What is the role of antennas in IoT, and how important is it to ensure you select the right one? Field Theory Consulting’s CEO and President, Tadd Scarpelli, joins the podcast to discuss just that. He outlines how antennas play a significant role in dictating an IoT device’s range, connectivity performance, and form factor. Tadd also talks about how to choose a suitable antenna by basing your decision on data sheets and what could happen if the improper antenna is selected for your solution.
Tadd Scarpelli started his career designing antennas for Motorola, notably, he designed the revolutionary RF antennas for Motorola’s RAZR cell phone. Through his Chicago-based company, Field Theory, Tadd continues to design high-performance, innovative, efficient, and low-cost antennas helping companies from small start-ups to large corporations.
Interested in connecting with Tadd? Reach out on Linkedin!
About Field Theory Consulting Inc.
Field Theory is an antenna customization and RF integration company providing complete RF solutions to companies in the wireless electronics industry. From concept to design, Field Theory’s innovation offers wireless products optimal antenna performance, which helps companies to ensure a successful product launch. Field Theory services include antenna consulting, RF antenna design, custom antenna design, rapid prototyping, and production manufacturing.
Key Questions and Topics from this Episode:
(02:43) Founding story of Field Theory
(06:17) Current state of antennas in IoT
(17:23) Future of antenna design
– [Tadd] I think the next thing that’s gonna be that we really like doing over here especially over the last few years is we’re getting more and more into the array designs. So that would be like your 5G and stuff like that, that’s coming down the pipe or millimeter wave type of designs.
– [Ryan] Hello everyone and welcome to another episode of the IoT For All Podcast, presented by IoT For All, the number one publication and resource for the Internet of Things. I’m your host, Ryan Chacon. If you watch this on YouTube please give this video a thumbs up and subscribe to our channel if you have not done this already. If you’re listening to us on a podcast directory like Apple Podcast, please subscribe. You get the latest episodes as soon as they’re out. All right, on this episode we have Tadd Scarpelli the CEO and president of Field Theory. They are an antenna customization and RF integration company providing full RF solutions to companies in the wireless electronics industry. Super interesting company. You’ve probably heard from Tadd before, he’s been on some of our other series, talking about antennas and we’re gonna dive more into that on this episode of the podcast. So the current state of antennas in IoT, the role antennas play in IoT devices, how to choose different types, what are the different types? What can go wrong if you choose the wrong one and why it’s so important to make the right selection. Also talking about the importance of the upfront work that’s required to build antennas that fit a certain solution. And then obviously just some general overviews of challenges they’re seeing in this space and the future of antenna design. So yeah, I think everyone in this IoT space will get a lot of value out of this episode, so I really hope you enjoy it. But before we move into it. Any of you out there are looking to enter the fast growing and profitable IoT market but don’t know where to start. Check out our sponsor Leverege. Leverege’s IoT solutions development platform, provides everything you need to create turnkey IoT products that you can white label and resell under your own brand. To learn more, go to iotchangeseverything.com. That’s iotchangeseverything.com. And without further ado please enjoy this episode of the IoT For All podcast. Welcome Tadd to IoT For All podcast. Thanks for being here this week.
– [Tadd] Hey, thanks for having us.
– [Ryan] Absolutely looking forward to this conversation for sure. Let’s kick it off by having you give a quick introduction about yourself to the audience.
– [Tadd] Well, I’m Tadd Scarpelli. I’ve been an RF antenna engineer for over 20 years. I started off my career at Motorola where I was doing GSM cell phones, moved into 3G cell phones after that. After I left Motorola I started up Field Theory doing a lot of different consulting jobs and eventually we grew this company 14 years later into you know, a pretty large team here. So that’s basically me.
– [Ryan] Fantastic. I’d love to hear two things. One is just a quick overview of what you do, what Field Theory does, the role you play in the space but then it’s always interesting when I have a founder on to be able to talk about the opportunity you kind of saw in the market and what brought the company to even exist that you’ve obviously grown since then but just kind of how you viewed the market, what you saw as an opportunity and where your focus is now.
– [Tadd] Well, so you want me to start with how the company got to be?
– [Ryan] Yeah, just like the story behind kind of what opportunities did you see at the beginning to kind of start this up and then through where you are now and kinda the role you play in this space.
– [Tadd] Okay. Well, Field Theory started just kind of out of an idea where I got a phone call one day from a government sector saying they needed an RF antenna guy to come be part of a project and my name kept coming up and they knew I was potentially available. So I started Field Theory that day and then met the team out in Rockford, Illinois, went over the problem and we ended up getting our first contract through that. We worked on that project for about six months where we had to do an assessment of all sorts of different solutions for EMI problems and EMP. And based off of that I started winning more and more jobs that spanned out into aerospace and other government projects. And then however, as the great recession started to come to a tailend and companies were starting to innovate again we started getting a lot of consumer products coming through. We’ve done a lot of IoT devices since about 2010 or so. Anything small from little contact sensors for security systems to really large type of devices that would be out in the world. Nowadays we do probably between 20 to 30 projects a year and those things can range from anything from small IoT devices to phased array designs for beam forming and for high gain and that could be for data transfer or for like steering a drone in a certain direction or whatever. So we do a lot of that type of stuff nowadays, we range anywhere from maybe say about a hundred megahertz. It’s kind of our bottom end where we like to live for the antenna design stuff but we’ve gone up as high as 78 gigahertz. So that’s about where the company has gone over the last 14 years in what we do. We’ve got an RF lab here that’s pretty significant. We’ve got two antenna chambers that can handle all those frequencies. Two very high powered supercomputers that have both CST and the Remcom XFdtd on it, did a little tongue twister on that one. And then each engineer has outfitted what they need on their bench to do their RF job as well. And our mechanical engineer has a complete prototype set up where she can do 3D printing, a small CNC machine, a machine that also makes up PC boards in about a half hour. So we can do basically prototyping within one day of a product. So that allows us to do the speed to market for the clients.
– [Ryan] That’s fantastic. That’s awesome. So I wanted to be able to kind of start or as we kind of move into this more part of the conversation here, start with a quick overview of kind of the current state of antennas in the IoT space, just kind of your perspective. What does that look like? How are antennas kind of viewed? How are, you know, obviously they play a huge role in things in IoT, but just what is the the current state of the antenna industry look like when it comes to IoT in your opinion?
– [Tadd] Well, a lot of times it kind of depends where the company is at, and what they’re trying to do with the product. If it’s a cheap product that you’re trying to get out there quickly you will see them kind of gravitate more to like some off the shelf design or something like that where they’re under the impression that an off the shelf design is gonna be cheaper in the long run. We find that to not necessarily be true. A lot of the times that we do semi custom or any of our reference designs into products, we find that these antennas can number one, outperform those off the shelf antennas. But then also the bomb cost can tend to be a bit cheaper as well. So the antenna though, but given that type of mindset if people that want to use off-the-shelfs they have success with them, I’m not gonna knock that but a lot of times they’re not quite getting either the data throughput or the range that they’re looking for, for the wireless device. So the antenna basically is the lifeblood if you will for or you know, to make the connectivity happen. If the antenna’s poor, then your range is gonna be poor and your company’s gonna be looked at as, you know not a good product. So that’s kind of where it comes into and range with IoT devices is everything. I mean that’s the whole in the first place, right? Is that they’re able to go a certain distance and from a wireless perspective.
– [Ryan] So one of the questions I wanted to kind of follow up or I guess start this next part of the conversation around is the role antennas play in the IoT space, as well as the different types of antennas that exist in the market. And if you could dive into kind of both those points, that would be fantastic.
– [Tadd] Sure. So the role they play is they can determine what the IoT device looks like as well as the range and connectivity. The different types of antennas that we would design into products can determine all those type of things. So if you’re doing like a LoRa antenna for example we would come up with a small form factor antenna that we know we can cram into the device and still get excellent efficiency on it. Other type of IoT antennas that we would typically see are your planner type of antennas or something like that, that you know are kind of like the things you would see like on larger devices where you have more space. So that’s kind of the role antennas would play in the IoT device is for the form factor as well as performance.
– [Ryan] Okay. And when it comes to the different types of antennas how should people think about that and how do you kind of, how do they go about choosing the correct antenna?
– [Tadd] Well companies tend to choose the right antenna, they tend to look at the data sheets, if it’s an off-the-shelf. For us, they basically come to us and they say, we want the guys to do and then we go through a process through simulation and all that and we make it work within their product ID. So from a layman’s standpoint, it’s kind of hard to say what they would be looking for other than they tend to look for certain RF performances on the data sheets, in order to make sure it’s getting the performance they’re looking for. It’s kind of a weird one to answer for me.
– [Ryan] That’s okay. I just know it’s a question people ask is just like, well, we talk about antennas, we learn about the role, but what are the different kinds that are out there? But it seems to be a little bit more than just a a simple answer there, which makes total sense. But I guess a question I am curious to hear about is when it comes to building a device and choosing an antenna, what happens or what are… What things could happen if you choose the wrong antenna for a particular device, particular use case and so forth just kind of understanding what that potentially could look like.
– [Tadd] Well I think a great example of that is if we think of like an IoT device that’s a tracking device. A lot of times that we see in tracking devices people tend to go with these directional GPS antennas and these directional GPS antennas are really not ideal from what we see in most cases for devices that are meant to move around. If it’s a fixed stationary product and you know that the antenna’s gonna point in a certain direction at all times and then it can be pointed up towards the sky to get the GPS satellites then that’s great. But a lot of times if it’s a tracking device it’s gonna be moving around, it can get installed sideways, upside down, right side up. And depending on how that beam forming is happening you may not be able to really get the true performance out of it that you’re looking for and then therefore your GPS fixed will degrade because of it. And what we find is when we see those type of devices that are meant to do that we come up with more omnidirectional designs versus the directional designs. And that’s one of the the pitfalls we see most coming out of the industry for IoT devices is just the wrong selection of design whether it be a directive antenna, where it should have been an omnidirectional or some or vice versa.
– [Ryan] From a design perspective what does that process look like? Like is that something that’s kind of custom for each device that you’re and project that you’re working on? What is the high level steps that go into that and how should people be thinking about that as they start their journey of developing a device or product?
– [Tadd] Well the best time to be getting involved with the antenna for design for a project is very early on. We prefer to like to be involved, you know, even before the layout happens. So we could dictate some certain things of antenna, keep out areas where the feed will be, where the antenna connects to the board, that sort of thing. And all that is gonna matter for the radiation pattern that we are ideally looking for whether it be directive or an omnidirectional pattern. So when we get a device in say it’s a project from the ground up we get a lot of projects that are, you know, within a month of shipping and at that point they’re finding that the design that they have isn’t working and they ask us to do the fire drill and fix it. So we do that stuff as well. But to focus on a ground up project, our typical process is we try to get the cat in for the idea of the product from the client. We put it into one of our simulation computers and we understand what frequencies and bands that they’re looking foR. We kind of know what industry standard is for performance to get good performance out there for range and whatnot. And then we usually add a couple, one or two db to that industry standard ’cause we want to be bar up or one or two bars up from the standard. So as we’re developing it in simulation, we look for those ways to manipulate one of our reference designs. ‘Cause we don’t really do, we do custom and designs here quite a bit, but we also have a series of reference designs that we modify to the idea of somebody else’s product. ‘Cause really no one antenna can be necessarily used for multiple different shapes of a product or sizes for that matter. So what we do is we come up with our reference designs, sometimes we have an LTE antenna that’s designed for small form factors and we’ll put that in there we’ll make tweaks to it in simulation. And once we think we have a solid design that’s when it gets handed over back to our mechanical engineer and she will start making some tweaks in cat to make it look good. And then we send it over to our prototype equipment here. We actually build one up and then we test it in the antenna chambers to make sure everything’s lining up. Once all that data looks good we then start to do more of a aggressive integration process with the client to make sure everything’s gonna fit mechanically and electrically. And then they do their first builds, week comes in, we mix some tweaks and eventually within a build or two the antenna’s pretty much done and ready to go.
– [Ryan] Fantastic. And one of the things you mentioned was around thinking, making sure that you’re thinking about the antenna and the antenna design as early into process as possible. What challenges has that kind of brought onto your all’s plate when companies maybe don’t think about that early on or maybe they haven’t budgeted the right amount for the correct antenna. What kind of challenges does that kind of bring up? And then if there are any other challenges that you’ve kind of seen occur just generally connected to what you all do that would be worth sharing. That would be awesome.
– [Tadd] Yeah, I mean most of the time that we see when it was just kind of an afterthought saying, “oh, I’m just gonna pick a component off of, you know one of the sourcing online sites.” And, you know, the data sheet looks good so let’s just plug it in there and stick it wherever we want. And then it is about usually, you know, towards the middle to the end of the project where they start doing the testing and they start realizing, or in a lot of cases, you know, they’re going for LTE certification and they find out that they’re failing a lot. And then that’s when companies would tend to find us and say, “Hey, can you tune this thing?” And you know, we would typically say, send us a unit, we’ll do a a quick baseline on where you’re at and then we could tell you how to move forward. And most cases it’s you have to take this antenna out that was off the shelf ’cause there’s nothing we can do with it. We can’t make it work better and then we replace it with another one that tends to work better for that form factor. And then we do a rigorous testing here on our side. It’s not ideal because it is somewhat of a bandaid fix. So we’ll get you to pass, spec usually and all the certifications, but instead of being, you know two or three DV over spec, you’re kind of right at it. And I don’t prefer like having things right at spec but in those cases when we just don’t have the time or the company doesn’t have the budget to really make those changes. And the budget could be many things, it could not only be for the NRA for field theory but it would also be, you know there’s tooling changes that might need to happen or something like that. And there’s just no time or cost in the project to do that. So we find ways to massage and make it work so they can at least get the product out on the market. And then we have the little conversation with them saying, “Hey, next product that you’re doing, for your refresh or anything like that reach out to us on the earlier side and we’ll avoid all these pitfalls at the end.”
– [Ryan] Perfect. Okay. Makes a lot of sense. One of the last questions I wanted to ask you before I let you go here is around just what is the future of intended design? Like what things are happening in this space, what should people be paying attention to? What are you most excited about? Kind of where do you see things going when it comes to antennas? Because we’ve kind of taken a good chunk of our time here talking about the importance of them which I think is critical for people to understand. But I’d be curious just to hear about your thoughts kind of going forward with antennas in the IoT space.
– [Tadd] Yeah, I mean one of the biggest things for IoT is, you know people are wanting to put, make the devices smaller of course, and wanna put more and more radios into it. And the biggest thing people need to think about is the coexistence of all those antennas to each other to make sure that they’re not de-sensing or interfering with each other inside that device. That’s one of the other biggest issues that we see out there is, is that. So the challenge that’s coming forward is that just that is to put more, more radios and more connectivity in a small device and getting it out there. I think the next thing that’s gonna be that we really like doing here, especially over the last few years is we’re getting more and more into the array designs. So that would be like your 5G and what stuff like that, that’s coming down the pipe or millimeter wave type of designs. And even more so steering with the phased arrays. We’re doing some research here of new ways to do phased array, which will be a lower cost but that’s early stage for us right now.
– [Ryan] That’s awesome. Yeah. Fantastic. Well I appreciate you taking the time here today to kind of just shed light on the importance of antennas in IoT products, kind of what they do, the role they play and so forth. For our audience out there who’s listening to this and maybe wants to follow up with questions, learn more about what it is that you all do, engage with you in some capacity, what’s the best way that they can do that?
– [Tadd] Well, our website has a Contact Us, little form to fill out and when you fill that out, it goes directly to me. I look it over and then Eunice and I sit it down and then we get back to people usually within less than 24 hours. So the website is fieldtheoryinc.com.
– [Ryan] Okay, great. Well, we’ll make sure we link that up in all the all the stuff we put out for this episode. But Tadd thank you so much for taking the time here to kind of talk about this topic. This isn’t a topic we’ve had the opportunity to cover a lot of but I know we get a lot of questions around it. So really appreciate it and thank you for your time.
– [Tadd] Hey, thanks for your time Ryan, appreciate it.
– [Ryan] All right everyone, thanks again for watching that episode of the IoT For All Podcast. If you enjoyed the episode please click the thumbs up button, subscribe to our channel and be sure to hit the bell notifications so you get the latest episodes as soon as they become available. Other than that, thanks again for watching and we’ll see you next time.