Some critics say that attending IMS is a waste of time for engineers and designers. The popular complaint is that conferences, in general, tend to be long on marketing sparkle and short on technical rigor. Among engineers, I often hear the comment that visiting booths is pointless because booth staff is more intent on tagging your conference badge to get your digits (i.e. email contact) than actually answering your technical questions. Questions about technical performance or pricing are shoved into the inquiry-list abyss, and might be addressed within the next decade.
From this point of view, it would seem that the average engineer is better off staying home and instead use the traditional channels to get technical information and pricing (i.e. blind emails to info@ addresses and reps). HOWEVER…wait for it…I contend that IMS is, by far, the most useful conference an RF engineer can ever attend. The reason is that IMS is, by analogy, a 3 day Farmer’s Market of RF goods and services where you can meet and share ideas with the highest caliber people the industry has to offer.
Why is IMS uniquely similar to your local Farmer’s Market? Simple, the RF business is populated by a dense cluster of extremely talented “specialist” companies that are small in stature but high in quality. Just as your local Market might showcase a vendor with specialty California olive oil or rare heirloom tomatoes, IMS will showcase a vendor who has a particular specialization in something like extremely low noise amplifiers or cryogenic tolerant components (so-called niche markets). Often this specialization represents the engineer’s life’s work and entire companies often emanate from this innovative energy. The fact that IMS summons the small specialist companies (and their founders and lead inventors) implies that in about 4 hours of booth visits you can talk to, literally, the world’s leading experts on everything from amplifiers to packages to oscillators to VNAs. Just as you would pick out the best produce and flowers and cheeses at your local Farmer’s Market, you pick out the best hardware and software at IMS by speaking with the people who invented the product. I have attended a variety of conferences over the years and the communal nature of IMS, with its tight knit group of specialist engineers, is unique.
Why does the RF industry foster highly successful, small specialist companies? In my opinion, the answer is best attributed to the specific business and scientific constraints in which the RF industry operates. Without question, the RF and Microwave industry owes a significant amount of its viability to its military legacy. As is commonly understood, military and defense applications center on “best in class” technologies. The cat and mouse game of electronic warfare, or the ever-increasing need for broadband, secure military communication lends itself perfectly to a business model focused on relentless iteration and dB-by-dB improvement, without the handcuffing paralysis of pricing pressure. The push by military requirements to push technology barriers tends to favor the specialist and the risk taker without bean-counter intervention; these tend to be advantages for small, aggressive technical companies. When multiplied by the “black magic” factor associated with manufacturing GHz technology, one can quickly understand why so many small companies attending IMS find lineage connecting back to the 1970s powerhouses like HP and Watkins Johnson, Marki Microwave included.
These days, of course, one cannot survive on DoD business alone. In fact, I would suspect most traditionally Mil-focused RF companies have decided to penetrate the commercial and test equipment markets to remain busy. In this realm time and cost tend to play a significant role and, fittingly, the smaller RF businesses attending IMS tend to excel in that arena too. By minimizing overhead and bureaucratic interference, small RF specialists enable the much-coveted faster time-to-market. Moreover, the free-wheeling technical support associated with small company specialists provides a needed technical boost to customers who require extra tutelage in the concept and design phases of a new product. It is also common for the specialist company to know when to recommend other specialist companies. In this way, a mixer specialist like Marki Microwave would cross-pollinate with an oscillator vendor or a phase noise measurement vendor since straying too far from our “territory” offers little economic or scientific benefit to the transaction. If you want to make the best salad, you find the farmers who produce the best lettuce, tomato, carrots and vinaigrette; it is rare that the same farmer can excel at all ingredients. Or, if you are my father, you will order a great salad, but only eat the blue cheese. He is, after all, a singular specialist of mixers and never cared much for vegetables anyway.
So, why do I go to IMS? I go because I have a year’s worth of technical questions to ask the world’s greatest RF experts and I don’t like waiting for email responses. Question about a VNA? Talk to Dr. Joel at HP Agilent Keysight. Question about crystal oscillators? Talk to John or Charlie at Wenzel. Question about phase noise measurements? Talk to Jason at Holzworth. Question about a MMIC design? Talk to Paul at Custom MMIC or Liam at Plextek. Question about a mixer? Well…I think you know who I would recommend for that. See you in Tampa!
Christopher Marki is the Director of Operations at Marki Microwave. He is co-blogger of Marki’s award winning industry blog, lead designer of mixers and passive products, and resident (newbie) guitar luthier. His babies (i.e. his mixers, passives products and IMS inspired guitar) can be found on display at booth #634.