One of the mainstays of the microwave industry has seen its share of changes during five decades, while continuing to play a leadership role in attenuator-based technology.
Fifty years is a long time for a company in any industry. In the microwave industry, for example, a mere handful of companies can trace their roots back one-half century, making this achievement by Weinschel Corp. (Frederick, MD) all the more meaningful. Founded as Weinschel Engineering and now known as MCE/Weinschel Corp., the company has prospered during a period when many companies began and failed, building a strong foundation upon its high-frequency attenuator technology.
Weinschel, which takes its name from founder Dr. Bruno O. Weinschel (see sidebar, "The Founder"), began life in 1952 in Kensington, MD. The company offered the world's first commercially available coaxial attenuators, and quickly established a solid reputation for the quality of its attenuator products. Within the first half of its history, the firm had already designed and developed comprehensive product lines in fixed attenuators, continuously variable attenuators, step attenuators, motorized step attenuators, resistive power splitters, terminations, coaxial connectors, and adapters. In support of its products, the company also set standards for attenuation and power measurements, including more than 60 technical articles in the 1978-1979 catalog.
That measurement expertise, combined with the variety of components developed at Weinschel, led to the development of proprietary measurement tools, such as attenuation-measurement and power-meter-calibration instruments, which would eventually be offered to the general public as commercial products, such as the model VM-3 an VM-7 attenuator and signal-generator calibrators and the later model VM-24 signal-generator calibrator (see MicroWaves, May 1982, Cover). The VM-7 was an advanced 30-MHz receiver (Rx) with −110-dBm sensitivity and 110-dB wideband dynamic range. The VM-24, which combined six measurement instruments including a frequency counter, signal source, and power meter, operated from 0.01 to 18 GHz.
In August 1986, Dr. Weinschel agreed to sell the company to the British company Lucas Industries, Inc. The company had grown to 259 employees by that time, working within a 50,000-sq.-ft. facility set on 19 acres in Gaithersburg. Lucas would acquire other American electronics companies, including Aul, EPSCO, and Zeta.
Weinschel would experience relative stability for approximately a decade following the Lucas acquisition. The company added to its component lines, offering higher-power fixed coaxial attenuators and terminations to 500 W and 40 GHz; continuously variable, manual, and programmable step attenuators; power dividers; directional couplers; coaxial adapters; blind-mate connector systems; phase shifters; and custom subsystems. In 1994, Weinschel Corp.'s Quality Management system was approved to ISO 9001, EN29001, BS5750-Part 1, and ANSI/ASQC Q9001-1994 standards.
But much would change in 1995, a period during which the company would change hands twice within a period of months. "Within one 12-month period, we had three different owners: Lucas, Sierra Technologies, and MCE Technologies," notes Bob Stephens, Weinschel's president and CEO. Lucas had chosen to focus on its core business groups in aerospace systems and subsystems, and to sell off its component subsidiaries, such as Weinschel.
The Weinschel that emerged under MCE Technologies (Fig. 1) remains very diversified in terms of product lines, regions, number of customers, types of customers, markets (military, commercial, mobile, satellite, etc.), and applications (see sidebar, "MCE At A Glance"). "We have maintained the foundations of the company, which is the coaxial attenuators," notes Jimmy Dholoo, vice president of engineering, "but we have expanded our technologies and product lines." Examples of the company's responsiveness to changing technical requirements are its lines of low-intermodulation (IM) attenuators and its patented blind-mate connectors with flush-mounted contacts, which are capable of operating to 50 GHz. Dholoo and his engineering team regularly set new standards for attenuation products, introducing novel developments such as a DC-to-40-GHz, 20-W attenuator that is currently unavailable from any other supplier.
Although the company is firmly rooted in designing and manufacturing precision components, for many years it was thought of as a instrument house. "People still think we are in the instrument and calibration business," says Bob Stephens, who mentions an incident at a trade show when a visitor to the company's booth asked whether Weinschel was the company that "calibrates for NIST." Jokingly, Stephens suggested that the visitor share this message with everyone he knows. "Actually, we've worked very hard to change that image," notes Stephens. The instrument lines were sold off in 1997, and the company returned its focus to attenuators. "We've tried to build upon our core competencies, the attenuators, but also build upon our subsystem business," says Stephens. "We have made a successful transition from being a test business to being a component and subsystem business," he adds. "We are the subsystem of choice for such leading telecommunications companies as Ericsson, Motorola, and Nortel," reveals Stephens, "but our business starts with the attenuators."
As Stephens recalls, "We weren't really looking to redefine the company , but we had a lot of resident expertise left in the company from the instrumentation period, such as the ability to do packaging, bus-control interfaces, and highly integrated subsystems. Those people were still here, but we were no longer in the measurement business, so we found a way to use all of this design capability in the subsystem products."
Frank MacLean, the vice president of operations, initially joined the instrumentation group in 1987, during the company's years of peak employment (approximately 300 people) as the company began to migrate from a two division operation into a single focused business, a three-year "evolution plan," was initiated to completely redefine and modify the operations. The initial phase involved a complete review of the existing vertical integration that existed and continued to expand on an annual basis. Each area was reviewed and justification for continuation was either presented or a recommendation for elimination was issued. The first area was the plating shop. Weinschel worked with the plating supervisor on developing the capability as his own, independent business and then sold the capability to him, becoming his first "arms-length" customer and continuing to use his services today. The next area was painting and again the company set the capability up as a stand-alone business for the supervisor and continues to use his business today. The harder area was the machine shop, which in many regards had more capabilities than a small aircraft facility. Says MacLean, "We stuck a pin on a map in Gaithersburg and drew a 60-mile radius, with our intent and plan to develop a competent source of supply for the majority of the fabrication and machine services that were resident within the facility. Over a relatively short amount of time a strong and technical supplier base had been qualified and we were able to reduce the reliance on and need for our large machine and fabrication shop. Today the shop is used for tight tolerance, short run and new product development functions."
With the combining of the instrumentation and components groups into a single facility in 1989, Weinschel again realized that change was needed in the way products were manufactured. The first step was to eliminate "end of the line" inspection as a "checker and criticizer role." MacLean remarks, "We initiated intensive quality assurance, TQC, and TQM training for all levels of the company. Employees were challenged to recommend change and empowered to stop production on any product that was not in compliance with the drawing or had very low yields throughout the assembly and test process."
Production was then changed from lines of benches to product cells, where the employees were trained and developed to fully understand the products, inspect to established procedures, view the customers as theirs, and were encouraged to accept full responsibility for meeting schedules and significantly improving quality and profitability for each product line. The changes were painful at first, but today the results are real: increased production with significantly less people, outstanding quality and customer satisfaction, and, most important, a highly skilled, effective, and involved workforce.
In its 50 years as a business entity, Weinschel has boasted many good people. Surprisingly, the company was able to keep most of its people even when moving from Gaithersburg to Frederick. "We looked around the whole area for a facility and ended up moving about 25 to 30 miles from Gaithersburg, but the average commute actually decreased," says Stephens. "When Lucas bought us, we had limited time to move out of Gaithersburg. It was almost like a full-time job for Frank to find a new facility," he adds.
Remarkably, some of the company's earliest employees still contribute significantly to Weinschel's progress, including Virginia Jenkins, her sister Elva Duval, and their friend, Sandy Black. Virginia Jenkins, 44 years with Weinschel, joined the company when she was only 20 years old. "I've learned a great deal here from the people I've worked with, and from the managers," she says. "I've been through four different owners and have seen a lot of changes, but it has been good with all of them. You learn to go along with any changes they make." Jenkins' sister, Elva Duval, has been part of Weinschel for 43 years. "I've worked with the company since 1959," she recalls. "I will certainly miss this company when I retire." She thinks of Weinschel as her family, noting that "they bend over backwards to help their people, much like a family. If you've been here and you've done your job, they are as good to you as you are to the company."
Compared to the two sisters, Sandy Black is a relative newcomer, with a "mere" 31 years at Weinschel. "I started on the assembly line in 1971, became a team leader for high-reliability attenuators, then went to work on a manufacturing engineering cell for special jobs. Then Frank MacLean asked me to come to work in operations for manufacturing engineering. It's always been interesting and fun," she says.
Virginia Jenkins has a special place in her heart for the people of Weinschel: "I had a triple-bypass operation in 1998 and was off from April 1998 to February 1999. If it hadn't been for this company and the people, from the president on down, calling me...it made it much easier for me to come back."
Another member of the Weinschel 40-year club, Carol Benton, is group leader for the fixed-attenuator group. "When I started, we only had the 1- and 2-W models," she recalls. "But now we go up to 1000 W."
Recent growth at Weinschel can be traced to the efforts of the subsystems product group, led by one of the company's newest employees, Warren Gruber, vice president for business development of Subsystems. "These products have now evolved to test subsystems for telecom organizations like Motorola, Nortel, Ericsson, Samsung," states Gruber. His group has expanded to take on contracts for complex switch matrices such as integrated systems that include the backup switching networks for broadband network original-equipment-manufacturers (OEMs) in their cable headend systems, and most recently has delivered the first signal simulator for IEEE 802.11 wireless-local-area-network (WLAN) systems (Fig. 2).
Weinschel's communications manager, Barry Newlin, points out that the company philosophy can be summarized in just three words: tradition, quality, and innovation. "Reputation is something that wraps around all three of those words," notes Newlin.