RF engineers play an important role in developing many revolutionary technologies in the fields of telecommunications, physics, and astronomy to name a few. They are responsible for some of the most transformative technologies we use every day such as cell phones, satellite communication (SATCOM), and radar systems.
There are approximately 22,000 Radio Frequency Engineers currently employed in the United States. This number grows with each passing year due to the rising importance of RF technologies and the high compensations these professionals receive. The average salary for an RF engineer in 2021 was approximately $100,000.
RF engineers perform the essential research and development functions required for the advancement of key technologies such as in telecommunications including SATCOM, defense and security, plasma engineering, radio astronomy and quantum computing industries.
Modern RF engineers bring different sets of skills to the table than their predecessors from the semiconductor revolution. Their focus has shifted from component design to system design.
Earlier generations of RF engineers focused heavily on component level design. However, modern chip manufacturing companies have taken care of the bulk of the components and chip design process. This includes companies such as Qorvo, Analog Devices, Skyworks, NXP Semiconductors, and Qualcomm.
Such manufacturers are now able to provide low-cost, high-performance and highly integrated chip solutions for use in various applications and sectors. This allows RF engineers to focus on advancing the technologies in other ways, especially by focusing on designing systems. Modern RF engineers concern themselves with system level designs, with a focus on achieving high levels of performance. An RF engineer must be capable of designing complex systems consisting of RF, digital, and analog subsystems that interact with one other.
In this article, we want to look at the skills that modern RF engineers need to possess. Such engineers must have an in-depth understanding of the building blocks of their trade. They must also familiarize themselves with the different ways to channel this knowledge and achieve their desired performance.
Instruments for RF and microwave measurements
A modern RF engineer possess an in-depth understanding of the following subjects:
1- RF components
An RF engineer must possess extensive knowledge of RF components prior to starting the system design process. This includes an understanding of lumped element LCR components, filters, amplifiers, oscillators, mixers, couplers, and other essential components.
For the majority of applications, RF engineers do not need to design such components themselves as there are already chip solutions available. This frees them from the burden of designing these components themselves. However, they must still understand the functions and figures of merit of each component. For example, an RF engineer designing an amplifier will need to be familiar with gain, 1 dB compression point, IP3, efficiency, noise figure, etc.
When a commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) solution does not exist, the RF engineer will need to analyze and design each component. This process can be complex and time-consuming in itself.
2- System Design and Analysis
RF engineers must also be capable of analyzing and designing an RF system. They must possess a deep understanding of the key building blocks of said system as well as the ways in which different components interact and affect the overall performance of the system.
For example, when designing a system, the RF engineer should understand gain, noise figures, 1 dB-compression points, and intermodulation products and how each of these parameters are affected by the system’s building blocks. They can then design systems that offer the desired results.
Simulation tools have revolutionized the way the products are designed. RF engineers can utilize simulation tools to analyze various designs and assess their performance without ever having to physically construct an actual printed circuit board (PCB). This saves valuable time and financial resources that can be devoted to other advances.
There are numerous RF simulation tools for RF engineers to choose from. This includes popular tools such as Advanced Design Systems (ADS), and Microwave Office. Each of these are useful for different types of RF simulations, but they may possess unique strengths. RF engineers should be familiar with at least one simulation tool prior to starting the design process.
4- PCB Design
PCB design is a core aspect of creating RF systems. PCB technicians typically work with RF engineers to design the layout of a board in most cases. However, the RF engineer will still need to understand the layout principles to minimize the issues such as couplings, noise, and unwanted resonances. The board layout is also essential for avoiding electromagnetic compatibility (EMC) issues that could jeopardize system performance.
5- RF Measurement and Characterization
Once the board manufacturing process has begun, the focus shifts to troubleshooting and optimizing different performance factors. An RF engineer must be capable of working with RF and microwave measurement instruments. For example a network analyzer is used to perform component level characterization such as gain, loss, and matching.
They must also use a spectrum analyzer for system level characterization such as EVM, ACPR, harmonics and intermodulation measurements.
6- EMC tests, FCC certification
All commercial products must pass specific tests designated by the Federal Communication Commision (FCC) before they can be sold on the market. Such compliance tests ensure the product does not cause unwanted interference with other equipment or frequency channels, and that it meets other telecommunications requirements.
If system issues do occur, the PCB design or components will need to be changed or redesigned. For example, this may occur if the system’s harmonics are higher than expected.
RF engineers must be familiar with EMC concepts to avoid such occurrences. They must also possess a good understanding of the relevant FCC limitations and requirements before updating their design to meet these requirements.
7- Test Fixture Design for Mass Production
Once the product has received FCC certification, it must be tested in the production line. Designing an RF product can be vastly different from the perspective of mass-producing in a production line. In-factory RF testing has unique challenges and requires well-designed test processes and fixtures that streamline the production process.
RF engineers need to work together with software developers to create automated test processes using software such as LabView, Python, or Matlab. They will also need to work with a mechanical engineer to create a mechanical test fixture where the product goes in for testing purposes.
Such fixtures include a “lick” mechanism or a type of push mechanism that connects the PCB or product with various test equipment and probes. Once the connection is established, an automatic test process runs and generates a measurement report that indicates if the test has been failed or passed.
As you can see, RF engineers must possess various skills to be able to design and test RF systems as required. Such skills can take a long time to understand, and even longer to master. This creates bottlenecks in the industry and research where RF engineers are required to be knowledgeable in these areas before working on advanced technologies that need the knowledge of RF system design.
Key RF technology developments can be accelerated if the time RF engineers spend developing such skills is minimized. This is exactly what we aim to do at Quaxys Academy.
Quaxys offers exceptional skills-based RF courses that bring the RF engineers up to speed with key RF concepts and teach them the essential skills they need to solve real-world problems in industry and research. Most importantly, we offer a road map that accelerates the learning process and focuses on key areas where the RF engineers need training. This learning process is supported by interactive online simulators, calculators, and valuable PDF resources and videos. We also offer RF educational kits for some of our courses to deepen participants’ understanding of these concepts.