Daniel Gordon, Contributor at Large
Situated in the northern region of the Peninsular Malaysia is Penang, a historic coastal state boasting white sandy beaches, a vibrant food scene and one of Mini-Circuits’ most critical operations.
Deemed “the Silicon Valley of the East” in part for its bustling electronic and electrical equipment activity – including its large export of semiconductors – Penang has long been home to E&E giants like Intel, Bosch, AMD and Hewlett-Packard. Today, Mini-Circuits Technologies (MCT) stands tall among them as a state-of-the-art design, testing and manufacturing facility for our GaAs MMIC product line.
38 Years Earlier
Established in 1999, MCT is a relatively new facility considering its storied history – one that dates back to 1984 and begins with two of our most influential members.
“I was working as the Offshore Manufacturing Manager at Hewlett-Packard in San Jose, California, overseeing the company’s semiconductor operations,” recalled Kelvin Kiew, co-founder and retired CEO of MCT. “Mini-Circuits was one of Hewlett-Packard’s major customers, and one day, I was told ‘the man in charge of Mini-Circuits’ was coming to visit. That’s when I met Harvey Kaylie for the first time.”
That meeting led to dinner – the first of many to follow – where the two discovered they shared more than just a passion for RF.
“We talked about life and philosophy,” Kelvin said. “Nothing related to work, actually; it was more personal. We just clicked, which I attribute to the fact that we shared a lot of common values.”
Over the years, Kelvin and Harvey remained close as both business associates and friends. When the opportunity arose for Kelvin to retire early from Hewlett-Packard and join Mini-Circuits, Kelvin seized it, vowing to help Harvey build “the best semiconductor business in the industry.”
But it wasn’t straight to Penang from there. Kelvin first set up shop near his San Jose home, establishing what we know today as Gibraltar Semiconductor Corporation.
“I rented an office space, which had one desk and one telephone, for $200 a month,” Kelvin said. “And that was how Gibraltar started. I handled everything from design to prototyping singlehandedly. Harvey was impressed by the fact that we could operate a semiconductor business so efficiently, with so little investment.”
Now that Mini-Circuits was manufacturing its own semiconductor designs for the first time, there was momentum to do more. With fierce competition in San Jose – the Capital of Silicon Valley – and enthusiasm from Harvey to grow the business, Kelvin suggested taking things east. To where? Harvey asked.
“Back to my home – Malaysia,” Kelvin said. “I took Harvey there to visit, and he looked around and said, ‘Wow, this is the place.’ So we decided to do it.”
“Product by Product”
Since its inception, MCT has grown from a small assembly plant to a robust operation encompassing R&D, process and product engineering, new product introduction, quality assurance and operations staff. One of the most pivotal moments in MCT’s evolution was the decision to build out an R&D organization so that we could expand design and development of our own proprietary devices. It was then that Kelvin tapped a trusted source to facilitate the process – then-MCT Test Manager, William Chew.
“One day, Kelvin asked me to go over something in his office,” William recalled. “He said we needed to start an R&D department. I was a little shocked because we hadn’t done it before, and I wasn’t sure how we were going to do it.”
Kelvin appointed William R&D Manager and recommended he spend time at Gibraltar, under the guidance senior engineering team members there. With a crash course in R&D under his belt, William returned to Penang and, with the help and guidance of Kelvin and the MCT team, began putting the pieces in place, keeping in mind some helpful advice he had once received from Harvey.
“Harvey taught me that success breeds success,” William said. “I began creating goals that were small enough that I could achieve them.”
This approach proved effective in developing the facility’s first product – a replacement design for a simple yet popular device that was produced by a major competitor.
“We looked at the performance of that device, tested it against all sorts of parameters and found that we were able to achieve the same performance,” William said. “That turned out to be our first product and our first success. After that, we kept rolling, product by product.”
As the R&D operation matured, the talent market was gaining confidence in MCT, and the team began to grow. In the beginning, it wasn’t unusual to use competitor parts as benchmarks for new designs, but William credits one designer in particular with helping to take our capabilities to the next level.
“Fuad [Haji Mokhtar] came in on his first day and asked me what he should design,” William recalled. “I said, ‘I have this list of competitor parts that are very good and selling very well. Can you design a better version of one of these?’ He said he could, but that he wasn’t going to. Because whatever he designed was going to be the best.”
Fuad had the right idea – that if we continued to design devices that were “as good” or “on par” with the competition, we’d be forever chasing the leaders and competing for pricing and market share. But if we could design something totally original and unmatched in the market, we’d be the leader and the competition would be chasing us. With that, PMA3-83LN+, the industry’s first wideband, flat-gain, low-noise amplifier was born.
“People used to say that if a device achieved flat gain, you can’t get a very good noise figure,” William said. “But actually, we changed history.”
Today, William serves as General Manager of MCT, and the facility continues to develop industry-leading devices with best-in-class performance. And while Kelvin has since retired as CEO, he remains heavily involved in developing the next generation of MCT’s leadership. In that vein, MCT participates in a variety of scholarship and work-study programs with the hope of inspiring students to pursue a career in RF. Should they choose to do so at MCT, even better.
United and Loyal
The state of Penang’s motto is “Bersatu dan Setia,” which translates to “United and Loyal” in English. Seems appropriate, considering many members have stayed on at MCT for the majority or even the entirety of their professional lives. We asked William what he thinks is behind that.
“What drives loyalty? It’s definitely not just money, because other companies can pay, too,” he acknowledged. “It’s important that we work closely together, and that we understand and help one another. We need to continue building a team that is strong, that is together and that is driving toward the same direction.”