Interview with Ben Wilmhoff, President & Founder of BluFlux

  • Ben Wilmhoff - President & Founder

BluFlux provides hardware developers with proven RF, antenna and electromagnetic design, engineering, testing and measurement services that reduce the time and cost of bringing the world’s most advanced wireless and connected devices to market. everything RF interviewed Ben Wilmhoff, the president and founder of BluFlux to learn more about the company and his take on this interesting space.

BluFlux

Q: Can you give us a short overview on BluFlux?

BluFlux was founded in March, 2014 to solve wireless product RF challenges.  We help our customers launch new wireless products faster and avoid the headaches and delays that antenna and certification problems can cause.  

Before founding BluFlux, our core team members had all been working in the RF and embedded systems fields for many years.  When it came time for over-the-air (OTA) testing, we found ourselves relying on certification labs that could not solve design problems, so we had to sort out those problems ourselves and then go through the testing process a second time.  

BluFluxMost product designers don’t know how to prepare products for certification, so we realized there was kind of a catch-22 in the industry - products were often not designed with cellular certification in mind, so they would fail certification.  On the other hand, the certification labs usually do not get involved in the design process.  They get paid to run your tests whether you pass the tests or not - so when there was a problem, they were just the bearers of bad news but offered no support to solve the problems.   

We decided to fill this void by bringing all the necessary skills under one roof with an on-site anechoic chamber that’s authorized for carrier certification.

Our special skills include antenna and RF design and, when needed, complex systems, algorithm and firmware development.  

We design and test antennas for every kind of microwave application you can think of.  From the beginning, we’ve been focused on helping M2M and IoT cellular product developers get certified on carrier networks.  Lately, we’ve also been seeing a lot of interest in antenna design services for Ultra Wideband Radar and real-time location systems (RTLS) applications. We think the RF world is on the cusp of a new era of wireless product development for location and radar applications.  Plus there are new wearable and IoT products coming out every day that use more mature wireless technologies like Bluetooth.   We provide RF design services for the most interesting challenges in all those application spaces.

Q: Recently, you added RF Testing to your services. What kind of RF Testing Services do you provide?

Actually, we began offering RF testing services at our anechoic chamber on the very first day we opened our doors in March 2014. Since then, we received A2LA certification in June 2015, and we are now about to get certified by CTIA (the authorizing body for carrier certification labs) to perform certification testing for US Cellular Carriers, including AT&T, Sprint and Verizon.  We’ll be what they call a “CATL” - a CTIA Authorized Test Lab.  In addition to cellular OTA testing, our anechoic chamber is set up to do full TRP and TIS measurements and 3D patterns for antennas operating at any frequency between 600 MHz and 11 GHz.

Q: Who are your main clients? What Kind of Companies do you work with?

If you’re making a wireless product and want great RF performance, then you’ll need the right antennas and RF design for your product.  If you’re trying to make the right RF decisions, especially about antenna design challenges, you’re a potential BluFlux client.  

We serve all sizes of companies that use off-the-shelf antennas intelligently or need custom antenna design.  We help our cellular device customers from concept development through getting across the certification finish line.  We help Bluetooth customers fit custom antennas into tiny packages.  If you’re building a UWB RTLS or Radar Application, we can help design the right antennas for your application and also help you minimize the capital and operating expenses for the customers of your product.  For UWB RTLS, we do that by optimizing tag performance and anchor density.  For GPS and radar applications, we find novel ways to fit radar antennas into tight spaces and unconventional packages.   We have worked for companies as small as startups on Kickstarter and as large as Google. 

Q: With the emergence of IOT and Wearable Devices, do you work with a lot of start-ups?

Yes.  That’s one of the fun parts of what we do.  Because the wireless product space is exploding and wearable devices are getting smaller and more ubiquitous, there are some fundamental antenna challenges facing many companies developing new IoT and wearable products.  Antenna design is seen as a kind of “black art” so a lot of the startups with the most interesting new applications seek us out for help.  Since smaller startups sometimes don’t have the funds for a full development project, we try to provide a little advice to help them get over the initial hurdles and some low cost options to help smaller companies turn a concept into a wireless design. That way they can get up and running quickly with decent performance to show a proof of concept.

Q: BluFlux Recently Partnered with Google for Project Soli, can you give us some information Project Soli and BluFlux's role in the project?

For your readers who may not be familiar with Google’s Project Soli, (https://www.google.com/atap/project-soli/)  it was Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) effort to develop new radar-based user-interface sensors, primarily for next generation wearable devices.

BluFlux’s role included contributing to the design of the radar sensor antennas and delivering prototypes.  If you check out the video, you’ll see our prototypes in action at about one minute into the video.  Designing UWB radar antennas for tiny packages is exactly the kind of challenge we like to tackle.  The very accelerated pace of Google ATAP made it even more challenging, and it was incredibly fun working with the ATAP team.

Q: Are custom Antenna Designs always better than off the shelf solutions? (if not then what are some cases where off the shelf solutions might be comparable to custom integrations).

Actually, for most wireless products, especially conventional ones, off-the-shelf antennas or reference designs incorporated into your PCB are good enough to get your product launched. Think about conventional Bluetooth headsets (like the sports headsets you can buy for $99 on Amazon that don’t fit entirely in your ear).  Or 900MHz industrial IoT products in non-challenging environments.  Or conventional cellular handsets on the cellular frequency bands we’ve used in the past - these problems have already been solved.  There’s usually enough space to design an antenna “by the book” plus there are probably off the shelf products you can use. 

We regularly suggest that prospective customers try a suitable off-the-shelf antenna options before asking us to design a custom antenna for them.  Sometimes, we can help them design in an off-the-shelf antenna and tune their RF front for a fraction of what a custom design would cost.  

For example, a Bluetooth designer who would like to use an off-the-shelf solution just needs to know a few things about an application to decide if he or she can use a 2.4 GHz chip antenna.  We get so many requests for Bluetooth antennas that we recently wrote a Bluetooth antenna selection blog post to help designers understand those principles.  If you’re trying to decide if you can use an off-the-shelf Bluetooth antenna, you can read that post and then fill out a quick form to request a recommendation from BluFlux for a specific part.  We don’t make off-the-shelf parts - we’d just rather not reinvent the wheel.  We think it’s best to help designers make the right choices, and then maybe they’ll think of us when they really need custom design or testing services.

This question of off-the-shelf vs. custom actually brings up another important point for small to mid-size companies that are launching wireless products that are expected to have relatively small initial production volumes, like maybe 1,000 to 20,000 pieces per year.

Right now we’re in the middle of a cellular antenna redesign project for a new tablet product that can be easily adapted for various industrial environments.  

You’d think that a cellular antenna for a tablet would have plenty of known off-the-shelf solutions, but unique antenna requirements are not uncommon for many new cellular applications - not just new IoT or M2M products.  And sometimes the projected sales volumes still aren’t enough to justify a design investment by one of the bigger antenna manufacturers.  We can help fill that gap by providing tailored and efficient antenna design services.  Then our client can go to a manufacturer with an antenna design that is ready for manufacture.  

That’s what we’re doing for this new tablet maker - providing custom antenna design and testing so they can own their intellectual property and get it manufactured quickly.  Everybody wins.   The product designer gets a fast, custom-tailored solution that we can test in our certified chamber so it’s ready for certification.  Then the customer can take their design to a manufacturer to do what they do best - manufacture antennas in production volumes.  And we get to work on a fun antenna design and testing project. I guess we’re just antenna geeks at heart.

BluFlux- Antennas

Q: At what stage in the design process should a company approach you?

Short answer - as early in the development process - even as early as the concept phase when you are still working out your enclosure form factor and available volumes and areas for RF components.

The reality is that many of our customers wait until they are suffering through a burning hot antenna problem that is delaying their product launch or chewing up their product development budget.  The worst case that they come to us after product launch and have discovered RF problems in the field.  After a product is launched, it’s way more expensive to solve an RF problem, but we’re glad to play the “RF firefighter” role if that’s what the customer needs.

It’s much better if you reach out to us as earlier in your product development process.  Then we can probably save you a lot of time and money, either by recommending off-the-shelf solutions or by giving you some guidance to take advantage of a custom antenna design or a customized test plan.  For example, if you’re trying to choose between Bluetooth and UWB for an RTLS application, you can call us so you can make the right choice of technology.  Or if you’re designing a Bluetooth or cellular product and need to set aside the right amount of board space or enclosure volume for your RF front end, we can do a concept review and provide very specific design advice that will guarantee you avoid the most common RF problems that we see all the time.  That’s a pretty good investment if it saves you tens of thousands of dollars of rework and man-weeks of engineering time later in the design process. 

If you’re further along in your product development and know you need some RF support, our website has specific pages to explain how we can help with various specific challenges.  Those places have forms where you can request a free consultation for your exact challenge, and your request will get routed to the right person who’ll get back to you within a day.  

For example, if you’ve already tried off-the-shelf or other custom antenna designs for any conventional RF application, from GPS to Cellular, you can just go to our Antenna Design Consulting page. If you want to get ready for Cellular Carrier certification with a custom test plan, or if you’re ready schedule your carrier certification tests, you can visit our OTA testing page.

Q: How long does a typical antenna design project take?

It really depends on the project.  Simple design review and advice projects can actually be done in a few days.  If we include some custom testing and tuning for a project like that, maybe you’re looking at a week or two.  But there could be a few weeks in the middle for a board spin or antenna fabrication step.

Many custom antenna design projects, even challenging ones, can be completed start-to-finish on a month or two. On the other end of the spectrum, complex RF R&D projects can last 3 to 6 months or even longer.  Those are projects like MIMO antenna design and carrier certification for cellular M2M products or a UWB RTLS or radar application like the one we did for Google’s Project Soli.  

Even those big projects we like to break up into one month sprints - kind of like agile software teams break their projects into one or two week sprints.  You discover a lot through the design and testing iterations, so we like to have regular communication with the customer and a tight feedback loop between analysis, design, and test steps.  That way, we know we are keeping the project on track to deliver our customers’ objectives.  

Q: With the emergence of new technologies (IOT, 5G etc.) and device form factors, how do you see the antenna design process evolving?

Right now we’re operating in a world where a company like TaoGlas and Mobilemark have worked hard to become known for M2M/IoT antennas.  The growing challenge is that IoT devices will require longer and longer battery life from smaller and smaller packages.  A custom antenna design is the easiest way to prevent leaving efficiency on the table.  It’s always best to have a custom design for your enclosure and application, and a custom matching circuit to tune the antenna for that configuration.  There is some critical thinking to make sure you have a business case to invest up front in a custom design, versus the opex and capex tradeoff of a higher density of lower-efficiency M2M and IoT devices.  Still, I think we will see a growing number of esoteric antenna designs filling the needs of power-sensitive applications - especially ones where you’re trying to minimize the number of devices in a distributed network.

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