1. We last spoke with you in 2011, an eon in market and business time. To catch up, what is IMST's current market and product/service focus?
Compared to 2011, IMST today focuses on more complex systems, such as systems for intelligent transportation systems, radars for both automotive and maritime applications or on very complex antenna arrays combining beam steering and digital beamforming or combining several polarizations on the same aperture.
An S-Band maritime radar is the perfect example of what IMST is capable to do. We built a complete SSPA replacement for a customer, including analog part, digital part, software for pulse shaping and the rotating 4 m antenna.
Furthermore, IMST concentrates on systems-on-chip, including digital parts as well as analog parts, such as synthesizer chips or modem chips. Different material systems (GaN/GaAs, SiGe or CMOS) will be chosen in dependence of customer requirements.
Due to the available knowhow in the area of hardware and software, IMST has even built complete measurement systems, e.g., a 9 kHz to 40 GHz vector network analyzer. Moreover, IMST has carried out a lot of consultancy projects, such as intelligent electronics for vehicles (baby/child detection, in-door antennas etc.).
In addition to our development projects, IMST sells its own products, such as the world’s fastest 3D EM simulator EMPIRE, radar tool kits or LoRa modules and systems.
Recently, IMST has won several publicly-funded projects, which have been initiated by the German government. Within these projects, IMST can shape the future of mobile communications.
2. Going back 30 years, what motivated you to co-found IMST, and how has the company evolved during its history?
IMST was founded in 1992 to bridge the gap between university and industry making use of innovative ideas. At the same time, the mobile communication landscape changed from analog toward digital mobile communication, the so-called GSM system. Initially, IMST was located in a small office building hosting 18 employees.
In the meantime, the IMST office and laboratory building has been expanded two times to accommodate all coworkers. Due to its broad focus, IMST has survived all past crises such as the insolvency of BenQ/Siemens or the end of Nokia production (both previous big customers). Moreover, we survived the financial and the COVID crisis simply because IMST can cover all topics from single transistor measurements up to very complex systems designs. Depending on the market requirements, IMST can deliver high quality turnkey solutions within the shortest development times.
3. How large is IMST today: your staff and facilities?
Today, 164 highly qualified engineers are working for IMST in the areas of digital circuits, analog circuits (both integrated or hybrid), antenna and module design, as well as software implementation covering micro-controllers or embedded solutions.
To this end, IMST makes particular use of the potential of excellent and committed graduates from technical disciplines from the universities in the Rhine/Ruhr region. At the same time, IMST exchanges qualified graduates with our international partners. The business idea is to organize innovation, based on the university state of knowledge, and to offer marketable and high quality products and solutions.
IMST operates a well-equipped RF measurement lab up to 100 GHz and two anechoic antenna measurement chambers. In addition, we run an independent in-house EMC lab and a hybrid technology lab focusing on LTCC and small series production, making use of overall 1,600 square meters of laboratory space.
Our expertise includes the knowledge of integrated circuits, hybrid circuits modules and systems, embedded software, specific absorption rate (SAR), antennas and modeling in the area of EM as well as for passive and active components.
4. IMST is widely known for EMPIRE XPU, the EM modeling tool you developed in 1998. With many simulation tools available for designers, what types of design and analysis problems does EMPIRE XPU best solve, and what are its strengths?
Prof. Ingo Wolff was awarded the James Clerk Maxwell medal this year by IEEE for his groundbreaking field theoretical research activities he started more than 40 years ago. EMPIRE is based on these activities.
However, today our EDA product EMPIRE XPU is known to be the fastest EM simulator worldwide. It is up to 10x faster on CPU than any competitor, even on GPU. There is neither any limitation in simulation size nor any demands for sophisticated hardware, such as high-end GPU cards. EMPIRE is highly optimized for multi-core CPUs. It is most efficient and scalable with the number of ports to be calculated.
This in-house power-horse has followed a simple but effective philosophy since the very beginning: a product from engineers for engineers. The software itself has been continuously improved over the years. We added an easy-to-use GUI; we are still adapting the software for brand new CPUs and have provided new features over the years and will still provide new features.
IMST engineers themselves are using EMPIRE on a daily basis to optimize MMICs with respect to bond wires, coupling or spurs. Most modules, systems or antennas we design have been optimized using EMPIRE. It even can replace SAR measurements by simulations before final approval and shows a great interoperability with other great state-of-the-art design tools, such as circuit simulators. EMPIRE is capable of performing thermal simulations as well.
5. Turning to other areas of your portfolio, describe your areas of R&D and products.
A special IMST focus is set on next mobile communication standards called 5G and beyond. This year IMST won four big R&D projects worth more than €4 million dealing with this topic.
Other areas of R&D include highly integrated circuits, such as beamformer chips or complete T/R front-ends. This also includes chips for space usage which we supply to our customers.
Making use of artificial intelligence (AI), IMST upgrades well-known radar technology with the capability to distinguish between vehicles, animals or pedestrians. Some of these modules are even available for purchase in our web shop.
6. For IoT applications, IMST offers radio modules based on the LoRa and IEEE 802.15.4 standards. How is adoption of these standards faring versus the cellular standards such as NB-IoT? Where are these non-cellular standards most competitive?
These non-cellular standards are of main interest wherever demands for low energy consumptions are high. This is especially the case for battery-driven sensors and systems. As a rule, the costs are also lower. In addition, everyone can build and operate their own networks, e.g., cities and municipalities.
There are only a few networks available based in the IEEE 802.15.4 standard, as these networks are often limited to 100 to 200 participants.
LoRa has several advantages over NB-IoT. While NB-IoT is communicating continuously, LoRa only communicates on demand, resulting in a more energy-efficient technology. Moreover, there is no license fee for LoRa compared to NB-IoT. Everyone is free to operate their own net.
Of course, IMST is able to supply all these technologies to meet the customer’s requirements.
7. CitySens is one of the IoT projects you're supporting, which is prototyping wireless infrastructure for a “smart” city. What's your vision of a city enabled by IoT, and when will we see wide deployment?
With the CitySens project—“Secure Sensor Applications in the Smart City”—IMST succeeded in bridging the gap between technology and a socio-political challenge. The overall goal of the project is to support the digitization of society with new services and applications. With the future-oriented radio technology LoRaWAN®, we are able to set up comprehensive IoT infrastructure in our city of Kamp-Lintfort. Due to the outstanding relevance for the regional infrastructure, the project is intensively supported by the local government and the European Union (EFRE.NRW 0400107).
Furthermore, IMST developed and still provides the required hardware, i.e., LoRaWAN devices for digital acquisition, transmission and analysis of measurement data, like water flow, energy transmission and similar.
A major milestone of the project was the installation of two LoRaWAN gateways on the towers of the former Friedrich-Heinrich coal mining company. Despite the low transmission power of the system, transmission ranges of more than 20 km were achieved due to the exposed location of the gateways. Almost all city areas of Kamp-Lintfort are in the meantime covered by our LoRaWAN network. It should be emphasized that due to the special type of installation as a research infrastructure, the project is excellently suited for developing new services for business and civil purposes.
8. Your company history notes a milestone in 2014 when employees became shareholders. What's the significance of that, and how does it reflect your management philosophy?
IMST follows the slogan “from engineers for engineers” not only in technical aspects. Since 2014, more than half of our coworkers have owned a significant part of the company. This fact offers good stability and allows a higher identification with the company. Coworkers as shareholders can participate in the distribution of earnings. They have rights of codetermination and can therefore actively shape the future of IMST. As first results, we see a flexible working hour model as an example.
9. Are there aspects of IMST that we haven't covered that our readers should be aware of?
IMST is somehow different from a typical money-earning company. IMST connects high technology, innovation and flexibility with a high degree of staff involvement and earnings under one umbrella. This is somehow unique, so that the German government last year categorized IMST as having superior knowhow in the fields of satellite communications, radar and radio technology. IMST was qualified as essential for Germany’s technological sovereignty in the field of future mobile phone systems.
10. Since IMST was formed, the wireless industry and use of RF/microwave technology has exploded. We're approaching a world where everyone and everything is connected all the time—with implications for privacy and security. Are you optimistic society will adopt appropriate and effective safeguards?
Yes. In our communities, we have free and independent press and media as a watchdog against misuse. And frankly speaking, advanced and sophisticated technology is a prerequisite to this shelter—IMST loves to serve as an enabler of advanced technologies.