Alumni-Led Company a Profile in Excellence
A small high-tech company co-founded by two UConn engineering alumni, Phonon Corporation of Simsbury, has carved out a niche as one of the leading military surface acoustic wave – or SAW – device designers and manufacturers in the world. Led by Tom A. Martin (M.S., Ph.D., ’71, ’74), President and Chairman of the Board, and Clement Valerio, Jr. (B.S., M.S., Ph.D. ’70, ’76, ’84) Vice President of Research & Development, Phonon develops high tech analog microcircuits used in defense and space applications.
Phonon is a 65-employee company founded in 1982 by Drs. Martin and Valerio, along with Dick Fraley, former Vice President of Sales & Operations who retired recently, and Pierre Dufilie (B.S., M.S. ’70, ’71) a fourth partner who left in 1989. Within its 15,000 sq. ft. dedicated facility – located on pastoral farmlands where tobacco once dominated the agricultural economy – Phonon employees design, build and test novel surface acoustic wave, or SAW, units for customers that include Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, and some government agencies.
“We’re the leading U.S. company that sells exclusively to the defense industry,” said Dr. Martin. “There are other, large, SAW companies that focus on commercial applications, such as cell phones and other consumer devices. We are the only American company to focus on purely defense applications.”
Phonon’s products deploy acoustic waves across the surface of special solid-state materials to achieve their unique signal processing capabilities. An input transducer converts electrical impulses into tiny acoustic waves that then travel through the solid propagation medium to the output transducer, where the waves are then reconverted to electrical signals. Phonon’s SAW devices and subsystems are used in radars, electronic warfare programs, communications systems and even deep space.
Among Phonon’s critical resources, none is more fundamental than its employees, many of whom hold degrees from the University of Connecticut. “We maintain close contact with UConn,” said Dr. Martin. “We are truly a technology company. Our business is based on people skills: good, bright engineers are our lifeblood.”
Because SAW technology is a “very niche business,” Dr. Martin said, only one academic program in the nation trains its students in SAW technology, a Florida institution. “We made the decision years ago to seek out bright engineers and train them ourselves. UConn is our main source for engineers. We are very pleased with the relationship.” Phonon hires UConn engineering graduates, provides on-site training, and encourages its engineers to return to school for their graduate degrees, offering fee reimbursements, flex-time scheduling and other incentives. Many of the Phonon’s 14 engineers are enrolled in, or have completed, graduate studies at UConn.
Besides Drs. Martin and Valerio, the company’s 14 engineers includes UConn electrical engineering alumni Dan Porga (B.S. ’93), David Miller (M.S. ’96), Scott Kraft (B.S. ’03), Tom Reinwald (B.S. ’03), Jonathan Kahl (B.S. ’04), Steve LaBarre (B.S. ’06), and Johanna Raphael (B.S. ’06). In addition, Dr. Jerry Heines is a UConn physics alumnus.
The U.S. military uses SAW technology to improve the speed and accuracy of small target detection by radars, which are increasingly subjected to sophisticated, powerful jamming and deception techniques. In electronic warfare, SAW technology is used to disable hostile electronics and to protect against electronically controlled threats. SAW devices are used in military communications as well, to handle voice, video, or digital data signals at high rates while providing signal security and jam resistance.
Despite its exclusive reliance on government contracts, Phonon’s business is both stable and growing at a rate of about 10% annually, according to Dr. Martin. “Our contracts are very large and long term – decades in length – in fact. It’s the nature of the defense industry. Take the Patriot missile, for example, which initially began some 40 years ago. The long-term nature of these military projects makes our business very stable.”
All design, manufacturing and testing of Phonon’s devices – which are proprietary and custom-tailored to each customer’s needs – is conducted within the Simsbury facility. The SAW units are constructed in two class 100 clean rooms, one dedicated to wafer fabrication and the other to component assembly, where employees carry out their work attired in sterile coveralls, hoods, booties and gloves. The wafers are made using photolithographic processes, the same techniques used in the manufacture of integrated circuits. Phonon personnel subject every unit to rigorous testing before it is shipped to the customer.
In hiring engineers for its unique operation, Phonon takes advantage of one particularly effective hiring portal, the senior design program in the School of Engineering. Phonon has sponsored a senior design team in the Electrical & Computer Engineering department for several years. Senior engineering students take this capstone class during their last year as a culmination of their preceding years’ classroom studies. Corporate sponsors, who provide financial support, present an undergraduate team with a genuine design challenge and appoint a corporate mentor to advise the team throughout the year. Phonon engineer Tom Reinwald (B.S. ’03), who is pursuing a master’s degree at UConn, is the Phonon mentor to the senior design team. He spends between two and four hours weekly with the students throughout the school year, helping them understand the design challenge within the context of Phonon’s needs. The students also visit Phonon several times and deliver a final presentation before a phalanx of the company’s engineers, who grill them with questions. “They do a very good job,” said Dr. Martin.
The 2006-07 Phonon-sponsored senior design team was charged with development of a programmable logic controller to update the increasingly obsolete Solitec track system Phonon uses at the start of its photolithography process. Dr. Martin explained that the company purchases older (20-30 year old) semiconductor wafer fabrication units and adapts them to their needs, since new units can cost millions of dollars. While older equipment carries a reasonable price tag, the units suffer from increasingly obsolete or unavailable replacement parts. The student design team of Michael Kelley, Benjamin Romeo and Jeffrey Travis, with oversight from Mr. Reinwald, designed and developed a cost-effective programmatic controller to replace an aging system. The project is ongoing, and a new team of electrical engineering seniors will examine a different aspect of the device during the 2007-08 school year.
Mr. Reinwald is very enthusiastic about his work with Phonon. “My goal in a career was to never wake up in the morning and say to myself, ‘I really don’t feel like going to work today.’ I have never felt that sentiment at Phonon. It’s a very rewarding environment, and we have a lot of freedom to face challenges. Tom [Dr. Martin] is very supportive of continuing education. We have three UConn engineering Ph.D.s at Phonon, and they are great mentors and teachers; it’s like having three more professors. Plus, with a core group of UConn engineers, we share the same educational experiences and training, and even refer to classes by number (e.g., ‘remember in 234, when we were studying…’).”
Phonon’s success originates in the company’s unique, high quality products, unapologetic quest for excellence, and commitment to providing continuing education for its employees. Its deep roots and ongoing alliance with UConn’s School of Engineering help the company sustain its high level of flexibility and innovation. Please visit Phonon’s company website at www.phonon.com for more details.