Executive Interview: Jon Jacocks, President and CEO of Empower RF Systems
From PAs for IED jammers to today's "intelligent" PAs
How was Empower RF Systems formed, and what was the initial vision for the company?
The company was founded by an engineer/entrepreneur who saw an opportunity for ultra-broadband, solid-state power amplifiers (PA). Building-block modules and rack-mount assemblies built with combinations of those modules were the company’s first products.
A hard-fought design win on an early generation IED jammer system propelled the company forward for several years and attracted the attention of a private equity firm, in the 2006 timeframe. The abrupt end of the amplifier frenzy associated with those early versions of IED jammers, circa 2010, created a catalyst for change within the company and helped launch the next-generation platforms and associated patented architecture that you see from us today.
Tell us a bit about the company today, approaching your 20th anniversary. Describe your product and market focus.
With the frequency spectrum that we currently address — HF to C-Band — and band extensions we are being asked to look at by our customers, the global markets of significance for us include electronic warfare, test and measurement, radar and communications. We are engaged with key OEMs, government agencies and integrators in our support of their applications in these focus markets.
Broadband and band-specific solid-state PAs, with increasingly higher output power and more complex control and functionality, is the product portfolio that we design and manufacture. We are designed into customer applications at the PA module level — 10s of watts up to 100 watts — and, likewise, well represented with chassis-level products that deliver hundreds of watts up to multi-kilowatt RF power output.
Digging deeper into your markets, what are the trends creating the best opportunities for Empower?
The proliferation of complex digital waveforms and the ever-present need for size/weight reductions and power density improvements are key drivers for our most demanding customers, and we are meeting that challenge with our next-generation products.
Requests for multi-mode, multi-mission capable amplifier platforms and the “help me simplify my systems integration” mantra that we are hearing from our key markets fuel our growth, as well. Interest and funding for technology upgrades to bring aging, legacy platforms into the modern era are increasing and presenting a number of opportunities as we move forward.
As you pursue these opportunities, what technical advances are you developing to help solve your customers’ problems?
In general, technology advancements in RF amplifiers have been tied to improvements in RF semiconductors, which is understandable but, in our view, limited in scope and vision.
For many years, our customers have been making huge investments in complex waveform generation and high speed digital signal processing and then transmitting with limited function, “dumb” amplifiers. That’s a missed opportunity at the systems integration level, and we are addressing that with an intelligent RF amplifier with a programmable core that allows us to control and monitor the RF in real time.
Functions in this programmable core include automatic level control, automatic gain control and accurate output power measurements for any type of input waveform. With this built-in intelligence, we are deploying units that are unique in their ability to support multiple, user-generated mission profiles out of a single amplifier.
As part of the continuing evolution of our intelligent amplifier, we recently demonstrated pulse shaping to interested attendees at the AOC (Association of Old Crows) conference. Pulse shaping, as we define it, is the capacity of the high power amplifier (HPA) to reproduce the input pulse with minimum distortion. We are addressing amplifier signal distortions with corrections that are self-generated by the amplifier and believe it to be a technology advancement for HPAs.
How have power amplifiers changed during your tenure at the company, considering such aspects as the power semiconductors, amplifier architectures, packaging and embedded software?
There have been changes in three notable areas:
- Semiconductor technology, GaN in particular, continues to increase the frequency/power combinations that can be supported with a solid-state amplifier and enables us to present an attractive alternative to TWTs for system designers in a number of applications.
- Improvements in and our utilization of electromechanical packaging and materials. The internal design of our high power, chassis-level product is virtually connector free and incorporates thermal management techniques and materials that are patented and enable us to yield best-in-class size, weight and power (SWaP) for commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) amplifiers at these high power levels.
- The amount of software/firmware within our amplifiers has grown several orders of magnitude since my tenure began. Software/firmware is integral to the design and performance of our amplifiers. The amplifier’s ability to properly function in multiple modes of output power management, with any type of modulation, and with a variety of detection schemes can only be accomplished with embedded software/firmware.
For a typical Empower PA system, what technologies and components do you obtain from suppliers and what do you do in-house?
Our team is utilizing commercially-available components during the design process, as applicable, and is self sufficient in integrating all elements of the RF and digital building blocks required in the PAs we deliver. Top level assembly, test, programming and performance validation are all handled by our personnel.
Looking out three to five years, do you envision new applications for your systems? What challenges must be solved to make those a reality? Are they market, technical, operational?
We believe that the complex tasks of systems design and integration can be simplified by redirecting RF control tasks and computational requirements from external components and equipment into an intelligent amplifier. Every systems feature that’s part of the amplification function should belong to the HPA.
It is a compelling thought to consider that the role of the PA can be expanded to encompass RF digital signal processing. There are technical challenges to delivering on that vision, but they can be overcome with continued advancements in our architecture and embedded software/firmware expertise.
The challenges to overcoming a customer’s historical reliance on product and supplier silos will also have to be addressed, and that is not insignificant. That will take work, as well.
How would you like your customers to view Empower RF Systems?
Innovative and creative, committed to “do right” by the customer, best choice for solid-state PA solutions, best choice for partnerships and collaboration.
Tell us about your own background and how you became president and CEO.
I was an Army officer finishing my active duty commitment when I crossed paths with an RF industry leader, a Bay Area company named Avantek. Their VP of sales was a former Naval officer, and he tapped into junior military officers as a pipeline for staffing headquarters’ sales.
HP’s acquisition of Avantek opened up a whole new world — literally — of semiconductors and components, and I continued to advance in my sales and management career throughout the acquisitions and spin-offs that followed.
I was approached about joining Empower as the company’s first VP of sales in 2008, as the company sought to add more depth, experience and structure following the private equity investment. I became president and CEO as part of an orderly transition and change of command, so to speak, in 2013.
Given your experience and success, please share a seminal lesson you’ve learned during the course of your career.
I have a note on the whiteboard in my office which reads, “ask better questions.” Staying attentive to that and then really listening to the answers to those better questions is a skill set that will serve you well.
Poorly delivered, incomplete, hastily read or misunderstood communications are in the middle of just about every situation that turns into lost business or a burning platform that disrupts your day.