Over the last 30 years, significant changes have taken place in the microwave industry. Perhaps the biggest shift was the emergence of a commercial market driven by the evolution of highly customized, low-volume products. Up until the '90s, the majority of the microwave component market was dominated by military spending with the occasional scientific-user-related test equipment. During that era, the focus was on durability in the field under harsh environments while using high-precision components with a commensurately high price. For the most part, transmissions used an analog format. The key to component design was to preserve power and prevent signal loss.

The '90s saw a significant restructuring of the industry. New applications and technologies came on the scene. One of the biggest drivers was the emergent and now ubiquitous cell-phone industry. The industry transitioned from comparatively low-volume, bag-sized analog cell phones to the digital phones available today. In doing so, the cost of previously exotic ICs based on GaAs, SiC, SiGe, and the like dropped several orders of magnitude. The reliability of those devices increased from spotty at best to an expectation of six-sigma performance.

With the availability of smaller and better power devices and receiver technologies, the need to squeeze every last decibel out of the transmission relaxed. Thus, the emphasis on passive devices switched from absolute performance to size and cost. This development created a bifurcated market in which commercial products drive the majority of the technology innovation particularly at the integrated-circuit (IC) level. The military and scientific market has grown increasingly smaller as a percentage of revenue. Yet more and more of these customers are using standard commercial products instead of custom-designed components.

By the late '90s, data rates in the communications sector finally reached the levels that are normally considered to fall in the microwave band. For the first time, leading-edge designers working with 10- and 40-GB/s line speeds needed to use microwave components for non-optical signals. Even in this area, new IC technologies helped to drive down the need for exotic and costly passive-interconnect products. In particular, digital-signal-processor (DSP) chips now provide sufficient signal conditioning and error correction. Even simple interconnects based on CAT 6 wire can accommodate signals up to 10 GB/s.

With the help of consumer demand and new product innovation, the microwave industry has grown into a mature and robust industry. At the same time, the number of new applicationsfrom satellite radios to movies on demand, tracking and location services, and collision-avoidance radarswill ensure strong industry growth in the future.

W. L. Gore & Associates, Inc., 402 Vieve's Way, Elkton, MD 21921; (800) 445-4673, Internet: www.gore.com

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