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RF/Microwave Industry Trends to Watch in 2018

Here are three areas of note to keep an eye on this year.

1. Millimeter-Wave Frequencies for Cellular Communications

Millimeter-wave frequencies at 28 and 39 GHz for cellular communications present significant economic and performance challenges for the wireless community. The need to manage independently steered beams is driving architectural innovation and leading to partitioning between digital and analog beamforming, trading off flexibility, cost, and power dissipation. Digital beamforming is the most flexible approach, but it places challenges on size and power because it requires a full transceiver per element and significant digital processing. And while analog beamforming greatly reduces the number of transceivers, it makes multiple beam management less flexible.

The critical question for the industry in 2018 is this: Can the transmit/receive modules be monolithically incorporated into the beamformer or transceivers? Or will they need to be in a different technology? The answer will become clear when link budgets, cost, and size tradeoffs are better understood. 5G will elevate the capabilities of the industry to address future needs in communication and other emerging millimeter-wave applications.

2. Making an Impact in 2018 and Beyond

The RF/microwave space was dominated for a long time by simple-function gallium-arsenide (GaAs) heterojunction-bipolar-transistor (HBT) and pseudomorphic-high-electron-mobility-transistor (pHEMT) monolithic microwave integrated circuits (MMICs). But the emergence of silicon-germanium (SiGe) and fine-line CMOS quickly displaced many of these functions in the cellular range—which requires higher levels of integration—while GaAs MMICs retained the most challenging, front-end sockets at higher frequencies. The importance of highly integrated CMOS solutions in higher-volume applications that require mixed-signal and digital back-ends will continue to grow in 2018 and beyond. 

Gallium-nitride (GaN) and silicon-on-insulator (SOI) technologies enabling new levels of performance are already under development. GaN has extended the window for solid-state MMIC power amplifiers (PAs) out beyond 100 W and for modules into the kW range, therefore challenging traveling wave tubes (TWTs) and hybrids.

Similarly, SOI has surpassed the performance of other RF switch technologies in a smaller footprint and has demonstrated impressive RF/microwave transceiver dynamic range. Having this capability and expertise across a wide palette of semiconductor and co-packaging technologies is essential to providing optimal solutions to the complex problems facing the industry.

3. Defense Electronics Continues to Drive RF/Microwave Growth

One of the key drivers of RF/microwave is the defense electronics sector—and this trend will absolutely continue in 2018. With Middle East conflicts and a continued effort to upgrade technical capabilities, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) will stoke RF/microwave growth. Activities such as the Defense Innovation Initiative and DARPA’s Electronics Resurgence Initiative are investing in technology advancements to ensure continued U.S. military preparedness and this is forecast to drive long-term growth.

Communications, missile defense, smart munitions, electronic surveillance, and countermeasure systems—as well as space-based electronics—have all been identified as key areas of government investment, and all have significant RF/microwave concepts ingrained in their design. More specifically, phased-array antenna technologies, advanced communications, and high-efficiency solid-state power amplifier (SSPA) products are all areas of electronics content that are expected to grow significantly.

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