Caroline Norris, Customer Service Manager & Sam Humphriss, Applications Engineer
Alexander Frank is a Quantum Electrician and Senior RF Design Engineer at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zürich. Over the course of his career, he has been a keen fan and dedicated customer of Mini-Circuits and has been in touch with the team at Mini-Circuits Europe.
He agreed to sit down with the team for a short interview and share some insights from his years of experience on how customers at universities use our components.
Tell us about your background and what it is you do at ETH Quantum Optics
Alexander C. Frank
After completing my diploma here at ETH back in the 90’s, I was working on building trains at Adtranz in Basel, and then in the phone industry as an engineer at Ascom. I spent some time there working to develop desk and satellite phones but that was already 20 years ago now. When looking for a change in career, I came across this opportunity back here in the Quantum Optics research group, working with the physicists. Now, I supply them with all their needs for synthesizers, antennas, amplifiers, and the like.
If it can be bought, then we buy it, and if not, then we build it. The challenge is that at the point when they need something and they come to me, normally they have absolutely no idea about the specifications! I then need to do a little reading of my crystal ball to fill in the gaps but they are happy with the results.
How and when did you first discover Mini-Circuits?
I first worked with Mini-Circuits’ parts in the lab while I was earning my diploma here. RF was interesting to me even back then because before I learned about it, it all seemed like black magic. I really wanted to discover the secrets behind it and found myself drifting more towards the topic in my studies, and working with your parts.
Later, when I worked at Ascom, I would build equipment there to test our designs, and Mini-Circuits was always our number one supplier. I can’t remember ever using anyone else because you always knew what you were going to get from looking at the datasheets. The parts would behave as advertised every single time and that was a beautiful thing for us then.
With the considerable experience you have under your belt, what insights have you gained into the way students and researchers use Mini-Circuits components?
Over two decades I’ve seen three sets of users who have needed to use your parts at ETH. All of these users were very ‘hard’ testers, and really put the parts through their paces in their own ways.
The first group are the experienced researchers, like PhDs and up. Fast results are more important than the life of the components so some overloading is accepted (or expected). Sometimes, the devices are pushed right until the ‘magic smoke’ escapes, as we say in the lab, just to see when that will happen!
The second group are the less experienced experimenters. As they are mostly undergraduate students, the aim is to impress their supervisor. The most widely used method for that is to produce lab gear with maximum performance. A common goal here is “DC-to-daylight” as we call it, or as wide a frequency range as possible.
The last group are us engineers. We want our lab gear to have a long life so we design our amplifiers and test systems with a lot of security measures to protect against the abuse from the others I mentioned. Being engineers, though, curiosity is our second name so when left alone we are always doing some reverse engineering to see how things work. Sometimes it gets tough… some cases do really fight back, so we occasionally need to use a bigger milling machine!
To be honest, most people here do abuse your parts! The average researcher will not care if a $2000 amplifier gets broken, which can be quite sad, but even then, we think Mini-Circuits is the number one brand, and wherever you go here you will find your parts are on the top shelf.
Does your team have a favorite piece of Mini-Circuits equipment?
One favorite would be the ZHL-50W-63+ as it covers most of our applications and it’s a model number that people know. We’ve used it in a lot of ways, and the researchers are often asking for it, so I always have one to hand.
I also almost have the complete GALI series in stock so if any of the students or staff here need it, I can build a custom amplifier for them in around half an hour.
Half an hour to build a custom amplifier? You should advertise your skills as a contract manufacturer! With lead times like that you’d make a killing these days.
[Laughing] Well there aren’t many components in these amplifiers, maybe 10 – 20 including the biasing and I keep it all in stock.
Students, especially during COVID-19, work almost 24 hours a day. So, you might get a request on Saturday night and you need components then. No time to order parts, which is why I have everything ready to go.
How are your students using our parts on a day-to-day basis? Are they designing their own systems or following instructions on how to do an experiment?
That depends. If they have a paper describing a measurement setup where another group of physicists have used a certain component, then they need that part. So, if the group from Australia or Singapore used an amplifier then we also have to use this model. They don’t care if we have a similar model or similar specifications, it has to be exactly the same. So, if it’s written once in a paper then it is the law.
Sounds like we should keep that in mind and try to get written into some papers!
[Laughing] With special, more expensive models I suppose!
With all the equipment you have in the lab, has anything ever surprised you with the amount of punishment it’s been put through?
After 20 years nothing surprises me anymore.
Students are curious and of course they will open your parts to have a look inside. The experienced students will optimize the circuits for their project. Unexperienced students replace resistors and potentiometers and ‘think’ it will optimize it.
All I ask is that you don’t start filling your parts with some black rubber mask to prevent people from seeing what is inside. It’s a great way for the students to learn.
Every lab has a “Hall of Shame” too where we put all the burnt out and broken parts. Ours is about a 1m square cupboard.
Have you heard about our upcoming eVNA product, and do you think it will be good for the University setting?
We work up to 6.8 GHz, though lots of our work is below this. When I bought my HP network analyzer, I only bought a 3 GHz machine because I knew if it was too good I would have a queue of colleagues waiting to measure here.
A small, portable thing would be great and I can’t wait to learn more. We’d be very interested in that here.
Would you recommend Mini-Circuits to others in your industry, and if you had one message that you’d like to pass onto the team at Mini-Circuits, what would it be?
I say keep up that good work! Everything fits like a glove as you have beautiful service, nice prices, and fast shipment. I’ve also had good answers to my technical questions and I appreciate the customer service.
Thank you so much for your time, Alexander and we will be sure to pass your message on to the team here!