Cesario Noel Maaba, Mechanical Switch/ General Assembly Supervisor
About 20 years ago, Mini-Circuits’ test department, specifically the robotic test line, was running constantly to supply heavy customer demand. In the production process, a robotic test system integrated with network analyzers and other devices is used to test surface mount units. Switch boxes are an essential part of every robotic test system, routing a single RF port of a network analyzer to multiple different test fixtures or ports of a multi-port device under test. This kind of automation increases test efficiency and throughput by multiples by avoiding manual connection and disconnection of cables for every measurement.
But equipment malfunctions are one of the biggest causes for delay in the production line and can directly impact the delivery of customer orders. Switch boxes are the most common cause of these disruptions as the switches become unreliable and fail after a short amount of time. Electromechanical RF switches typically used in switch boxes at that time had a rated lifetime of 1 million switching cycles, after which they need to be replaced. At full production volume, that’s approximately one month. As a result, Mini-Circuits was spending significant resources on replacing switches to maintain test operations. Complicating matters, these parts are not always easily acquired from suppliers due to high demand and short supply.
Mini-Circuits’ late founder and CEO, Harvey Kaylie, became acquainted with this problem as a major drag on operational efficiency. Rather than resigning to the limits of existing hardware on the market or perhaps finding a supplier who could produce higher-reliability switches for greater cost, Kaylie made a decision to build mechanical RF switches in-house to save on cost and lead time. However, this was no small feat. It was a new area of product development. It required new specialized design expertise and new skills to master the production process. Despite the challenges, eventually a team was formed.
The goal was to build a broadband mechanical RF switch with a frequency range from DC to 18 GHz and a longevity not of 1 million, but 10 million switching cycles. In concept, the new design would use magnetics instead of springs to control switch position, eliminating a major point of mechanical wear and tear. It was a big project and Kaylie was closely involved in every detail down to the design specifics. The scope of the project meant it would take nearly 2 years to arrive at the end result.
The team came through in completing the project and Mini-Circuits’ patented mechanical switch line was born, extending the switching life of incumbent products by tenfold. Later, Harvey dubbed that switch “the greatest engineering challenge that Mini-Circuits had ever faced.” Shortly after its release, more models were developed using the same technology, and Mini-Circuits’ first RF mechanical switch assembly line was created. RF mechanical switches remain one of the most popular and lucrative products in Mini-Circuits portfolio, forming the basis for the company’s rapidly growing line of integrated switch modules and matrices for test and measurement. They are also used widely in applications such as radar, medical equipment, military communications, aviation and others.