Microwave Journal
www.microwavejournal.com/articles/38057-executive-interview-roger-wells-evp-and-president-mercury-systems-microelectronics-division
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Executive Interview: Roger Wells, EVP and President, Mercury Systems’ Microelectronics Division

May 1, 2022

1. Let's start with the mission of the Microelectronics division and how it fits into Mercury Systems’ overall business and strategy.

Mercury’s Microelectronics division is focused on being a trusted domestic provider of advanced microelectronic capabilities that will drive next-generation multi-domain systems, including radar, electronic warfare, communications and effector-based systems. This includes high density, low SWaP (size, weight and power), heterogenous microelectronic system packages that offer differentiated capabilities for military and spaced-based applications.

Mercury is at the intersection of high-tech and defense applications and, as such, is uniquely positioned to bring innovative solutions to complex operational challenges that make a difference on the battlefield. All these capabilities are vital to getting ahead of global national security challenges and keeping our service men and women safe as they go into harm’s way—and that is our most important mission.

2. Tell us about your division’s capabilities, from RF to digital processing, and your facilities.

Mercury has both tremendous breadth and depth in our RF and digital processing capabilities portfolio. We have invested organically, as well as through acquisitions, to create a unique portfolio that goes from MMIC-based components to fully integrated microwave subsystems. This includes custom-designed MMIC devices, GaN amplifiers, agile frequency converters and custom integrated solutions. We have also developed industry-leading digital conversion technologies: DSP and FPGA processing solutions with a focus on high speed digitization and multi-channel coherent capabilities, which are perfect for the enablement of high performance embedded computing.

Our technology portfolio includes hardware, firmware and software capabilities with low noise input and high power output performance through Q-Band, as well as real-time signal acquisition and generation with lossless recording and playback capabilities. The integration of these capabilities has enabled the recent expansion of direct-to-digital RF solutions from S-Band through Ku-Band and beyond, which drives next-generation system implementations.

Our microwave and mixed-signals teams are U.S. based and located in Hudson N.H.; West Caldwell, N.J.; Upper Saddle River, N.J.; Marriottsville, Md.; Norcross, Ga.; Huntsville Al.; Oxnard, Calif.; and Fremont, Calif. Additionally, our microsystems team in Phoenix applies their industry-leading silicon packaging technology to offer radiation tolerant microelectronics, compact memory and storage devices and high performance RF system-in-package (SiP) solutions that leverage the latest in commercial technology.

By leveraging Mercury-developed capabilities with the latest commercially available technologies, we ensure our solutions are both cutting edge and economically feasible.

3. What trends are you seeing with semiconductor process, heterogeneous integration and system packaging technologies? How is the DOD, broadly and Mercury, specifically, tapping and adapting commercial technologies?

We are seeing significant investments being made in the semiconductor and trusted microelectronic industry to upgrade infrastructure and move towards the heterogenous packaging of smaller devices to increase compute density and optimize SWaP configurations while reducing design cycle times.

While this is being driven by explosive growth in commercial markets, including mobile computing and telecommunication, there is significant operational benefit to DOD as we move towards the integration of digital, analog and mixed-signal blocks into system-on-chip (SoC) or SiP solutions.

These SoC/SiP heterogeneous, chiplet-based architectures, coupled with advanced packaging techniques (2.5D and 3D), allow developers to optimize system capabilities to create specialized applications. The chiplets can be produced by various companies, each with unique capabilities—custom DSP algorithms or embedded AI—and using different technologies and are integrated onto a high density routing layer. These are easily coupled with commercial processing chips (e.g., Intel and AMD-Xilinx) to create a packaged solution.

Highly specialized defense applications and the need for integrated capabilities are driving DOD-industry as well as industry-industry collaborations. A good example of this level of cooperation within DOD is the DARPA SHIPS program, which is intended to develop an open standard to enable rapid development by commercial companies to support DOD’s modernization efforts. Mercury is a provider of trusted microelectronics to the defense prime contractors and the DOD and has been making the investments and building the partnerships to be a leader in this space.

4. You mentioned the DARPA SHIPS program. DARPA has been pursuing a vision of heterogeneous integration and adaptable systems. How is Mercury Systems engaged with DARPA?

Mercury made a strategic investment to build-out a trusted heterogenous integration capability which represents one of the first commercial applications of DARPA’s Electronics Resurgence Initiative. These investments are directly in line with the DOD’s shift in focus to domestically produced trusted technologies for a zero-trust environment. They have enabled Mercury to develop customizable, SWaP-optimized and secure solutions for a new paradigm of defense-grade microelectronics to support low latency, advanced edge processing applications for RF, EW and ISR systems. Mercury is also working on multiple heterogeneous integration efforts funded under the Trusted and Assured Microelectronics within OSD.

Since this investment, we have announced two products that leverage this high density silicon packaging to combine advanced commercial silicon in a compact and rugged BGA package. In addition to standard products, we’re partnering with industry leaders on key programs to support the build-out of a trusted microelectronics ecosystem.

5. With the evolution in data converters (A/D and D/A), the line between analog and digital continues to move up in frequency—you said it’s beyond Ku-Band. How do your capabilities address both sides of this line?

No question that the line continues to move up, just as operational frequencies are expanding, data rates are increasing and the need for lower SWaP solutions are required. I think Mercury is exceptionally well positioned to address these challenges. We have long been a leader in microwave electronics and, through investments and acquisitions, we have strengthened our ability to produce direct-to-digital solutions. We have a deep technology portfolio that cuts across MMICs (e.g., amplifiers, filters, switches), RF “personality” modules and back-end digital mixing/filtering capabilities, which allows more flexibility in matching processing bandwidths to signal types.

We focus on providing superior channel-to-channel isolation, advanced filtering, high bandwidth and low latency data conversion and thermal management. This allows us to push capabilities closer to the aperture—the AESA radar DREX (digital receiver exciter), operate across a wider range of terrestrial frequencies for EW applications and support sensor processing at the edge.

6. Mercury Systems was a pioneer advocating standards for integrating RF and digital modules, which you called OpenRFM. You're now engaged in the SOSA initiative as a principal member. Describe the goals of these standards and the benefits to military systems.

Mercury has been a long-time advocate of open architecture solutions and has authored some of the most widely utilized technical standards. These solutions simplify the integration of multiple processing elements into a single system. Additionally, by standardizing the form factor and interfaces, these standards allow the end-users to easily upgrade their systems without the high cost of custom-designed modules or having to suffer “vendor lock.”

SOSA takes previous standards a step further by defining some key elements, thereby simplifying the system integration and reducing the amount of board-level customization required.

7. Security of supply has long been a concern of the DOD. The pandemic, tensions with China and Russia's invasion of Ukraine have moved those concerns from probability to reality. How is your division helping DOD address security and trustworthiness of supply?

Mercury has made significant investments to build a world class infrastructure and has positioned the company as an independent and trusted source of domestically produced microelectronics. While most commercial semiconductor companies use packaging suppliers based outside of the U.S., Mercury’s advanced silicon packaging facility is located in Phoenix and is a DMEA trusted facility. This capability is of strategic importance and absolutely critical as we look to modernize and secure our defense systems.

Of equal importance is the ability to bring innovative, mission capable solutions to the market quickly to counter emerging threats. Through our investments, we have implemented industry-leading engineering and production capabilities that allow us to work closely with our partners to accelerate the design and deployment of next-generation solutions.

8. AI and machine learning (ML) will be key enablers to reduce the complexity of the world and optimize system performance. How are these technologies changing the microelectronics products you're developing? How do you see their impact evolving during the coming decade?

AI/ML are definitely key technologies that are driving system design but will also become increasingly relevant as we look to modernize our capabilities. At Mercury, we are building the advanced microelectronic and processing solutions that are allowing these capabilities to be pushed to the tactical edge—whether that’s integrated into the nose of a next-generation aircraft or on-orbit in a satellite, Mercury will be there. This will require new architectures that leverage hetrogenous SiP/SoC capabilities and require collaboration across government and industry.

These advancements will reduce cognitive burdens, allow our systems to be more agile and capable of responding to dynamic environments and will usher in a new generation of autonomous systems. As these capabilities become more widely deployed in a tactical environment, it will be important to ensure that they are secure and are not able to be exploited if they fall into an adversary’s hands. This is another area where Mercury is developing next-gen capabilities.

9. We're seeing a tremendous investment in commercial satellite and launch capabilities, which has certainly grown the market for microelectronics in space. How is Mercury engaging commercial and military space applications?

Space is a key area of growth for Mercury and is a market we are well positioned to support. We leverage our close relationship with commercial semiconductor companies as well as the traditional DOD primes to build cost-effective solutions for space applications. For example, our radiation tolerant solid-state drives use up-screened commercial devices along with our proprietary error-correction algorithms. Additionally, we recently announced a radiation tolerant FPGA power module at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs. We have a deep knowledge base when it comes to developing space-based mission hardware and have the infrastructure and process to ensure we produce qualified devices.

10. The DOD continues to develop and be an early adopter of technology. What lessons have you learned during your career about successfully managing technology development and adoption, ensuring technology readiness?

Success in this area is about building trust and working with a shared sense of ownership. It is important to work closely with DOD stakeholders, as well as other industry partners, to understand the needs, the missions and the desired outcomes in order to appropriately apply science, technology and engineering. It’s equally important to understand and plan for the practical aspects of bringing technology to production readiness and deploying new solutions. However, as we look at the rapidly changing world we live in, we must be able to bring innovative solutions forward quickly to combat emerging threats.

11. Tell us about your background and the journey that led you to join Mercury Systems.

We certainly have a very exciting future ahead of us, and I can't think of a better place to be right now than Mercury. As an engineer, it’s extremely rewarding to be at a company that is pushing the boundaries of technology to solve really complex operational problems. I’ve worked my entire career in the high-tech and the aerospace and defense markets, so being here at Mercury, which is at the intersection of those two domains, is both unique and tremendously exciting. Equally exciting is the opportunity to help Mercury scale the business and realize its full growth potential. However, I never forget that we are building solutions that help protect those we serve, and that is the most important reason for being at Mercury.