Friday, September 2, 2011

A Stellar Partnership

Those of you following me on twitter (@mwjournal) received a tweet yesterday as I was about to meet with the folks at Stellar Industries in Millbury Massachusetts –a quiet New England town blending residential homes and “old-school manufacturing” facilities on the outskirts of Worcester. Stellar Industries, a manufacturer with just over 30 employees specializes in custom designed substrates and direct bond copper for photonics and microelectronics. The company does a brisk business selling products to the Telecom, Biomedical, and Defense Industries.

The company believes there is a good business opportunity for their products in the RF market, thus they requested a meeting to see how the Journal could help spread the word. With the recent inflation in gold prices, their copper clad substrate technology offers excellent heat-sinking properties at very competitive prices. Company President Ron Visser is well acquainted with the Microwave industry and has been attending the MTT-S IMS for years. Exhibiting at last year’s show, Ron and his sales manager Eric Brown were pleased by the amount of interest exhibition attendees showed for their technology.

The astronomical price of gold (thanks to speculators and other investors looking for safe haven) would give their copper submounts a huge cost advantage. And the company’s double-digit growth last year vindicates their bullish enthusiasm for revenue growth in the immediate future. So we look forward to hearing more from this company in the future.

Another tidbit that I heard from Eric Brown during our facility tour concerned a successful government initiative to support Stellar’s growth as a business. The Mass Manufacturing Extension Partnership offers companies training in the Time Wise® Principles of Lean Manufacturing to help them become more competitive. I was very impressed by this story, especially considering the news this week about the California solar panel manufacturer that received federal seed money yet is now filing for bunkruptcy because they can't compete with their Chinese counterparts.

Too often the media reports on the government’s shortcomings and one can come to believe the public sector is incapable of getting anything right. But based on Eric Brown's praise for this particular state funded program, this just isnt the case. In an age where government is portrayed as “the” problem and a roadblock to capitalism and the free-market, this example illustrates how government can be get it right. As any investor knows, in business you win some and you lose some. This example tells me that we need continued government support for the private sector, even if every effort doesnt succeed.

From the Mass Manufacturing Extension Partnership website:

Stellar also specializes in vapor deposited thin films and gold/tin solders on thick film and thin film as well as on semiconductor wafers. For small manufacturers, on-time delivery and high quality, long-lasting products are what separates them from larger companies and overseas competition.Stellar Industries, a manufacturer with just over 30 employees, makes a unique product which is good for business, but the types of custom requests it receives from customers can slow down delivery. The Millbury-based company makes miniaturized heat conductive ceramic blocks, similar to circuit boards, which are made-to-order for customers in the telecom, biomedical, and defense industries. Demand for their products is increasing and as the company grew, management recognized a need to more efficiently manage their production process. Stellar called on the Massachusetts Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MassMEP) to help streamline their performance on the production lines.

Utilizing the Time Wise® Principles of Lean Manufacturing, the MassMEP trained all 32 employees. Stellar Industries showed great progress in the time it takes to produce a product and improved their teamwork skills. "The MassMEP team opened our eyes to different ways of manufacturing," said Ron Visser, President of Stellar Industries. "We can now look at everything from a different standpoint. We take what the customer wants and break it down into smaller steps to increase productivity and product quality."Since the program was implemented, the dollar output per manufacturing employee has increased 8 percent to an all time high for the company. Product output has increased by 25 percent. For the first time ever, all weekly work orders were delivered on time."Communication is key. As a result of the training, we have opened up lines of communication that weren’t there before," added Visser.The company also conducts frequent Kaizen events, short bursts of activity to make small improvements with a goal of making large gains in efficiency and productivity, which will continue to wring out more waste from their operation. They now also have a Lean steering committee that monitors such activity."The next step for us is to be certified by the International Organization of Standardization (ISO), the world’s largest developer of production and manufacturing standards," said Visser. "Lean has allowed us to be more disciplined, so we should be able to go into ISO much easier than a year ago. Every day, we see improvements. It takes a continual effort."

About Stellar Industries

Stellar’s products include custom lapped and polished electronic grade ceramics composed of Alumina, Beryllium Oxide, Aluminum Nitride, or specialty ceramics. Stellar also supplies custom services for metalizations on these ceramics using a variety of thick film, thin film, refractory and Direct Bond Copper metalizations. Our ceramic substrates are used in a variety of electronic components including:
Laser Diode / Photodetector Submounts:
• Featuring precision machining and wrap-around metalization vapor deposited gold/tin solder alloys
High Power Microelectronic substrates:
• Featuring Copper Clad High Temperature DBC metalization
Microwave and RF thin film substrates:
• Featuring Precision Ion Etch geometries

Monday, August 29, 2011

Wireless Sensor Networks to Reach $2 Billion in 2021

According to IDTechEx research in the new report "Wireless Sensor Networks 2011-2021", WSN will grow rapidly from $0.45 billion in 2011 to $2 billion in 2021. These figures refer to WSN defined as wireless mesh networks, i.e. self-healing and self-organizing. Wireless Sensor Networks will eventually enable the automatic monitoring of forest fires, avalanches, hurricanes, failure of country wide utility equipment, traffic, hospitals and much more over wide areas, something previously impossible. It has started already with more humble killer applications such as automating meter readings in buildings, and manufacture and process control automation.

The market for non-mesh wireless sensor systems in general is far larger and some proposed standards apply to both. For example, in addition to the above, the market for Real Time Locating Systems is $0.38 billion in 2011 rising to $1.6 billion in 2021.

Mesh WSN - status today
By far the biggest success of WSN has been in smart meters. Lesson number one - the Governments can make things happen faster than industry. In many countries around the world Governments have mandated that so called "smart meters" need to be installed in certain circumstances, such as new house builds or retrofits. More than 50 million have been installed so far. Now meter reading data is sent wirelessly, and the power is taken from the electricity supply so no batteries are needed. This is seen as a starting point to home automation - wireless sensors embedded in the house that will automatically communicate with the smart meter, your thermostat etc. It is part of the smart grid activity. Here, the ZigBee protocol is being employed.

Lack of Standards Delays Adoption
However, those that supply WSN need to be aware. There is no single standard that has emerged as a clear winner. Indeed, many so called standards are not - many companies implementing ZigBee for example meet the basic criteria to use the ZigBee label but add further capability resulting in systems that are not interoperable with different sensors from different vendors. Many vendors, including giant system integrators that have their own proprietary wireless communications, hope that they may become the chosen default "standard". A small number may win. The industry is not gearing towards a more collaborative approach to allow many to win. This in turn is putting off adoption. Would you install tens of thousands of wireless sensors in your plant locations if it was a proprietary solution? What if that company would not exist in five years?

This reads on to the lack of scalability - party due to lack of multi vendors sensors working together - but no-one has really tested many tens of thousands of mesh wireless sensor nodes. Theory suggests key network paths may form and if they are removed the system can slow down to unacceptable levels.

Lack of Total Solution Delays Adoption
Another challenge that vendors need to address is that many only offer hardware. Adopters are often on their own for the software - which they need in order to make useful decisions on the data collected to give the system a payback. IDTechEx note that in wireless sensing, the big successes are those that offer complete solutions. One example is Savi Technology, part of Lockheed Martin, that offer a full solution to asset tracking/visibility and the other is Ubisense, a successful UK company that has recently listed (and oversubscribed in doing so) based on a real time locating systems (RTLS) solution offering. Those selling only hardware now take note.

Adoption Forecasts
In the new IDTechEx report "Wireless Sensor Networks 2011-2021", IDTechEx forecasts the market in great detail. We study how the average price per node will drop from $29 in 2011 per piece to $25 per piece in 2021. The report looks at the latest activity and sees how these challenges are being tackled.

US ahead but Asia catching up
The USA dominates the development and use of WSN partly because of the heavier funding available there. US industry sits astride the computer industry thanks to companies such as Microsoft and IBM and WSN is regarded as a next wave of computing, so US industry is particularly interested to participate. Add to that the fact that the US Military, deeply interested in WSN, spends more than all other military forces combined and creating and funding start-ups is particularly easy in the USA and you can see why the US is ahead at present.

Watch the Governments
It was the Governments that created the first killer market for wireless sensors in smart meters, even though in reality most do not use the wireless features of the smart meters yet. The US military have spent more than $21.5 Billion on RTLS/sensor asset tracking solutions. Industry usually prioritises rapid payback, Governments don't always have to as they seek better security, safety, longer term efficiency etc. One such new project in Europe is "Living planIT", focused on making smarter cities. 22% of the global population lives in 600 major sized cities, representing 50% of the global GDP. Improving quality of life is therefore a very important challenge but also represents a great opportunity for sustainable technologies. Living PlanIT's aim is to create an ICT platform through aggregating existing and proven technologies that will be blended into real estate development. That would have as a prerequisite to embed technology (e.g. wireless sensors) into the construction process rather than rely on retrofitting which becomes more cost intensive.

In the first wave of the project, 2, 897,640 sensors will be embedded in Living PlanIT's "test-city" in Portugal. Requirements for these include standardisation, open API, horizontal integration but also, zero maintenance for embedded sensors that would have to meet lifetime expectations of over 30 years. Living PlanIT will be presenting at the IDTechEx event "Wireless Sensor Networks & RTLS USA 2011" in Boston, USA on November 15-16. This is the only event on the topic to cover the latest progress with technology and adoption. You will hear the needs and experiences of many end users.

Source: IDTechEx report "Wireless Sensor Networks 2011-2021"