1. What led to Menlo Micro being formed to commercialize RF MEMS technology?
Menlo Micro and our “Ideal Switch” innovation were born out of necessity—the need to rethink antiquated switching technologies to meet the needs of the 21st century and the electrification of everything. It all began with a forward-thinking engineering team at General Electric’s Global Research Center, which pioneered the foundational technologies for commercially scalable MEMS-based switching, the precursor to today’s Ideal Switch. The impetus for MEMS switch development at GE came in 2004, when GE set a goal of developing a switch to significantly improve energy transfer in a scalable manufacturing technology. This resulted in a material science development yielding a very highly reliable and electrically efficient metal alloy that is the basis for the Ideal Switch. The resultant solution would be capable of handling high power while performing reliably for decades and billions of operations without the power losses from leakage and heat that limit the usefulness of solid-state devices and electromechanical devices in power switching applications.
After 12 years of research and development, GE and its partners decided to spin off Menlo Micro in 2016 as a separate company to accelerate the development of MEMS switching technology and commercialize the Ideal Switch. The initial investors included General Electric's GE Ventures, along with Future Shape, Microsemi, Corning and Paladin Capital. Now backed by $225 million in funding, with the addition of Standard Investments, Vertical Venture Partners, DBL Partners, Fidelity and Adage Capital, Menlo Micro has leveraged GE’s MEMS and material science R&D to develop breakthrough switching technology that is transforming electronic switching in multiple key verticals: capital equipment (semiconductor test and measurement and medical equipment), aerospace and defense, communications infrastructure and smart power/energy distribution. The Ideal Switch is the most revolutionary electronic component invention since the transistor, bringing two to three orders of magnitude gains in size, weight, power and performance in cost-effective scalable technology.
2. Although the advantages of an RF switch using MEMS have long been envisioned—even launching a few startups—the technical challenges seemed to overwhelm most early ventures. What did GE know and do to perfect the technology?
When the GE team began switch R&D in 2004, we considered existing ohmic MEMS switches from other vendors but ruled them out because of their unreliability under harsh environmental conditions. We discovered that MEMS elements could be scalable for switching due to their small size, but the challenge was reliability. So we embarked on a project to create our own ohmic MEMS switches from scratch. We began developing reliable high temperature metal alloys for MEMS devices that could survive extreme operating temperatures without compromising performance. These electrostatically actuated beam/contact structures combined the mechanical properties of silicon with the conductivity of metal. The challenge was manufacturing the tiny devices at scale and configuring them to withstand thousands of volts, tens of amps and kilowatts of RF power while operating for years or decades without failure.
Ohmic MEMS switches have two primary points of failure: metal fatigue and contact wear. The GE researchers discovered that while metals are great conductors, they aren’t ideal spring materials because they deform over time and temperature. This realization led to a proprietary fabrication process and electro-deposited alloy, resulting in a MEMS actuator with silicon-like mechanical properties and the conductivity of metal. Menlo Micro continues to use these special alloys in fabricating MEMS-based switches that can handle kilowatts of power over decades of useful life.
Another challenge in creating reliable ohmic MEMS switches is packaging that is capable of scaling for low-cost manufacturing. Working with Corning, Menlo Micro developed an innovative through glass via (TGV) packaging technology for universal MEMS switches. TGV allows our Ideal Switch devices to be housed in extremely small wafer-scale packages for high volume manufacturing.
I’m often asked, “Why didn’t another company come up with this technology before?” The fact is, much larger companies than Menlo Micro have spent years trying to reinvent the switch, but we’re the first to succeed. GE invested $40 million and 12 years of R&D on materials science, metallurgy and failure analysis and ultimately came up with an alloy that solved the reliability issues. The result is a highly reliable MEMS switch with substantially lower power consumption and enhanced electrical properties.
3. You say MEMS enables the “ideal switch.” Explain what makes it ideal.
Our switching technology is “ideal” because it eliminates the compromises required by electromechanical relays (EMR) and solid-state switches, bringing more than 99 percent reductions in key metrics, including size, weight, power loss and inefficiency and cost across dozens of industries.
The Ideal Switch is the electronic industry’s “holy grail” and one of the most important innovations since the invention of the transistor. It’s a true conductor that delivers the combined benefits of a mechanical relay and a semiconductor switch with no compromises. It’s tiny, fast, power-efficient and extremely reliable and can withstand extreme temperatures and handle thousands of watts with ultra-low power loss. Better yet, the Ideal Switch can be built cost-effectively in high volume using conventional semiconductor equipment and is as scalable to manufacture as a semiconductor device.
From the electrical grid to 5G infrastructure to advanced aerospace systems, next-generation technology requires switches that can handle high power levels and, for mmWave applications, are extremely linear—10,000x more linear than a transistor. The Ideal Switch accomplishes this feat because of its size and our alloy’s electrical properties, which enable very low contact resistance. An Ideal Switch can survive more than three billion cycles without degrading performance. With operating lifetimes 1000x longer than a mechanical relay, the Ideal Switch is one of the most reliable switching technologies available. When compared to traditional switching technologies, the Ideal Switch will reduce the total cost of end systems, including reductions in energy consumption and costs.
4. Any limitations?
Although it can be argued that no technology is without limitations, it’s difficult to identify any significant limits to the Ideal Switch when compared to EMRs, which are bulky and notoriously unreliable, and solid-state switches, which suffer from leakage and waste energy. The proven benefits of using the Ideal Switch over conventional switching technologies are tremendous, best summed up by the industry term SWaP-C: the Ideal Switch enables more than 99 percent reductions in size, weight, power and cost over conventional technologies. These reductions in SWaP-C will be fundamental for decreasing energy use and accelerating the transition to the electrification of everything and next-generation technologies for the power grid, electric vehicles, 5G wireless infrastructure, smart cities, aerospace and defense and medical technology.
5. What's the general direction of your RF roadmap? Will we see the Ideal Switch being used in smartphones?
Menlo Micro has an aggressive roadmap to develop RF switches with even longer lifetimes, exceeding 25 to 50 billion operations. This makes the Ideal Switch suitable for replacing EMRs in a wide range of RF applications, as well as replacing solid-state switches in power-sensitive consumer applications such as smartphones and other mobile devices that need long battery life. Compared to solid-state switches, the Ideal Switch also enables up to 10,000x better linearity and unmatched RF performance for the higher frequency bands used in smartphones. These improvements translate to increased data availability, faster transmission, fewer dropped calls and longer smartphone battery life, while enabling more innovative smartphone designs.
On the infrastructure side, the challenges facing the power grid and telecommunications networks over the next century will be enormous. System designers will need new tools and switching technologies to solve them. While we have a clear vision of what we'd like to do with the Ideal Switch over the next 5 to 10 years, we're really excited to get this technology out into the market and see what some of the world's most talented designers will be able to do with it across multiple industries and applications.
6. Menlo's market focus has expanded from RF to what you call “smart power.” Describe this application and the benefits of using MEMS.
Two factors must be addressed to deliver smart power solutions that enhance grid efficiency: reduce wasted energy and control when and how the energy is used. These factors apply to nano-grids, microgrids, state grids and national grids. By reducing wasted energy, the grid can lower its baseload forecast and consume less fossil fuel or require the construction of fewer nuclear power plants. By controlling when energy is used, grid operators can efficiently manage distributed energy resources.
However, with today’s traditional switching technology, deploying more controls increasingly means using more solid-state switching devices to perform critical switching functions. If this trend continues, any gains from efficiently controlling distributed grid resources will be diminished by the energy loss or leakage of semiconductors. As a result, the net baseload requirements for a modern grid will increase over time.
Using EMRs also poses challenges for demanding grid controls because they are slow to operate and have a limited number of lifetime operations—in the thousands—before requiring a replacement. In the event of a fault, a significant amount of energy can build up before the relay malfunctions, causing dangerous arc flashes. In fact, arc flash injuries are responsible for 2000 hospital admissions per year in the U.S. This reliability issue greatly increases operating costs, either through precautionary measures such as significant maintenance resources and strict maintenance schedules to inspect and replace relays, and/or higher insurance premiums.
The MEMS-based Ideal Switch leapfrogs the limitations of EMRs and solid-state switches for power control and distribution applications, delivering disruptive speed, power efficiency and reliability in a transistor-sized device. Here are several examples of the transformative potential of the Ideal Switch:
Greater energy efficiency — If the more than one billion ceiling fans worldwide used Ideal Switches in fan controllers, this would save enough energy to take 17 coal-fired power plants off the grid.
Increased reliability — Replacing the EMRs in all switches used to control industrial processes and equipment with the Ideal Switch would drive a 1000x increase in reliability and save more than $7 trillion in operating costs by 2050.
Smarter controls — The small size and built-in smart features of the Ideal Switch can enable an unprecedented level of automation in smart power devices. For example, using Ideal Switches in the more than 20 billion outlets and switches in U.S. buildings could save the amount of electricity produced by 11 power plants.
7. Is smart power a larger market opportunity for you than RF?
Yes. According to Adroit Market Research, the global electrification market is projected to reach $12 billion by 2028, providing a tremendous growth opportunity. The number of power relays, either mechanical or solid-state, being deployed worldwide is in the billions. These power relays must handle very large loads, on the order of kilowatts and higher, and operate reliably for very long periods of time. Applications range from electronic control relays to AC/DC contactors and miniature circuit breakers, which are ubiquitous in industrial automation, battery management, automotive and home automation.
From our homes to factories and to the global energy infrastructure, the Ideal Switch can help create a more energy-efficient, sustainable world by eliminating 20 percent of global emissions and bringing $37 billion in electricity savings by 2050. The Ideal Switch is transforming the electrification of everything by increasing the energy efficiency of the entire legacy electric infrastructure, upgrading 100-year-old relay technology with a reliable, energy-efficient MEMS-based switches.
8. In March you raised $150 million in series C funding, saying the proceeds will help expand domestic manufacturing and your supply chain. Describe your manufacturing strategy for MEMS fabrication and packaging. What will you do internally versus through your supply chain?
The $150 million we recently raised will help immensely in jump-starting domestic manufacturing of the Ideal Switch. We plan to manufacture Ideal Switch devices in the U.S. and are actively evaluating chip manufacturing locations in California, New York, Texas and Florida.
There are obvious geopolitical advantages to controlling our own supply chain. The COVID-19 pandemic made it clear that controlling and ensuring a resilient supply chain is essential to meeting customer needs and market demand. In addition, semiconductor manufacturing is becoming less labor-intensive, so labor rates and economics aren’t playing as significantly into our manufacturing decisions. This will give us greater freedom as we make strategic supply chain and product roadmap decisions.
9. How easy is it to use one of your RF switches in a new design?
It’s just as easy to use an Ideal Switch in a new system design as any equivalent conventional EMR or solid-state switch, in many ways even easier. The proven advantages of the Ideal Switch in terms of much smaller size, less weight, lower power and leakage and reduced cost will help designers shrink board form factors while reducing system cost and complexity. The high level of integration and low leakage of Ideal Switch devices also means fewer off-chip components are required in board esigns. For example, the ultra-low losses of an Ideal Switch can eliminate the need for bulky heatsinks, reducing board size and volume by up to 90 percent.
10. As you ramp production and introduce new products, how are you reaching and supporting customers, from design through production?
Customer feedback over the past two years has been overwhelmingly positive. We now have more than 100 design commitments from various customers, from semiconductor test and measurement, aerospace and defense, communications infrastructure and smart power applications, and we are growing our global field sales and customer support organization to address their needs.
Our scalable manufacturing capabilities are also a big advantage for customers. Unlike traditional EMRs, which are built one at a time on an assembly line, Menlo Micro can manufacture thousands of Ideal Switches at one time in a batch process. We use the same manufacturing approach leveraged from the semiconductor industry: wafer-based fabrication. This batch process is 100 percent automated, allowing the Ideal Switch to be massively scalable across industries and applications. The qualification of our manufacturing line means we can cost-effectively scale up production to multi-millions of units per month to meet growing customer demand.
We package Ideal Switch units with fundamental “automation handles” for each market segment to enable seamless system-level integration. In packaging automation-ready features, we consider the product and system lifecycle. For example, capitalizing on our miniaturization technology, we choose form factors that lend themselves to retrofitting. We also scout for established partners in target market segments to enhance their proven business models with enabling next-generation technology.
11. Tell us about your background and what led you to Menlo Micro.
I have more than 40 years of experience in the electronic systems and semiconductor industries, including executive leadership positions in public and private companies. As CEO of Menlo Micro, I oversee the company’s corporate direction, vision and strategy, focusing on leadership, technology innovation and customers.
Prior to Menlo Micro, I founded nGeniSys, an investment and consulting firm focused on the electronics, semiconductor and telecommunications industries. I also held the position of EVP of marketing at Microsemi, where I led the integration of Actel, Zarlink and Symmetricom, representing more than $700 million of M&A over a four-year period.
When the Menlo Micro CEO opportunity arose, I was immediately drawn to the challenge of bringing the Ideal Switch to market, accelerating the product roadmap and delivering next-generation products that will have a profound, positive impact on the electronics industry and society as a whole. With today’s trends toward industrial IoT and the “electrification of everything,” the need for miniaturized, low power and reliable switching technology will continue to grow.
From CEO to product engineer, everyone at Menlo shares a sense of urgency to help make the world a better, greener place with transformative switching technology that will save enormous amounts of energy in billions of devices and systems deployed everywhere. Like everyone else at Menlo, I can’t wait for what’s next.