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Making My Way Around Boston’s 2019 IMS Exhibition

Microwaves & RF's Jack Browne gives his take of the recently completed IMS, including the trends that seemed to dominate the show.

Once again, the IEEE is to be congratulated for an excellent technical program and well-attended exhibition hall at the 2019 Microwave Theory & Techniques Society (MTT-S) International Microwave Symposium (IMS). The exhibition, held this past June 4-6 in Boston’s Convention and Exhibition Center (BCEC), is easily the world’s largest annual RF/microwave event, and quickly becoming the largest millimeter-wave (mmWave) event as the industry moves into supporting designs at frequencies of 30 GHz and higher. Never in the past has this technical exhibition been as dominated by displays and talk about mmWave frequencies, and each person’s and company’s approaches for solving design issues above about 24 GHz.

The two application areas on most exhibitors’ and visitors’ lips were automotive radars and 5G cellular wireless communications systems. For an industry that has grown up feeding on the demands of fairly specialized military electronics systems requirements, production numbers totaling millions if not billions for components, devices, materials, and test equipment targeting automotive and 5G markets had exhibitors talking about the “coming of age” for the very focused RF/microwave segment of the electronics industry.

Demands for these two emerging markets could be seen throughout an exhibition floor with more than 600 companies represented. That these are truly global markets was apparent from the locations of the different manufacturers and the many languages that could be heard on the show floor. It was also clear that some parts of the world, such as the Far East, had a head start in terms of 5G infrastructure development, and the rest of us had quite a bit of catching up to do across all parts of the spectrum, from RF through mmWave frequencies, for 5G systems.

Perhaps not so bizarre, but more than a few mentions of “6G” could be heard on the show floor. Design engineers were anticipating the rapid consumption of bandwidth in 5G systems and the need for even more advanced wireless communications solutions.

Needing wireless solutions so soon beyond 5G could be explained by many as the “changing of the guard” in the industry. Several family members came to the 2019 IMS exhibition with their parents, now grown and working with and for their parents as part of the industry. If their parents are considered “baby boomers,” they are part of the “millennial” generation that has learned to depend on the cell phone for everyday life. Getting to meet some of these young engineers who are part of this industry’s next generation was a fortunate and wonderful part of the 2019 IMS exhibition, and the opportunity to see that things often change much faster than ever imagined.

The importance of 5G and automotive radar and other systems to the RF/microwave industry over the next several years was obvious on the exhibition floor and from the many conversations being held in those two areas. Visitors descending the escalators to the large exhibition floor were greeted by the massive booth space, including Keysight Technologies booths (and the generosity of their morning cups of coffee) displaying signal generation and analysis test solutions for advanced modulation schemes and mmWave frequencies. Many large exhibition areas on the show floor were filled with innovations, such as the integrated circuits (ICs) on display from the Analog Devices exhibition booths in the center of the show, while the multiple National Instruments booths next door showed innovations in test equipment and design software.

Even in smaller spaces, such as tucked away in the back half of the show, Anritsu presented one of the most dramatic developments for the next generations of communications and automotive electronics—a signal analyzer using coaxial connectors and on-wafer probes capable of operating to 220 GHz. The analyzer was one thing, but having connections that worked from a few kilohertz to 220 GHz is a tribute to the many innovative people, such as Bill Oldfield at Wiltron/Anritsu, who have driven this industry’s advances throughout the years. 

But before it’s time to say that the high-frequency electronics industry is totally devoted to supplying products for “just” 5G and automotive electronics, there were more than a few reminders at the show about the health and strength of military and aerospace markets—even from companies like Analog Devices, often thought of as commercial device suppliers. Military systems designers are just as active as their commercial counterparts, with their own demands for RF/microwave electronics solutions for radar, electronic warfare, surveillance, and electronic countermeasures (ECM).

Perhaps the most-often word heard regarding those defense electronics markets at the 2019 IMS was “drones.” Discussion surrounded how they would be used in the future, provided that smaller, lighter antennas and transceivers could be developed, including at mmWave frequencies and meeting military size, weight, and power (SWaP) requirements.

Despite the confusion (at least for a New Yorker) in traveling around Boston, it was a well-attended, upbeat IMS exhibition with a vibrant industry about to take on several potentially huge markets. With over 600 companies on the show floor, it was one of the largest-ever IMS exhibitions, and the optimism of each company’s representatives was matched by the enthusiasm of the visitors for where this industry was heading.

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