1. Tell us the founding story of Z-Communications (Z-COMM).
Back in 1987, I, along with my business partner at that time, left engineering careers at Motorola Microelectronics, in Plantation, Fla., to start the company and address the need that we saw for broadband LAN cards for the PC market. The VCOs offered at that time were very expensive: between $150 to $300 each. Clearly, the cost represented a major obstacle for a price-sensitive LAN card. We made the decision then to make our own VCO.
It turns out we weren’t the only people looking for high performance, low-cost VCOs and we seized the opportunity to design and manufacture VCOs for the general wireless marketplace. 35 years later, we are still making high performance, low cost VCOs better than anyone else.
2. Describe the breadth of your product portfolio: markets or applications and frequency coverage.
The Z-COMM product line is anchored in VCOs. From this building block, we have expanded our offerings to include higher forms of integrated signal sources. Phase-locked oscillators, phase-locked loops (PLL), “smart” PLL modules and other forms of signal sources are now available through Z-COMM.
Our products meet the needs of commercial, military/defense and have been adapted for space—a few of our PLLs are orbiting the earth as we speak! Notable use cases for our products are analog and digital communications, radar, up/down-converters, atomic clocks, test and measurement and even laser tag gaming systems, to name a few.
3. Is your product strategy based on developing catalog products? Do you develop custom designs? And how do customers buy your products?
Z-Communications, Inc. sells direct to our American market and through reseller partners throughout the rest of the world.
With over 500 SKUs, we are typically able to meet the needs of our customers from our catalog of standard products. Our web site has a great search tool, and if you can’t find something to meet your needs, our sales and applications group is happy to assist. Custom products are definitely an option, and our turnaround time can be very short.
4. How has the business weathered the pandemic?
We saw a significant dip in sales during the height of the pandemic, but we are now back to the pre-pandemic sales volume. Fortunately for us, we were able to operate uniterupted throughout the pandemic due to our designation as an essential business, as we supply many of the DOD contractors and subcontractors. We also have great relationships with our material vendors, and this has enabled us to keep our lead times relatively the same to this day.
5. What are the technology choices that make for a “good” oscillator?
This is a question that has many answers. In essence, a good oscillator is the one that meets the requirements of the RF design engineer and allows their design to function flawlessly.
With our modular, discreet approach, employing many different resonator technologies, we are able to provide the RF designer with a wide range of options to improve system characteristics and performance. The three basic elements of a VCO—the steering element, resonating element and oscillator element—are optimized individually or as a whole to provide a VCO that may focus on spectral purity, low jitter, excellent phase noise, low harmonics, low power consumption, suitable power output, etc.
We work closely with our customers on every aspect for every VCO that we design. This type of “white glove” approach can’t be duplicated for competing MMIC solutions, as changing the mask on a MMIC device is a huge undertaking and doesn’t lend itself to customization; once the mask is made for the MMIC, the RF designer has to accept the VCO specifications of that device.
6. How are these technology choices reflected in your products?
VCO design is not necessarily the sum of the parts. Looking at unique ways to improve performance based on readily available materials led to a patented design in stripline resonator VCOs. Going back a few years, this also prompted Z-COMM to design what is now the industry standard MINI package style (0.5 x 0.5 in. surface-mount package) and, at the time, the smallest available VCO in the market, the USSP package (0.2 x 0.2 in.).
We continue today by using CRO, DRO and novel stripline designs to optimize phase noise performance and wider tuning ranges. Higher integrated designs like our surface-mount SFS/RFS products represent our ability to provide plug-and-play phase-locked loop and phase-locked oscillator solutions for many RF designs.
7. In addition to performance, what factors distinguish Z-COMM from other oscillator suppliers?
Z-COMM is unique in that our growth has been organic since inception. We are a small company that delivers high performance, cost effective products on par with much bigger competitors. Being small also means that we can adapt quickly to our customers’ needs and market conditions. Additionally, we are proud to be a U.S. manufacturer.
8. As you survey the markets, where do you see the best growth opportunities? Do these represent the toughest technical challenges?
We are seeing a surge in the satcom market and despite the products not being qualified for space use, we’ve seen their adaptation in this sector. Here on the ground, earth stations, gateways and modems are where we see continued growth. Military/defense is another growing market—Z-COMM is AS9100D certified—and, as can be expected, the commercial market is always looking for better performance in signal sources—phase noise, low power consumption, low cost—for which modular VCOs have the advantage.
9. As president, you have many responsibilities. What does your typical day look like?
The pandemic has obsoleted what might be considered a typical day. Having said that, some things never change. Daily conversations with the sales, engineering and manufacturing teams provide me with a collaborative approach to management. This allows me to align our focus on our top priority, our customers, by providing the highest quality product available. I very much enjoy supporting the awesome Z-COMM team in execution of that goal.
10. What are some of the life lessons you've learned from Z-COMM?
To build a successful business one needs to put the customer first, take care of your employees and approach every-day challenges with vigor and determination, without compromise.