Design engineers have grown accustomed to dealing with variables. Many engineers (still alive to tell the tale) may remember small programs developed for Texas Instruments or Hewlett-Packard calculators that would assist in the design process. These forerunners of modern computer-based design programs depended upon the engineer entering different values for a number of variables in order to calculate, for example, the required circuit-element values for a filter's resonant circuit.
Over time, the number of variables in the design process have increased. Designers once concerned only with a set of circuit-element values must now take into consideration such factors as the bill of materials (BOM) and the time to market. In some markets, such as when selling to automotive-electronics customers, even the cost becomes a variable. Most automotive customers require a cost scheme that decreases over time (based on their own projected product lifetimes for a given model vehicle). This forces suppliers of integrated circuits (ICs), for example, to arrive at an initial price for their products that is considerably higher than their projected price 10 years hence. Assuming that the IC supplier maintains suitably profitable margins for their products, part of a design plan for automotive ICs must include strategies for improving product yield and manufacturing efficiency while reducing final product cost throughout the lifetime of the design.
Obviously, not every high-frequency company will be able to gear itself to sales in markets like automotive electronics. Some firms, such as IC houses, can take advantage of process improvements and higher levels of integration to create more function (per dollar) per chip. In this month's News story on wireless-local-area-network (WLAN) chips (p. 33), for example, the trend is apparent from early radio ICs that provided one WLAN standard, such as IEEE 802.11b, to newer ICs with radio architectures that support two or three WLAN standards. Inevitably, most suppliers will develop single-chip solutions containing multiple radios, medium access controller (MAC), and baseband controller.
But for traditional microwave component suppliers, where package and connector costs often exceed the cost of the circuitry, the road to consumer markets may not be as smooth. Still, even traditional military customers now evaluate cost more than ever, placing greater pressures on high-frequency designers to create cost-effective solutions. In any case, designing for such markets requires a long-term strategy that includes process improvements, BOM reductions, and increased use of automation on manufacturing and testing.