Interview covers the company's history, how we serve our customers, and where we are headed in the future
Microwave Journal recently interviewed Benjamin Culver, company co-owner and current presdent of Southwest Antennas on a wide number of topics, including how the company was founded by Les Reading, how Southwest Antennas supports and serves our customers, and where we are headed in the future.
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Microwave Journal: Tell us how Southwest Antennas came into being.
Benjamin Culver: Southwest Antennas was founded by Les Reading in his garage in 2005. Les is a nuclear physicist and electrical engineer, and he received his formal education and training at the United States Naval Academy. Les graduated from the Naval Academy in the 1960s and went on to serve as a commissioned officer aboard several nuclear powered submarines in the United States Navy for eleven years and worked for Admiral Hyman Rickover, who was the founder of the Nuclear Navy.
When Les got out of the Navy in 1980, he became a serial entrepreneur. Les has started seven companies since that time, and he has also worked for a number of large companies. Les was the CTO for Galtronics and Ethertronics, as well as NS Microwave. In 2005, Les decided to start Southwest Antennas to focus on antenna design for the microwave video market, starting as a consultant for companies like Global Microwave Systems (GMS), L-3 Southern California Microwave and Microwave Radio Corporation (MRC), now Vislink. Les worked primarily with his friends and industry contacts at these companies, helping them develop new and innovative antenna designs for their programs.
Several years into this, Les was asked by his customers to start producing the antennas he was designing for them. Les then hired his first employee in 2007, Pam Spooner, who is production manager and still with SWA today. From 2007 until 2013, Les continued to grow SWA, and he took the company successfully through the start-up phase, transforming the company from its start as an engineering design consultancy into a full-fledged manufacturing company.
During this time, Les also started another company called M2M Antennas. This company focused on low cost, medium to high volume antenna products for the developing M2M market, which is now called the Internet of Things or IoT market. Since 2013, M2M Antennas has been folded into SWA and is now a division of SWA that focuses on embedded antennas for high value programs.
MWJ: What types of antenna products do you offer, and what market applications are you targeting?
BC: Because our products are driven by what our customers ask for, we are involved in a number of markets. However, over the past few years Southwest Antennas has primarily focused on rugged antenna solutions for law enforcement, homeland security, defense and military applications, which make up our top markets currently. Those particular markets have a need for antennas that are more robust or have better operating qualities than their COTS (commercial off-the-shelf) counterparts, so we are seeing a lot of movement with our products in those markets.
Our core product lines center around omnidirectional and directional antennas of all design types — primarily for VHF, UHF, L-, S-, and C-Band communications, as we generally cover applications from DC to 8.4 GHz. Some of our applications include microwave video transmission, where we have designed array antennas as well as directional and omni antennas for different use scenarios, depending on where the video is coming from (such as a moving helicopter vs. a stationary camera). Our antennas are also frequently used on handheld radio systems, vehicle communication systems and unmanned vehicle platforms.
Another application area where we are seeing rapid growth is antennas for MIMO (multiple-input-multiple-output) radio systems. These are gaining significant market adoption, both in military and civilian markets, and there is a need for innovative antenna designs to take advantage of new multipath propagation techniques for improved throughput. For MIMO systems, we’ve done designs ranging from single antennas that are used in groups, to multi-antenna designs that are contained within a single radome.
Body-worn and concealment antennas are also a big area of growth for Southwest Antennas, where our customers desire to move away from typical antenna installations to something more discreet. We’ve undertaken a lot of R&D in this area to deliver innovate new designs for customers, designs that don’t resemble anything like what we’ve done historically.
MWJ: How would you describe your value proposition? What distinguishes Southwest Antennas from other suppliers?
BC: Our value proposition is in our tagline Rugged RF. Simply put, we distinguish ourselves by supplying rugged antenna solutions to customers who either can’t find what they need on the general COTS marketplace or haven’t been able to find a supplier that can deliver the performance or quality that they need and are tired of struggling with high product failure rates or antennas that can’t perform well under typical use scenarios.
Southwest Antennas’ ability to design affordable, custom antenna solutions with very complicated designs or application requirements has helped set us apart and given us a very good word-of-mouth reputation with our customers. We’re very proud of what our design, engineering and production teams are capable of producing, and I think the adoption rate of our antennas into the marketplace and as standard product in the kits of many companies and organizations speaks very well to our ability to deliver robust antenna solutions that customers are looking for.
MWJ: How do you achieve the performance your customers are looking for? Do you use special design techniques, simulation software or unique technology?
BC: We take advantage of all of those to deliver products that meet or exceed our customer’s expectations. Achieving the desired antenna performance required by our customers is dependent on many factors and really comes down to:
- What does the customer actually need in an antenna, and
- Is the desired performance physically and electrically possible in the form factor the customer desires?
Our CTO Les Reading has a lot of experience in pushing the boundaries of what is possible with new, innovative designs, and our customers are the beneficiaries of his decades of RF design experience. A big part of our job is talking through the opportunity with the customer to clearly understand what they need and interpreting that into an antenna design that delivers on those needs.
Antenna performance is a function of many complex factors, but the physical size of the antenna (which is influenced by its operating frequency range, among other considerations) and, thus, the available space we have for the radiating element and other internal components plays a big factor in the final performance of the product. The radome and any other connected components, such as an RF gooseneck or cable adapters, can also influence the final performance of the product, all of which we have to take into consideration during the product design and tuning process.
Our first job is to completely understand the customer’s final product needs, physical constraints of the product and use scenarios — will the antenna be mounted on a radio, worn on a human body, used on a vehicle or placed somewhere else entirely? Will there be co-location issues with other radios or antennas that could cause interference issues? These and other questions give us the information we need to know in order to design the final antenna product and influence what technical hoops we need to jump through to make the product work as expected. Some products are far more difficult than others, and we have developed a number of propriety design techniques to help with these challenging designs.
Internally, we use several suites of design and simulation software (such as Solidworks and FEKO) for modeling antenna performance as we design the product. We have our own rapid prototyping shop in-house at our manufacturing facility, so we can quickly bring up prototypes to test as we work through design iterations and tune the antenna. Our on-site RF lab and new anechoic chamber in Vista are used to measure and verify final performance specifications.
MWJ: You say that ruggedness is part of your value proposition. How do you make your antennas rugged?
BC: It starts with the initial design of the antenna, with the selection of high-end components from a trusted vendor network. We vet our suppliers very carefully, and some of these relationships span decades, so our vendors are very much in tune to what we need in order to be successful.
Secondly, we work very hard to eliminate the typical failure points common in most antenna designs. While there are many typical “textbook” antenna designs that you will see used over and over across markets, many people don’t realize how much creativity can go into designing a high performance antenna. Our antenna engineers and mechanical designers have focused on new, creative solutions to complex problems, which gives us an opportunity to eliminate common failure points and manufacture a product that doesn’t just pass minimum mechanical and electrical specifications, but often exceeds them.
Since we are not designing commodity products, we can spend time focusing on the mechanical aspects of the design that will result in a more robust final product, and our customers overwhelmingly support this design philosophy because the end result is a demonstrably better product, improving radio performance and reducing system downtime due to component failure.
MWJ: You’ve grown fairly rapidly serving markets that typically ask for custom antenna designs. How have you balanced the business opportunities with your engineering capacity?
BC: This is the classic dilemma for any growing company, isn’t it? Our focus is on honest and open communication with our customers when they engage us for a new product design. This eliminates a lot of these issues right away, as the customer is on the same page as us when it comes to delivery timelines. So it’s just a matter of putting the design into the engineering queue and giving the customer updates as it passes through our design process. Collectively, our management team is very adept at picking opportunities that are a good match with Southwest Antennas’ design and manufacturing capabilities, and we’re lucky to have customers that bring us interesting, challenging projects that we are happy to take on!
One of the other ways we have been able to expand our engineering capacity, while working on more projects as we’ve grown, is the large amount of existing designs we have in our engineering database. We have produced over 1,200 individual product designs since we started business 10 years ago, to which we retain the design rights. This provides us a very large design library to pull from, particularly if a new product opportunity is just a minor modification to an existing design — such as an operating frequency shift or RF connector change. These are pretty common requests from our customers, who like the form and function they see in an existing product but need a few changes for it to work well with their application. With our existing database of products, we can quickly make these changes and move the product into production for the customer.
MWJ: Your growth shows you have successfully navigated the traditional growing pains that start-up companies encounter. What lessons have you learned along this journey?
BC: Just how important your personal networks are to your success. Our earliest customers that helped launch the company were friends and industry connections, and many of our current key customers have started as introductions made by a third party we both have in common. These connections have had profound influence on how our company has evolved and grown, since our products are driven by our customer’s needs. We really strive to treat every customer as an important partner to our success, and we are very lucky to work with incredible people in the RF/microwave industry.
Another lesson is just how important a quality banking partner is, especially when you are self-funding the growth of a company without outside investment — anyone who is involved in domestic manufacturing can appreciate this, I’m sure. We were lucky enough to be introduced to a locally-owned San Diego bank who has a keen interest in supporting businesses here in Southern California and growing the specialty manufacturing sector, in particular. Their support has allowed us to grow without taking on risky debt or funding growth through the sale of equity in the company, while allowing us to service very large contract wins, capital equipment purchases and other strategic business decisions. This has allowed us to remain independent while rapidly respond to our customers' needs, market changes and other business challenges.
MWJ: Looking forward, you’ve set aggressive growth goals for the company. What’s your strategy for achieving them: new product areas or expanding into other geographic regions, perhaps?
BC: A big part of our current growth strategy is getting all of Southwest Antennas’ existing products available for customers to view online and purchase through our website or through our growing network of sales reps and distributors.
As I mentioned previously, with our 10 year history of designing custom antenna solutions, we have a very deep portfolio of over 1,200 antenna products for many applications. Historically they were not available on our website, so most people were unaware of what we had to offer outside of their exact product request. When we launched our new corporate website and rebranding in 2015, we finally had a platform to make these products available to everyone, who can now see our entire product portfolio online. As a result, we are now seeing a lot of traction from new customers who are finding us online and discovering that our existing products meet their application needs.
Another component to our growth strategy is the strong network of technically-savvy sales reps we’ve built over the past three years, who are doing a tremendous job of supporting our products throughout the United States and internationally, in Europe, the Mid-East and the Pacific. They bring us into opportunities we wouldn’t be able to service on our own, either due to manpower or geographic availability, and we think of them as real members of the SWA family. We also announced a distribution partnership with RFMW at the end of 2015, which is helping us reach new areas we previously were unable to service on our own.