and customers have reported using MCI coils at frequencies as high as 50 GHz.
MCI products are based on calculations, proven assembly techniques and manufactured specifically to meet our customers’ requirements. This includes spaced or non-spaced, bonded or non-bonded windings; stripped or non-stripped, tinned or non-tinned leads.
The wire material used, as well as the coil requirements, contribute to the inductor’s performance, cost and how our customers are mounting the products in their next assemblies. Due to our concentrated product focus, proven processes and manufacturing techniques, I believe what differentiates MCI is that we provide our customers with the most cost-effective solutions, delivering a high quality, repeatable product with return rates less than 0.25 percent and on-time delivery performance greater than 99 percent, with lead times typically six weeks.
3. What markets do you serve?
MCI continues to serve RF/microwave hi-rel markets such as defense, aerospace, space and test. MCI products can be found in radar, electronic warfare, communications—ground, uplink/downlink—and IED defeat. Customers use miniature air coils in applications which require a high Q inductor, such as switches, filters, amplifiers, multipliers, mixers and attenuators.
4. Tell us more about your business.
MCI is a veteran owned, private, small business located in Dracut, Mass., which is now well into its second generation of being family operated.
MCI provides standard products, but in most cases each customer requires a derivative or custom solution. MCI has over 1,500-part numbers and that continues to expand.
The majority (85 percent) of MCI’s business is in the U.S., but we are starting to see more inquiries from current, as well as new, international customers. Many of our legacy customers have been purchasing the same MCI coil(s) since the early 1980s.
Typically, once MCI and our customer settle on a coil specification, MCI builds samples, which can be tested and approved by the customer. It has been our experience that the true measure of a product is how it performs in its next and eventually final assembly. The customer can subject the coil to every test parameter and, once it passes, can be assured that every MCI coil will perform at the same high level. If an adjustment is required, changes are made and samples are re-issued. Once the specification has been agreed upon, the product is entered into MCI’s product library and is ready to be manufactured whenever it is required by the customer. Typical order sizes for MCI coils are 25 pieces to several thousand pieces.
To better service our customers, MCI has recently signed Microwave Components, LLC. (MWC) as a franchised distributor of MCI products. MWC is beginning to carry significant inventory of high volume MCI products, specifically for our larger customers, that require 24 to 48 hour lead times. Talk about the subtleties of the RF/microwave industry: two totally different companies with very similar names, both servicing the industry for over 40 years, now working together!
5. How often does MCI evaluate their product offering and end of life (EOL) products?
One significant benefit to having a limited BOM (bill of material), is that MCI does not subject coils to EOL. Most of our products are customer specific and have been qualified for use in multiple key programs. In speaking with customers, one of their key concerns is EOL and the chaos, cost and delays which ensue when a product is no longer available. MCI takes pride in the fact that we do not discontinue a product if it has only one customer or has not been ordered for a few years.
In addition, several customers qualify coils and request that the raw materials be dedicated for only their future use. MCI is equipped to use customer furnished materials or customer dedicated materials. MCI makes every effort to fully support our customers and to make the supply process as painless and cost-effective as possible.
I believe Partnership is an overused term in our industry; however, we always try to be partners to our customers and not simply a supplier or vendor.
6. Coils seem to be a mature component. How have the materials and your manufacturing processes evolved over the years?
MCI provides products that are being used in state-of-the-art microelectronic designs, yet many of our processes and techniques remain unchanged. Coils or inductors are a basic building block in almost every RF and microwave circuit. MCI continues to use many of the same magnetic, fine wire suppliers that we have used since our inception. The proven MCI manufacturing processes and equipment provide high quality inductors for hi-rel, high performance applications.
More recently, we have observed customers requiring tighter mechanical specifications, like lead alignment or lead strip length to the first turn of the inductor. Many of these requirements are a result of MCI products being used at increasingly higher frequencies.
In addition, like most suppliers servicing the RF and microwave industry, MCI has been required to provide increased material traceability and inspection criteria as well as environmental regulatory compliance for our defense customers. These changes, along with the ever-increasing risk of cyber security are making MCI and our processes evolve to better respond to the needs of our customer base.
7. When you design a coil, what mix of computer tools and iterative fabrication do you use to get the performance you want?
Much of the work on a new specification comes from direct contact with the customer and understanding the application for which the product is being used. If a customer only knows the inductance they require, MCI will help them find the right coil by discussing the other parameters which are critical to the overall performance. For example, how is the component being mounted into the next assembly, what is the final application, is unit price a critical parameter, etc.
Our machines can be set for a large range of inductor sizes within the fine wire category, so once performance parameters are understood, we use an iterative process and manufacture a few variations of inductors and send these samples to the customer.
8. How do you qualify new designs to assure their reliability?
Once we have assisted the customer in developing the correct product and sent samples, it all becomes about performance at next assembly. Typically, the customer will install the samples into their next assembly and test the unit. Upon completion of the testing, MCI discusses the performance of the samples with the customer; if necessary, changes are implemented and new samples are sent. Once the correct part for the customer has been determined, the product is assigned a part number. This product is manufactured at MCI and provided to the customer with repeatable performance lot to lot, year to year.
The recipe is simple, and it works. The true challenge is winding the miniature coils and producing a quality product that performs the same way every time, under all environments and conditions. Often, customers tell us they have attempted to wind the coils themselves and the yield is unacceptable and product performance is not repeatable. At MCI, its what we do. It’s all we do.
9. Several times you have mentioned that MCI provides a cost-effective solution to a loyal customer base. Do you see this as MCI’s key to success?
It certainly plays a very prominent part in MCI’s success. I believe that people buy from people that they like and trust. This is not any different in business-to-business transactions.
Our customers expect a quality product, delivered on time. Simply put, that is our part of the purchase agreement. What we try and do is make everything else as simple as possible. The team at MCI puts themselves in the role of the customer. “What can a supplier do to make that buyer’s life easier or less stressful?” We respond to RFQs (request for quote) in 48 hours or less. Receipt of order is also provided within 48 hours or less. If we need to move a committed delivery date, the customer is notified well in advance of the due date, and every effort is made to recover, if possible.
It is just as much about service and communication as it is product quality. While I will admit this is much more manageable in a small company environment, I do believe many larger companies would benefit in better servicing their customers. People buy from people they like and trust.
10. Thankfully, we seem to be emerging from the pandemic. How did you navigate it, both securing your material supply and ensuring the health of your staff?
In a small company, every employee has a greater impact on our products and customers and therefore our bottom-line performance. It is critical that every employee understand and believes in MCI’s vision and brings that to work each day.
This past year, the COVID pandemic kept our team at arm’s length, both mentally and physically. We were not able to enjoy the benefits of a small company atmosphere. Since MCI provides products to the defense industry, we were fortunate to be deemed an essential business. We still had orders coming in; however, finding a way to navigate both the physical and emotional work issues of the pandemic were challenging.
We immediately contacted key suppliers and increased our inventory levels of materials and supplies. We separated our manufacturing stations and installed plexiglass barriers to physically distance our workforce. We worked extended hours to allow overtime and make-up time for employees. In addition, we brought in short term temporary workers and staggered their shifts. At one point, we did fall into the longest lead time in MCI’s history, but we kept in close contact with our customers, and they were very understanding as many of them were experiencing similar issues.
Emotionally, many of our employees were concerned about coming into work every day, while their family members were sheltering in place at home. We began a detailed daily cleaning routine of any shared areas in the building, enacted more stringent distancing procedures and provided a very liberal “play it safe, stay home” practice for anyone experiencing symptoms. Most importantly we held weekly COVID meetings with updates on the pandemic status and how everyone and their families were doing. Employees took this opportunity to voice their fears and concerns. I truly believe these meetings conveyed to our employees that we were looking out for their well-being. In my opinion, these meetings helped the employees feel safe and comfortable in the work environment.
11. Beyond the pandemic, what challenges do you face as a small technology business and how do you address them?
Running a small business has some very interesting and often unique rewards and challenges. One of our biggest challenges as a small company is keeping up with the environmental, regulatory and IT compliancy required in our industry. At MCI, we have addressed this by hiring companies specializing in these areas on an as-needed basis. Sometimes it is just a one-time project, and we maintain it in house, but other times it’s an ongoing scheduled service, like cybersecurity requirements.
Another challenge is ensuring employee satisfaction. People are without a doubt our greatest asset, but finding, training and replacing them in a small company can be difficult. MCI’s number one goal has always been to provide our employees with a stable work-life balance, in a clean, safe environment. I want our employees to want to come to work and enjoy the time they spend at MCI. We have spent a considerable amount of time in cross training our entire manufacturing team. We do this to not only make sure we have backup for each position, but just as importantly, employees can try new skills and be challenged by new things.
Providing a team-oriented workplace, pride in our product, good benefits and employee acknowledgments is our way of demonstrating appreciation to our employees. Many of our employees have been with MCI for a long time, with a few never having worked anywhere else.
12. As you look out toward the next five years, what are your goals for MCI?
First and foremost, we are re-introducing the MCI brand. We continue to maintain solid, longstanding relationships with our legacy customers; however, we need to expand our customer base and drive additional profitable, top line growth. Our new MCI website is being launched this month (July 2021), along with a coordinated advertising campaign.
Late in 2020, we began to re-engineer our sales channel and brought in a vice president of sales. I believe it is important to make sure we are keeping things fresh and considering new ideas to make sure we as a team do not become stagnant, complacent or insulated from our customers or markets. It is good to have a new outside perspective reviewing current processes and suggesting ways in which we can continue to improve and grow.
As we grow our top line, we are expanding our manufacturing capabilities to provide the products and service that have become expected from MCI. For far too long MCI has been one of RF’s best kept secrets. So, to anyone that has not worked with MCI, I recommend you give us try and see what it is like to be treated as a customer and not simply as just another order.