This summer, Phil Kurz, TVNewsCheck’s technology editor, hit the road to visit the manufacturing facilities of Dielectric, Electronics Research Inc. (ERI) and GatesAir (above) to see how each is preparing for the expected spike in demand for antennas, transmitters and other RF components as a result of the TV spectrum repack. This is what he learned.
RF Vendors Prepare For TV Spectrum Repack
Think of broadcasting a TV signal and one of the first images to come to mind may be the top of the Empire State Building, the newly completed One World Trade Center site in New York City, Sutro Tower in San Francisco or even some of local iconic structures like the KCTV tall tower on Union Hill a few miles from me in Kansas City, Mo.
However, what may be more appropriate are mental images of bucolic scenery because it’s amidst the corn and wheat fields of Illinois and Indiana and the sprawling lakes, family farms and woodlands of rural Maine that many of the transmitters, antennas and associated equipment needed to put a TV signal on air are designed, fabricated and constructed.
This summer, I drove from the Kansas City metro area to places like Raymond, Maine; Chandler, Ind.; and Quincy, Ill., to see firsthand how major RF companies are preparing to meet the expected surge in demand for the equipment TV broadcasters will need to change channels as required by the FCC.
Industry estimates currently range from about 800 up to 1,100 TV stations will be required to change channel assignments because of the repack. As a result, a whole lot of RF equipment will be needed to make that happen.
What I found on my road trip were vendors deep into the “ready-set” phase of preparations.
Existing manufacturing space was being cleared and reorganized; new buildings were under construction; manufacturing processes were under review and being modified for efficiency; new hires were coming on board; and the latest manufacturing equipment was being installed.
All that and more was happening in an effort to meet the anticipated demand spike once the FCC says, “Go.”
My Morning In Maine
The moment I opened my car door in the Dielectric parking lot at company headquarters in Raymond, Maine, a rooster crowing from a not-too-distant farm sounded off — a perfect, yet not entirely surprising, greeting for an outsider who traveled through rustic environs to get to my destination some 20 miles northwest of Portland.
My route to Dielectric took me across New Hampshire on U.S. 302, through the White Mountain National Forest, past Mt. Washington and Bretton Woods, into Maine near Fryeburg and along several stretches where road crews had scraped away all of the pavement, leaving motorists to drive on one-lane gravel roadbeds in convoy fashion with a state vehicle escort leading the way.
The 130,000-square-foot Dielectric office and factory site emitted a Rocky Balboa kind of feeling. Down for the count about three and a half years ago, Dielectric was sold by its parent company SPX Corp. to Sinclair Broadcast Group, which began its resuscitation and comeback.
In its bleakest hour, Dielectric was reduced to 13 people after shedding many of the workers and much of the key engineering talent that helped carry the television industry through the analog-to-digital transition, said John Schadler, Dielectric VP of engineering, and guide for my factory tour.
But since the Sinclair acquisition, Dielectric has reassembled its core group. As of my visit in early June, the company was up to 49 full-time employees with plans to do “quite a bit of hiring” through mid-2017 to support production of 300 antennas per year, a goal that approaches Dielectric’s high mark achieved during the heyday of the DTV transition, Schadler said.
When I visited, Dielectric was quite busy preparing for the repack with plans calling for the addition of another 8,000 square feet of manufacturing space. Even before the planned expansion had begun, however, Dielectric was busy revamping its TV product line to meet the demanded it expects to be created by the channel repack.
For instance, the company introduced a new side-mounted, wideband temporary antenna — available with a cardioid or directional pattern — covering chs. 14-49 at the NAB Show in April.
Pointing to an antenna in the Dielectric R&D lab as I entered the facility, Schadler said: “This is the antenna that was broadcasting ATSC 3.0 from Black Mountain [near Las Vegas] during NAB.”
Broadcasters are keenly interested in ATSC 3.0 these days, and they want to ensure that the choices they make for the repack position them for next-generation TV service, he said. The company has introduced an ATSC 3.0-ready line of products that Schadler said takes into account the higher peak-to-average power ratios of the OFDM-based next-generation TV standard.
Another product inspired by the repack is Dielectric’s new tunable waveguide filter. “This is our 60 kW, tunable waveguide filter,” he said motioning to the filter. “Going into the repack, this will allow broadcasters to retune to their channel. Very few were made to be returnable before the repack.”
The plant floor at Dielectric was an interesting mix of old and new. Standing near its 60-foot tapered anechoic chamber where extremely accurate pattern measurements are taken was a roughly six-foot working scale model of a VHF television antenna from the early 1980s made by the RCA Broadcast Division, which Dielectric acquired from General Electric when it took over RCA in the mid-1980s.
“Years ago, the way they did pattern studies was scale modeling,” he said. “These are actual power dividers, [and] real feed lines [on the model]. Everything is functional.”
Today, Dielectric uses unique testing tools of its own making and software developed in house for much of what it produces. During my tour an electrical engineering student from Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y., working as a summer intern was diligently upgrading and improving the company’s software and testing tools to prepare for the repack.
Specialized antenna manufacturing equipment is also built by Dielectric to meet its own needs, Schadler said. For instance, most aluminum poles used for antennas are milled, drilled and slotted by a Dielectric-built apparatus running under computer numeric control.
Outside the metal walls of the factory is where Dielectric tests its antennas. The tests ensure an antenna actually meets spec and satisfies customer requirements before being delivered, he said.
Out back of the building is a 300-foot far field range. There, a turntable capable of holding an antenna weighing up to 20,000 pounds sits on one end of the field, while a small test antenna on the other side transmits a signal in a process designed to measure the azimuth of the antenna under study.
Following my tour over a lobster roll and fries, I asked Schadler if Dielectric is concerned about ramping up to meet the repack demand only to have the need for new antennas fall off dramatically once stations occupy their new channel assignments, in a fashion that’s similar to what happened as the DTV transition concluded.
“It’s different this time,” he said. “I don’t see that cliff we had with DTV. ATSC 3.0 is going to require single frequency networks, and I see another large build out because of that.”
ERI Readies To Roll
I already had serious questions about my Ford Explorer’s navigation system by the time I got to Indiana.
The so-called smarts guiding me to Chandler to visit Electronics Research Inc. (ERI) headquarters had a knack for putting me on state highways and county roads when a faster, more direct Interstate was nearby.
Having learned the game early on, I chose to treat route recommendations more as suggestions than as the best alternative.
However, as I approached Evansville, where I would spend the night before visiting ERI, I decided to rely on the car’s navigation so as not to miss the turnoff for my hotel.
I shouldn’t have been surprised then, when I found myself on a two-lane dirt road winding my way through wheat fields. While there must have been at least a dozen better ways to get to my hotel, the experience was not without merit.
Cruising through the fields brought to mind the no-nonsense work ethic of farmers in my home state of Kansas where there are wheat fields for as far as the eye can see. The fields also hinted at the type of diligent workers and methodical processes I might find the next day at ERI.
In the morning, I was greeted at the ERI complex by VP of marketing Bill Harland.
The company, which announced in April a collaboration with T-Mobile to back an 800% expansion of ERI’s antenna production capabilities by year’s end, was in the early stages of growing its facilities when I visited in June.
Construction crews had just graded and leveled sites for new buildings, and work was about to begin on foundation design. Two new buildings would be used for antenna tuning and a third would be used for services. The new buildings will join ERI’s existing six buildings, increasing the company’s 205,000 square feet of space by about 25%, Harland said.
ERI opened this 100-acre site in Chandler 23 years ago. Since then, it’s seen a few major expansions, including the addition of a new structural area in 1995 and erection of several out buildings with the acquisition of Andrew Broadcast in 2003.
The company, which manufactures TV and radio antennas, RF components and towers is vertically integrated — “everything from machining to tuning” — said Harland.
And what it doesn’t produce internally, is available from what Harland described as “a strong Midwestern manufacturing base.”
Personnel is an important part of ERI’s offering and its ability to meet the expected demand resulting from the repack. As of my June visit, ERI had hired 40 new workers and more were due to start over the coming months, Harland said.
To extract even better use of its workforce, the company has made an effort to train its employees for more than one task. “The entire workforce is cross-trained so even if you are a machinist, you know how to weld,” Harland explained.
“That way if we’ve got a big tower order, everybody is over in the steel shop welding. If we don’t have any big steel order at the moment, then they are over here doing antennas and transmission.”
Bringing on a constant stream of new employees means the company must focus on training. During my visit, new workers were training on a high-band VHF outer conductor.
“This machine here,” Harland said gesturing, “is where the slots are cut. We are building a second one [machine].”
“You put the pipe on here; it’s all laid out. It’s got two cutting heads, and they are all computer controlled.”
During the plant tour, Harland stopped at a 65-foot anechoic chamber used in the company’s TV development process for antennas down to ch. 7.
“We do a full-scale single bay element [in the chamber],” said Harland. The process is used to develop the antenna’s horizontal plane pattern.
Once an ERI customer approves the pattern for both the horizontal and vertical element, ERI runs a proprietary program on the emittance measurements to lay out the outer conductor and the slots spacing in software.
“Thus, the computer designs what the outer conductor is going to be as opposed to just going from a print and then having a lot of slot shorteners and lengthening slots,” Harland said.
The spectrum repack could not be coming at a better time for companies like ERI. Since the FCC closed the window for new facilities in 2012, the high-power TV antenna business has been limited to replacements when catastrophic failures have occurred; ch. 51 relocations authorized by the FCC and often paid for by cellular companies; and a U.S. Department of Agriculture post-analog-to-digital transition program for rural public television TV stations, Harland said.
While no one, including ERI, knows how many new antennas ultimately will be needed for the repack, the process is expected to generate significant demand, transforming the circumstances ERI and other RF vendors have faced from famine to feast.
Harland is convinced that whatever the number of new antennas ultimately required to make the repack a success, ERI — along with other vendors — will be able to meet the demand.
“We are building up to a capacity to make it possible that by the end of the year we along with other companies will be able to meet the 39-month [repack] deadline,” he said. “We will have the capacity to complete that transition.”
Getting A Jump At GatesAir
The drive to GatesAir took me through the boyhood home of Samuel Clemens as I drove north from St. Louis on U.S. 67, over the Mississippi River at Hannibal, Mo., into Illinois and north to Quincy.
This was my second RF sojourn of the summer, and I was determined to make the most of it.
I wasn’t disappointed as I pulled into the parking lot of GatesAir’s 40-acre campus, which the company — in one form or another — has occupied since 1966.
Bryant Burke, VP of global operations, greeted me in his office where we talked briefly before my tour of the 250,000-square-foot factory.
Burke, who joined the company as it was rebranding itself from Harris Broadcast to GatesAir in March 2014, began his overview of the plant by noting that it is ISO-9001 quality management system certified as well as ISO-14001 environmentally and ISO-18001 health and safety certified.
Ahead of the repack, GatesAir has been busy refreshing its product portfolio, optimizing efficiency and doing what is necessary to maximize production while sacrificing nothing in terms of quality or safety, he said.
But before it could do that, GatesAir had to make sure that production of its other lines, including radio and studio products, would not suffer from its efforts to prepare for the repack, Burke said.
“You will see a lot of capital investment in metal fabrication, assembly techniques, testing tools, test capacity, test apparatus,” he said as he led me onto the factory floor.
True enough, but not before I saw two relatively large areas in the factory cleared of whatever was there before with signs proclaiming the spots to be the future home of manufacturing for transmitters needed to make the repack real.
That’s not to say GatesAir hadn’t already begun taking major steps to ready for the repack as of my visit this summer.
Significant capital investment in new equipment, such as vertical machining, equipment needed to test two to three 60 kW to 80 kW transmitters at the same time, and new fabrication machines dotted the plant floor.
For example, about three to four weeks prior to my summer tour, GatesAir added a vertical machining tool that will take a 50-pound aluminum billet and machine it into a finished TV transmitter ground plane weighing about 12 pounds.
Older GatesAir machines could perform that task in about three-and-a-half hours, but the latest machine can do the same job in just 90 minutes, said Burke. “In this machine, we put the blank in, and have to turn it once. We actually mill all sides of this part,” he said.
Everything in the GatesAir machine shop is under computer numerical control, he said, adding that capital investments are done with the safety of workers in mind.
“The advancement in these machines — the spindle horsepower, spindle feeds, the number of tools that can be held in these newer machines — represents a dramatic improvement,” he said.
At the same time GatesAir has added machine and test equipment to maximize its transmitter production to meet the anticipated spike in demand for its transmitters, it has also taken steps to tighten up quality control, said Burke.
“Each operator is responsible for doing [quality control checking] the first article as it comes off the machine. Then our quality auditors will come through and take random samples of that.”
To optimize its production workflow, said Burke, GatesAir has launched an initiative to cross-train its employees so that those who focus primarily on radio are available when demand begins picking up as a result of the repack, and employees who normally concern themselves with TV are available for radio products when business dictates.
Reorganizing its factory floor and workflow to make its workforce more agile and the company more flexible will be key to turning out TV transmitters for the repack.
Some 25,000 active parts currently are part of the GatesAir build of material, and about 3,500 different assemblies run through the factory, he said. So, small improvements in manufacturing and operations can compound into significant efficiencies.
“Ahead of the repack, we wanted to get a real focus on products. We’ve made a tremendous capital investment,” Burke said.
“We want to make sure we have the throughput we need. We have made an all-out 18-month effort to make sure we are ready for the gun once it goes off,” he said.
Fade To Black
The biggest takeaway from my summer road trips — one to Dielectric and ERI, the other to GatesAir — is that major RF vendors, which will be relied upon to make the spectrum repack a success, appear to have taken the steps needed to meet accelerated demand for their products.
At this point, there still is an element of mystery with the auction as the exact number of stations required to change channel assignments is unknown.
But regardless of that unknown, at least GatesAir, ERI and Dielectric are expanding production capabilities with an eye toward making it possible for TV broadcasters to meet their repack obligations.
However, these are only three of the major RF vendors. Others, such as Hitachi-Comark, Rohde & Schwarz, Radio Frequency Systems and Jampro will play important roles as well.
They, too, can expect a visit in 2017 so I can tour their operations and report on where they stand in their efforts to ramp up to meet the demand for antennas, transmitters and other RF components as the TV spectrum repack becomes a reality.
(Editor’s note: The road trip will continue in 2017 with visits to other major RF vendors to learn where their preparations stand for the TV spectrum repack. Stay tuned.)