Below is our recent interview with Chris Giovanniello, SVP of WW Marketing at Menlo Micro:
Q: How did Menlo Micro get its start?
A: Menlo Micro was born in the research labs of General Electric, and is backed by GE Ventures, along with strategic investments from Corning, Microsemi and Paladin Capital Group.
By combining the talents of their advanced material scientists, device physicists, and systems engineers, GE created a micro-mechanical switch that can handle thousands of volts and tens of amps of current, all while meeting industrial reliability standards. This unique invention created the genesis of Menlo Micro. At Menlo Micro, we’re focused on bringing this unique “Ideal Switch” technology to the broader market, expanding development of products that are reaching across many industries.
With a market opportunity of more than $20 billion, our Ideal Switch platform is a game changer for those who design electronic systems.
Q: What is the main problem you’re solving with your new switch technology?
A: The recurring theme that cuts across almost all applications, and that we are working with customers to address, is known as SWaP-C. This refers to the need for massive reductions in (S)ize, (W)eight, (P)ower, and (C)ost. This term was traditionally reserved for military electronics, but it has become very critical to many other commercial markets as well. Reducing size, weight, power, and cost is fundamental for next generation 5G wireless infrastructure, military communications, medical equipment, industrial IoT applications, electric vehicles, and the list goes on. Menlo Micro is firmly committed to enabling customers in those markets to achieve their SWaP-C goals. These goals can be met by replacing legacy switching technology with our Ideal Switch technology.
We have been able to demonstrate reductions in many of these key metrics of over 99%. While the switch or relay is only one small component in many systems, in many cases the performance of all these switches can have a major impact on the overall size, power consumption, thermal performance, electrical performance and, consequently, the total cost of ownership of critical electrical subsystems.
Q: Can you go into more detail on the advantages the Ideal Switch brings to the table?
When it comes to size, board space and weight are at a premium in many applications. Traditional mechanical switches take up lots of space, have a limited number of channels, and in some cases need to be manually assembled. Menlo Micro’s switching elements are smaller than the width of a human hair and are architected to be scalable, depending on the power ratings required. All switches are manufactured using automated wafer-level processes and tools. They are so small we can fit hundreds of them in a space smaller than 10mm2.
In terms of speed, making mechanical structures small also means you can make them move fast. A typical mechanical switch might operate in a few milliseconds, whereas Menlo Micro switches can operate 1000x faster, in only a few microseconds. This can have enormous implications on systems that were previously limited in performance by how fast they could reconfigure, or open and close critical circuits.
Power Handling is an area where Menlo Micro completely throws conventional wisdom out the window. When faced with the prospect of handling higher power levels, most people think bigger. More mass, more metal, larger air gaps between conductors. We took a different approach. We make everything smaller and move the electrical contacts closer and closer together. Our miniaturized switches and scalable architecture allow us to handle 100s of volts and 10s of amps without arcing.
Let’s talk power efficiency: In an increasing number of systems, power is getting more and more expensive. When you’re working off a battery, every 0.1dB and every microamp counts. Both RF and AC/DC losses need to be balanced with amplification and in some cases with extra power supplies. This is where the Menlo Micro technology really shines. We can scale our switches to have ultra-low losses, from 1 ohm down to a few milliohms. Additionally, our electrostatic-driven actuator means that a single switch only needs a few pico amperes (pA) to function.
When you’re developing products to meet the needs of businesses that serve markets like healthcare, aviation, and other mission-critical industrial applications, reliability is not an afterthought; it’s the primary design criteria. In the end, that’s why we are here. Our mechanical switching device has lifetimes more than 1000x longer than traditional mechanical switches; not millions of cycles, but tens of billions of cycles without degrading performance. Even more important than the performance demonstrated to date, is the deep understanding in material science, reliability, and failure analysis that enables us to model and predict failures so we can push the technology even further.
Q: How is the Ideal Switch coming to market?
A: We are now sampling our MM51xx series of products. These new products, which operate at high power with ultra-low RF losses, and in a miniaturized surface-mount package, bring unprecedented performance improvements as compared to electromechanical and solid-state RF switches. Our biggest opportunity with this new series of products lies in helping companies reduce the size, weight and power dissipation in a wide variety of RF front-end architectures. We’re setting a new standard for RF switch performance – and changing the game for electronic switch designers.
Q: What applications are best suited to these new switches?
A: The world of applications for an ideal switch is very broad. We’ve categorized the various types of end applications into three key segments or categories: (1) RF & microwave switching (2) low-frequency/general purpose switching and (3) AC/DC power switching.
Within these categories, the Ideal Switch is poised to serve multiple industries, including
next-generation 5G mobile networks, industrial IoT markets, battery management, home automation, electric vehicles, medical instrumentation and more. In fact, one application area that’s getting a lot of buzz in our circles is radio frequency filters. These filters are one of the most mission-critical components in any wireless communications system. Mobility is critical to wireless communication devices, making lighter weight filters a necessity for many applications operating at radio frequencies. Whether these filters are used in handheld radios such as cell phones, inside a drone, an airplane, a satellite, or even on mountain-top cell towers, higher performing, low-loss filters (such as switched filter banks) can step in and make the overall system much lighter. Our RF MEMS switches, which combine extremely low loss and high-power handling in a unique SP4T configuration, enable the creation of miniaturized – but very high-performance – switched filter banks.