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Electronics firms still make it big in Massachusetts

DN Staff

January 23, 1995

13 Min Read
Electronics firms still make it big in Massachusetts

Minicomputers fueled Massachusetts' high-technology boom in the 1980s. The state's Route 128, "America's Technology Highway," was second only to California's Silicon Valley as the country's high-tech center.

Later that decade the boom went bust. Minicomputers became obsolete with the advent of PCs. Computer companies and related electronics firms went out of business or laid off thousands of workers. The recession didn't help, nor did the decline in defense spending.

But Massachusetts and the electronics industry has rebounded. Today, the state enjoys the second lowest unemployment rate-5.2%-among the leading industrial states. That's down from more than 9% at the depth of the recession in 1991. And the state still boasts one of the highest concentrations of high-tech companies in the nation.

With engineering schools such as MIT, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and the University of Lowell, Massachusetts turns out lots of engineering talent. Graduates have started high-tech companies right out of school that are now flourishing.

Moreover, 33 Bay State companies made the Inc. 500 in 1994-the magazine's ranking of the nation's fastest-growing private companies. "In its jump to 33 companies this year," noted Inc., "Massachusetts increased its Inc. 500 ranks a whopping 50% in a single year." The state now ranks third in the nation, after California and Florida, in the number of companies on the list.

These companies may hold the key to the state's high-tech future. They tend to locate outside of Boston and not along Route 128. But don't count the Route 128 companies out. Among the five electronics companies I visited in my week-long tour, only one-Keithley Metrabyte-is located outside the 128 ring.

Knocking out the competition

Analog Devices in Wilmington, a Fortune 500 company with a national presence, recently won a $3.4 million award under the federal Technology Reinvestment project. The objective: development of the next generation of MicroElectroMechanical Systems (MEMS).

Many experts-including Analog CEO Ray Stata-say these tiny silicon electronic and mechanical devices could change the world the same way integrated circuits did several years ago. Analog was the first to take MEMS, or surface micromachining, technology out of the R&D lab and into volume production.

Analog touts its first micromachine, the ADXL50 accelerometer, as a completely specified acceleration-measurement system on a chip. The chip has a surface-micromachined movable element as the sensor. Because the sensing element measures less than 0.5 mm 2, the chip has plenty of room for signal-conditioning and self-test circuitry. The complete chip takes up only about 9 mm.

Analysts have predicted micromachined silicon sensors to be a billion dollar market by the year 2000, says Accelerometer Marketing Manager Bill Riedel. "And most of these applications don't even exist yet."

One ADXL50 application that does exist can be found in air-bag systems in Saabs. The sensor detects the rapid deceleration that occurs during a crash. Signal-conditioning circuitry transforms the signal into a form that travels to the air-bag system's electronics module. The module "decides" if a crash is in progress and, if so, triggers air-bag inflation.

What really sets ADXL50 air-bag systems apart is that engineers can test them. Digitally toggling the self-test node prompts the device to exercise all its signal-conditioning circuitry and the sensor element. "It actually works the device the same way a negative acceleration would," says Chuck Kitchin, application engineer. Needless to say, you can't test an electromechanical air-bag system.

Applications for the 50g sensor--other than the punching bag I tried--include:

Head-crash avoidance in disk drives.

  • Inertial navigation systems.

  • Coupled with a GPS receiver, pinpointing remote accidents.

  • Vehicle suspension systems.

  • Detecting rental-car abuse.

  • Smart home alarm systems that could shut off gas lines during earthquakes.

  • Industrial vibration control.

  • Detectors to record shocks during shipping of large, expensive items.

Analog Devices has planned a family of micromachined devices ranging from accelerometers and gyroscopes to resonators, oscillators, and microelectro-mechanical filters. The second product out the door: a plus or minus 5g accelerometer. One application already in the works: a virtual-reality glove. The accelerometer could measure a hand's angle by measuring gravity and calculate distance by double-integrating acceleration.

"It's an enabling technology because it optimizes five qualities: price, performance, size, weight, and reliability. Nothing else comes close," says Riedel.

Data Aquisition hits the road

The southeastern Massachusetts town of Taunton serves as the home of Keithley Metrabyte-a division of Keithley Instruments, a $91 million company headquartered in Cleveland, OH. High-tech companies are new to Taunton, which formerly housed several textile companies. But it would like to entice more of them to set up shop.

Keithley Metrabyte specializes in PC-based data-acquisition hardware and software. It lays claim to being the largest producer of these products in the world. Because its hardware and software conform with open industry standards, users can add competitive products with or without Keithley Metrabyte linkages.

The latest product engineers can try out is the DacPac. This ISA bus expansion chassis lets users take their PC-based data-acquisition system anywhere "on the road." The DacPac holds two boards and connects to a notebook computer, such as those from AST, Dual, and Toshiba. It gives users the power of a desktop data-acquisition system in a compact, lightweight size.

Remote monitoring applications prove ideal for this technology. Examples include: field service, in-vehicle testing and repair, aircraft testing, on-ship monitoring, and seismic measurements.

Keithley introduced the DacPac in the UK for a range of mobile applications. At one end of the spectrum, engineers have installed the unit on specially designed vehicles that go into gas pipe fields to detect gas leaks and gas clouds. At the other end, medical technicians use it on house-call visits where patients have newly implanted hearing aids. DacPac enables the technicians to adjust sound reception on-site instead of having the patient journey to the research center.

New family member. To plug into the DacPac, you can try Keithley's DAS-1800AO data-acquisition boards-one of the newest members of the DAS-1800 family. The family addresses the problem of using Windows for the real-time task of data acquisition. Even when running on today's high-performance PCs, data acquisition can't always keep up with critical applications.

DAS-1800 boards can handle the job because of two hardware innovations: an on-board FIFO buffer and two 16-bit DMA (direct-memory-access) channels. The buffer can hold up to 1,024 data samples, allowing an application to sample data continuously-even if the PC is busy performing other functions. The dual DMA channels ensure gap-free data, so applications are no longer limited to 64k contiguous data points.

The DAS-1800AO board's two analog outputs let users send synthesized or previously captured waveforms to a device and simultaneously measure that device's response.

An example: The DAS-1800AO collects data from shock-mounted accelerometers during a test drive. Back in the lab, it outputs the data as waveforms to hydraulic actuators. Engineers evaluate the data and modify the waveforms to simulate different conditions.

Connectivity cuts hospital costs

While studying engineering at Massachusetts' Worcester Polytech, this reporter spent her summers putting together patient heart monitors at Analogic in Danvers, MA. The company's headquarters, off Route 128 in Peabody, employs about 900 people. I decided to see what innovative products the company had introduced since my last visit.

Analogic specializes in measurement and control products, data-conversion devices, video processing, and medical imaging. I met with Chap Cory and Paul Keezer, general manager and director of product management, respectively, of the Computer Design and Applications (CDA) Division. We talked about the DASM Rx system for interconnecting medical imaging equipment and cameras.

"The health-care industry has been very free with our money over the past 15 years or so, buying all this heavy metal-CT scanners and MRIs-and cost really wasn't an object," says Cory. "So there really was no demand to go to standards."

But recent demands for making better use of expensive medical equipment have forced the industry to improve connectivity. Currently, most modalities-medical equipment that generates a visual output-have their own protocols and a dedicated imager, such as a digital or analog laser camera. These cameras can cost upwards of $100,000. However, most digital imaging equipment does have a common, industry-accepted image communications standard-the "film object."

The familiar X-ray film presents a printout of a film object. When a digital imaging system prints a film, the system "communicates" a film object to an output device, or imager. Although computers can store and retrieve this digital data as files, medical professionals primarily rely on physical film for diagnosis.

Every digital imaging equipment vendor has a way to format and print a film. The DASM Rx product line works with these established procedures to let multiple modalities share one or more imagers-even if they are from different manufacturers. This, in turn, lets hospitals add imaging equipment, such as MRI and ultrasound machines, without having to invest in a new imager.

The system has as its base a Sun SPARC Classic computer running Solaris. Intelligent hardware modules, called DASMs (Digital Analog System Managers), link each modality and laser imager to the computer via a SCSI (small computer system interface) bus. The modules communicate directly with the medical equipment and imagers, can understand different protocols, and convert back and forth between SCSI and the various protocols.

DASM Rx features include:

Automatic queuing of images from multiple modalities.

  • Automatic image rerouting when a camera breaks down.

  • High-speed print queuing so equipment can continue scanning while the network sends images to the camera.

  • Transparent image conversion from the modality's to the imager's format.

An unexpected benefit: Fewer interfaces and cables reduce an imaging center's connectivity costs.

Analogic takes advantage of the Internet to service this line of products. Using its "Telesupport" service, Analogic engineers call up DASM Rx systems via modem to perform checkups and make any necessary adjustments-just like an old-fashioned house call.

Switches turn on with the times

C&K Components, a leading international producer of electromechanical switches for the computer and electronics industries, has called Watertown, MA, home for more than 30 years. But the company, with more than 3,500 customers and distributors worldwide, has been anything but static when it comes to the introduction of products.

For instance, the company makes a variety of miniature and subminiature switches, including toggle, rocker, DIP, surface-mount, sealed, rotary, pushbutton, slide, thumbwheel, illuminated, and membrane devices. Most of the products are modular, giving customers more than half a billion possible combinations, say company officials.

Chief Engineer Andy Tolland points out that C&K also designs custom switches that "don't cost as much as you might think. We use components from our standard products to save tooling costs."

At the other end of the spectrum are such high-volume customers as Proctor Silex (toasters) and Motorola (hand-held radios). C&K has dedicated machines to make the thousands of switches every week these companies demand.

Energy-conserving switch. One of its latest commodity products, the KT Series sealed miniature pushbutton switch, measures only 0.112 x 0.250 inch. This model conserves valuable pc-board space and employs a seal that withstands machine soldering temperatures and pressure-wash cleaning methods.

The KT functions as a single-pull/single-throw, normally open switch. Actuator buttons may remain flush or up to 0.100 inch high. A silicone rubber seal is standard. The switch has a guaranteed life of 100,000 actuations; dielectric breakdown is 250V rms at sea level.

Applications include through-hole and surface-mount installations that require a switch with a long life and low profile. C&K's John Sutherby gives these examples:

Remote controls.

  • PCs, peripherals, and printers.

  • Hand-held radios.

  • Radar detectors.

  • Key-chain garage-door openers.

  • Medical stations.

  • Process-control equipment.

There's even a C&K switch for golfers. It turns on a small light on a hat. If the light falls on the golf ball, the player has his or her body correctly positioned.

Cooking up profits

Tucked away in an industrial section of Watertown resides United Electric Controls-a 63-year-old, family-owned maker of industrial sensors and controls for pressure and temperature. When I visited, engineer Mario Pasquini wanted to discuss cooking computers.

The firm's line of cooking controls increases the efficiency of such equipment as ovens, fryers, griddles, and grills. The controls ensure consistent, quality food products, and reduce cooking time. Products range from $25 solid-state thermostats to microprocessor-controlled computers. Customers run the gamut from Mom and Pop establishments to such OEMs as Blodgett Ovens and Franklin. Blodgett sells ovens to fast-food giants like Pizza Hut; Franklin's customers include KFC.

Electronics remains a mystery to many in the food industry. Therefore, Pasquini spends much of his time explaining the benefits to would-be customers. He credits MacDonald's with pioneering the use of electronics to automatically cook fast food about 20 years ago.

The electronic cooking advantage: high accuracy, closer temperature control, accountability for variables such as the number of muffins to be baked, and implementation of a cooking profile. Such a profile includes information about what temperatures to bake a food at and for how long, when a fan should cut in or shut off, and whether steam is required. A computerized profile lets a 16-year-old bake like a pro at the touch of a button.

Pasquini also spends a lot of time experimenting with food in restaurant kitchens. Although United Electric's customers are the oven makers, the company writes custom software for the end users. A typical day might find Pasquini at KFC roasting chickens using varying cooking profiles, then sampling the results.

Bay State Biggies

Visiting all the electronics companies in Massachusetts would have been a worthwhile endeavor, but utterly impossible within a week. This abridged list of companies I didn't get to includes some new firms and others that have called the state home for decades.

Allegro MicroSystems, Inc., Worcester-Designs and manufactures mixed-signal ICs, Hall-effect sensors, power ICs, linear ICs, and discrete semiconductors.

American Superconductor Corp., Westborough-Researches and develops ceramic high-temperature-superconductor products.

Battery Engineering, Boston-Develops battery technology.

CP Clare Corp., Wakefield-Produces switches, relays, surge arresters, and display components.

Data Instruments, Acton-Test and measurement products.

Dragon Systems, Inc., Newton-Develops speech-recognition products.

Fenwal Electronics, Inc., Milford-Makes thermistors for automotive, medical, and computer applications.

GenRad, Inc., Concord-Supplies test, measurement, and diagnostic systems for the manufacture and maintenance of electronic products.

Integrated System Assemblies, Inc., Woburn-Develops 3-D multichip module technology.

MultiLink, Andover-Manufactures multimedia teleconferencing equipment.

Setra Systems, Acton-Manufactures weight sensors.

Wakefield Engineering, Wakefield-Offers thermal-management products.

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