Give us an overview of Samtec’s products and markets, including the frequency coverage.
Steve McGeary (SM): Samtec is a global manufacturer of a broad line of electronic interconnect solutions, including high speed board-to-board and cable, optics, flexible stacking, micro/rugged components and cables and, of course, RF. We offer complete RF and microwave interconnect solutions from DC to 110 GHz. Markets served include 5G networking, AI and high speed computing, mil-aero, automotive, instrumentation and test and measurement, wireless, datacom and broadcast video.
What’s the company’s history and what led to offering RF and high speed products?
SM: Samtec is dedicated to developing and advancing technologies, strategies and products to optimize performance for the entire signal channel, all while staying true to our service roots. This framework is what led us to high frequency, “precision” RF, with our ultimate goal of providing quality RF products that meet mechanical, precision and performance expectations every time.
Mike Dunn (MD): We have supported our customers with RF products for more than 10 years, providing 50 and 75 Ω solutions from 1 to 20 GHz. This includes full cable assemblies, cable connectors and board-level products. A key service differentiator for us has been extreme flexibility on cable assemblies, with mix-and-match cable connectors on a variety of RF cable types. With signal integrity (SI) being the cornerstone of Samtec engineering for many years, it was a natural progression for us to eventually move into the precision RF, microwave, mmWave marketplace.
Many companies offer RF cables and connectors. What distinguishes Samtec?
MD: Samtec is founded on service. With “bleeding edge” technologies like advanced RF solutions, the best way to offer service to our customers is by helping them solve complex challenges. We do this by being fully vertically integrated, which brings a unique understanding of signal characteristics at each transition point — from the raw cable to the connectors and through the PCB. Our RF/SI engineers offer complete launch design, simulation and testing for full system optimization. We are also ITAR compliant.
Describe your manufacturing capabilities and footprint.
MD: We have a state-of-the-art twinax/coax cable manufacturing facility in Wilsonville, Oregon.
In addition, soon after launching our Precision RF roadmap, we opened a new RF facility in Taiwan. The Taiwan facility is staffed with key personnel with experience in design and manufacturing of RF products and supplied with high-end CNC machines, an SI test lab and cable assembly capabilities.
We also have dedicated microwave design in Mesa, known as our Arizona Microwave Design Center, that brings more than 150 years of combined microwave engineering experience to the team.
Samtec headquarters, located in New Albany, Indiana, houses our precision cable connector manufacturing line. This originated from the strategic purchase of PCI (Precision Connectors, Inc.), which was led by Steve McGeary.
Our Signal Integrity group is also involved in the design, development and manufacturing process of Precision RF products, bringing system optimization to the forefront of RF design.
With these combined facilities in place and working in a fully integrated capacity, we’re able to understand, simulate, test and control the RF signal from transmit to receive.
What’s the process for a customer to define and order a cable assembly from Samtec?
SM: The easiest way to order products from Samtec is to contact our customer service group at firstname.lastname@example.org or, for custom applications and technical support, contact our RF group at RFGroup@Samtec.com. The local Samtec sales associate can also assist.
We pride ourselves on “sudden service” and flexibility and, therefore, have plans to bring a new RF cable builder tool to Samtec.com in the coming months.
How have you fared during the pandemic, from customer demand to internal operations to your supply chain?
MD: Samtec implemented stringent guidelines to address COVID-19, which allowed design, development and manufacturing efforts to continue to progress. Customer interaction also changed from in-person to digital. Thankfully, RF business has stayed at a healthy level.
What trends are you seeing in the RF and high speed markets you serve, and how are you addressing them?
SM: The major trends in the RF/microwave and high speed markets are faster speeds and higher densities, requiring greater frequency and smaller form factors. Samtec’s Precision RF roadmap will address these demands by focusing primarily on 40 to 110 GHz products (2.92, 2.40, 1.85, 1.35 and 1.00 mm interface types) and ganged board-to-board and blind-mate connectors and cable assemblies.
MD: Just like the digital world, the catalysts driving RF are 5G, automotive 2.0, mil/aero and advancements in the silicon field.
Samtec RF was involved early with silicon testing, when we first introduced the Bulls Eye® high performance test assembly to the market. We saw the need to improve the methodology of testing by bringing the test head closer to the device under test. We first did this three years ago for 14 Gbps testing, with customers like Xilinx and Intel. Since then, we have seen an exponential ramp in speed from 28 to 56 Gbps — now to 112 and moving quickly to 224 Gbps. This “need for speed” has allowed us to continue to develop our Bulls Eye family of test assemblies out to 70 GHz. A >90 GHz solution is currently in development.
Alongside the silicon speed ramp, we have also seen the need to develop more ganged high frequency connector blocks. We are adding various configurations of SMPM blocks and cable assemblies to our product line, while paying special attention to the phased array antenna market and various 5G board-to-board and cable-to-board applications.
Our microwave engineering team is also working on solutions for mil/aero small form factor requirements. These include high density, high frequency solutions for VITA and SOSA.
Frequency demand is increasing rapidly. As technology drives forward, so does our Precision RF roadmap, which includes expanding our family of compression mounts and cable connectors to support the growing needs in the test and measurement environment.
Our R&D team is also working on exciting new waveguide technology. This will utilize our cable manufacturing and signal integrity expertise and result in a flexible, low loss, ultra-small form factor waveguide solution.
Where do you see the best growth opportunities over the next few years?
SM: The best growth opportunities within the next few years will be products geared toward testing and development for equipment needed for IoT and 5G applications.
Density constraints and the need for higher frequencies will likely drive growth in our blind-mate SMPM series and its ganged board-to-board configurations.
mmWave products are also expected to have strong growth. These include our 2.92, 2.40, 1.85, 1.35 and 1.00 mm connectors.
Finally, our BE70A Series Bulls Eye product should be highly sought after for testing high speed silicon.
Other than the pandemic, what challenges are facing the RF and high speed cable and connector industry?
MD: I believe the biggest challenge facing the RF and high speed cable and connector markets is the need to drive down cost while at the same time trying to hold extremely tight tolerances necessary for performances at higher frequencies. This is even more critical as the demand for these products is now driven by commercial markets, and not just mil/aero as it was in years past. Advanced manufacturing and design/launch techniques will really matter moving forward.
We have a strong microwave design team with the dedicated manufacturing skills that are necessary for addressing these issues. These are solutions not many suppliers will be able to provide.
Tell us about your backgrounds and the career paths that led you to Samtec.
SM: I’ve been in the RF/microwave industry for 30 years now and began working for my father at Connector Gage Company, back in 1991. After the company was sold to SRI, I worked as sales manager and then, eventually, co-founded and started Precision Connector, Inc. in 2006. PCI specialized in high frequency products up to 110 GHz, with a concentration on cable connectors designed for precision low loss cables. PCI was acquired by Samtec in 2018, and I’m proud to continue as a part of the Precision RF team.
MD: Before working in the connector industry, I was a plating chemist in Ireland, developing chemical solutions and installing electroplating lines at PCB shops and electronic component manufacturers. I joined Molex in Ireland as a sales manager, then was relocated to the corporate facility in Lisle, Illinois. I spent 30 years with Molex in various positions, from product manager on multi-national accounts to global accounts manager to international marketing manager for RF, then finally becoming the general manager of Molex’s RF business, where I spent 11 years. Three years ago, I joined Samtec to support advancing our RF product line into the microwave/mmWave spectrum.