The microwave industry has entered an era of specialization. Gone are the days of vertical integration where engineering design, manufacturing and testing could all be performed under one roof, or within a single company. For better or worse, we work in an increasingly bifurcated industry where engineering and manufacturing are seen as separate entities. When our skill set limits our ability to build and manufacture our widgets, we outsource. As a designer for nearly four decades in this industry, I am discouraged by this evolution. As an entrepreneur and opportunist, I am thrilled. As this evolution unfolds, it is clear to me that small companies committed to technological innovation and manufacturing know-how will prosper in the coming decade. Now, before you lambast me for making such a seemingly obvious prediction, let me elaborate on where I think we’ve been, and where I think we’re going.
During the Cold War, the microwave industry was in a sort of Golden Era. After I graduated from Berkeley in 1971, I started working at Watkins-Johnson (WJ). While at WJ, I worked with and learned from some of the most well-known (or soon-to-be-well-known) engineers in the industry. As we often called it at the time, “Watkins-Johnson University” was a breeding ground for innovation and collaboration among the scientists in a way that rivaled the best research labs in the world. By the time I left WJ to head the mixer development at Avantek in 1979, I had benefitted from the tutelage of countless experts in fields ranging from thin-film packaging to amplifiers to radar systems.
By 1990, the Cold War was thawing and the microwave business was in a major transition period. Defense spending was waning and the company that I was working for at the time, Western Microwave, was crumbling. With the recession looming, I went back to the brass at WJ and tried to convince them that they should hire me back so that I could run the components division I had helped create so many years before. I will never forget what they told me.
“Ferenc,” they said, “we appreciate that you are one of the most well known mixer experts in the field, but we already have all the mixer lines you helped start two decades ago. There is nothing you can give us that we don’t already have.”
I was shocked. Going into the meeting, it had never occurred to me that the designs I had created in the early 1970s would preclude me from designing mixers in the 1990s. Then, in a moment of clairvoyance, I said to him, “I appreciate your time. But you are forgetting one thing, if you don’t hire me, I am going to give you the stiffest competition for your mixer business you’ve ever seen. You’re going to look back on this meeting and wish you had hired me while you had the chance.”
I am fairly certain he thought I was joking. I was dead serious. We (my wife Christine and I) formed Marki Microwave a few days later.
I often tell this story to younger engineers because it teaches a valuable lesson: when you stop innovating, you go hungry. In this case, WJ made the assumption that 1970s mixers could solve the problems of the 1990s. Once the commercial microwave business emerged in the mid-90s, and subsequently propelled Marki Microwave into prominence, it was clear that the mixer technology of the day was insufficient to solve modern problems. I had to invent new mixers to satisfy my new, expanding customer base. Because I was able to push the boundaries of microwave technology by building increasingly broadband, high performance mixers, Marki Microwave thrived while my competitors and former employers began to disappear. Marki Microwave’s commitment to product innovation has continued to this day as I now collaborate with my son, Christopher, to offer products that would have been impossible even two years ago. Marki Microwave’s generational continuity and historical perspective are key competitive advantages over our competition.
The fact that constant innovation leads to success in the engineering business is obvious. What is not obvious, however, is that the current economic and socio-scientific climate makes the microwave industry ripe for engineering-minded entrepreneurs.
The fact of the matter is large companies have too many bureaucrats and too few scientists. Recently, an engineer from a large, well known company called me regarding a mixer question. When my secretary asked who he was his response was, “Oh, I’m just an engineer.”
My secretary laughed and said, “Just an engineer? You work for an engineering company, you’re not ‘just an engineer’.” His response was upsetting: “I guess so, but around here that’s how they make me feel.”
Is that what it has come to? I am “just an engineer”? I believe that since the end of the Cold War, the perception of engineers and scientists has changed for the worse. When I was growing up, becoming a scientist or engineer was considered a great honor; something your in-laws would brag about. It appears that the Wall Street gamblers and the “pixie dust” salesmen have distorted our sense of the value of scientists and engineers in this business to the point that they are treated like second rate citizens while the MBAs and penny-pinchers of the world call the shots. That isn’t to say MBAs and accountants are useless. The problem, as I see it, is that the decision-making in a technology company too often ignores the input of those who actually design the technology.
The relegation of the engineer within large companies is actually a blessing for small companies and independent consultants. Scientists and engineers working on large systems simply do not have the time or the resources to develop technology internally. Large companies increasingly rely on the expertise of small companies like Marki Microwave to push the technological envelope for next generation systems. In doing so, the systems engineer develops a list of trusted vendors on whom they will rely throughout their career. As Sherry Hess describes in a recent mwjournal.com article, small companies have an advantage because they tend to have a more personal relationship with their customers and are generally more receptive to their challenges. Marki Microwave is no different. It has been my policy since we began that I am always just a phone call away. In fact, many of our greatest innovations are prompted by customers with “impossible challenges.”
Going forward, it is clear that small technology companies with specialized expertise and a dedication to innovation will prosper. As the large firms increasingly rely on paid consultants and vendors to complete projects, skilled technologists will become incredibly valuable (and hence well paid). Of even higher value will be those engineers and companies who have the ability to design, manufacture and test their inventions. For reasons I cannot understand, most engineers work in labs without skilled assemblers. When I take customers on tours of the Marki Microwave facility, they are often amazed that I sit, literally, 20 feet from my assemblers. They are further amazed when I tell them I have employed some of these people since the 1980s. To the modern engineer in the modern company, engineering design is separate from manufacturing. In my opinion, the over-outsouring of manufacturing steps leads to an epidemic of product atrophy. Because small companies must be agile to be effective, it seems reasonable that some amount of in-house manufacturing is vital to keeping product lines healthy and competitive. To put it in perspective; anyone can buy a copy of Microwave Office or CST, far fewer people know how to take those CAD designs and turn them into shipped products.
The current economic climate will reward engineers and scientists who defy conventional wisdom. In a cost-cutting, performance sacrificing era of smaller, cheaper, and foreign made, small technology companies like Marki Microwave, Oleson Microwave Labs, Holzworth Instrumentation and Wenzel Associates continue to prosper through a commitment to state-of-the-art performance and technological leadership. When engineers are freed from the mental slavery of cheap designs and commodity pricing, significant scientific contributions can be made that will, in turn, lead to small business prosperity.
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