Along with a very small group of bloggers, earlier this month I had the opportunity to visit ETS-Lindgren in Cedar Park, Texas. If you are as uninformed as I was before this trip, that name will mean absolutely nothing to you. However, I can promise you that by the time you finish this trip report you will understand why you should be familiar with this company, and how they have most definitely had an effect on you.
My initial introduction to the company was a link to their site and a slightly cryptic email from a contact saying that “they make the majority of the cell antenna test equipment and chambers for handset mfgs and carriers as well as perform many of the antenna tests for them. They will show you how these companies test their phones in the ETSL labs (which should look very familiar to you if you have seen any handset antenna stories recently).”
Well lately the internet has only been buzzing about the need to test one particular company’s antenna, so I felt reasonably safe guessing that this was the company that had at least been partially responsible for obtaining the results of any tests performed. That was intriguing in and of itself, because I have never really given any thought to how antenna performance tests are done. I would soon find out that ETS-Lindgren is much more than simply an antenna testing company, however.
The group of bloggers invited to the first ETS-Lindgren Tech Day included Steven Hughes (Boston Pocket PC), Jon Westfall (Android Thoughts), Daniel Lim (SlashGear), Andru Edwards ( ), Brad Sams ( ) and me. When we arrived at the unassuming building you saw in the above picture, I thought we were entering the typical Austin suburb office building. I could not have been more wrong, but as usual I am getting ahead of myself.&
After signing in and receiving our ID lanyards and a 4GB USB thumbdrive (nice!), we were given a brief introduction and overview explaining that ETS-Lindgren is a company which builds shielded MRI enclosures, they install “safe rooms” in embassies which are protected, shielded and soundproof. They create other soundproof enclosures, too — like the studio in Grand Central Station used for recording oral histories. ETS-Lindgren builds measurement facilities for all types of noise testing whether the item be a hair dryer, an automobile or a jet airplane. The types of noise they measure includes those created by audio or electric interference, and they provide the facilities needed to test for CE compliance. They have 9 worldwide locations, and they employ about 750 people.
If engineers ignored electromagnetic interference when designing automobiles, drivers could face life-threatening hazards. Overhead utility lines, sweeping radar from a nearby airport, or the car’s own internal network of electronics could deploy airbags, freeze anti-lock braking systems, or shut down fuel delivery systems. With more automotive systems becoming electronically controlled, manufacturers are devoting more attention to testing components and assemblies for susceptibility to electromagnetic interference. ETS-Lindgren designs and manufactures the specialized test products and facilities to test for product safety and functionality in the presence of electromagnetic interference.
Leading the industry, ETS-Lindgren designed and built the largest automotive electromagnetic test facility in the world for General Motors.
And yes, ETS-Lindgren performs wireless antenna testing, which was one of the main reasons we were there that day.
After hearing about some of the different type services ETS-Lindgren provides, I was blown away as it sunk in how pervasive their products are in the tech we use, see, and hear about daily.
We were given a brief, but (admittedly) highly technical introduction to wireless testing, the gist was that they do Over the Air performance testing which involves the determination of antenna transmit and receive characteristics under controlled conditions. ETS-Lindgren creates defendable and verifiable testing environments as well as the software used to run the tests.
After the introductions, we were led into the back of the building, which is where the magic happens …
As you’ll probably guess by this photo of Andru, we were given full access to the back rooms which included not only the testing facility, but also a huge manufacturing facility; we were allowed to bring in cellphones and cameras, and there really wasn’t anything that was off-limits to us.
We were shown rooms where electronic noise is measured (noise is the measurement of electronic interference put out by a product); this is part of the CE certification process a consumer appliance must go through to ensure that its operation doesn’t interfere with the operation of other items in the home. These chambers can make sure that the noise put out by a device is within defined tolerable limits.
The best example of electronic noise I can think of (and some of you reading might be old enough to remember when it used to be commonplace), is how in the olden days (early 80s, for those of you who can remember) if you ran a blow dryer in one room, the television in the next room over would show “snow bands” and the sound would distort. I can remember this happening quite often when I was a teenager; it was just an understood consequence of running certain small appliances like hand mixers and blenders. Through CE compliance testing, appliance noise like that is (for the most part) a relic from the past.
The chambers that they do the testing in are completely sealed, and they can be configured to do any type necessary test.
We were also shown rooms where audible noise is measured. Why should this matter? Well, as an example … wouldn’t you rather purchase the most quiet dishwasher or washing machine available? These are the types of rooms and equipment used to measure sound output so that you can make an informed decision and so companies can market their products accordingly.
ETS-Lindgren makes testing chambers that are large enough to test jets and satellites for reliability; try to imagine that for a moment …
picture courtesy of ETS-Lindgren
Modern aerospace and defense systems make extensive use of electronics. Reliability must be insured even though operating conditions are often harsh and extreme. ETS-Lindgren makes the radio frequency (RF) microwave test chambers that allow mission critical systems to be tested in simulated front-line use. Complex ground, sea, and air platforms, including earth orbiting satellites, can be tested for full operational readiness before being placed in service.
ETS-Lindgren leads with a number of innovative solutions, including construction of the world’s largest RF microwave chamber for full-aircraft testing.
You can read more about the world’s largest anechoic chamber here.
Some of the anechoic chambers we entered (which had been set up to perform various specific measurement tests) looked like movie sets …
… so it should be no surprise that they have made appearances in Armageddon, Transformers II, and “an oldie that used one of our tapered chambers,Once Upon a Spy with a very young Ted Danson.”
ETS-Lindgren not only makes the anechoic chambers used for testing and measuring, they also manufacture all of the crazy soundproofing foams that we saw in the various measurement rooms.
I probably shouldn’t have been surprised, but ETS-Lindgren also creates phantom hands and heads, which are the result of verifiable average measurements to uniformly test the way phone antennas react to customer hand grips and head placement. They have even delivered phantom feet for companies that needed to test BT devices in shoes; hello Nike, I’m just guessing it’s you! ETS-Lindgren certainly wasn’t naming any names.
And yes, there is always going to be a user who is different from everyone else, but the manufacturers – who are putting extensive testing into each device – simply can’t design for every user. They have to design for the majority. I guess as long as you remember that there are no normal people and there are no easy answers, you’ll understand why your perfect device never seems to get made, your battery never lasts long enough for your typical day, and your antenna strength is never quite good enough.
These phantom hand forms are the standard worldwide; they are made to replicate the exact way that the average person would hold a particular type of phone, so that the proper antenna testing can be done on it. They are designed so that anyone who does testing – anywhere in the world – can have the same equipment.
One of the most dramatic things that happened at the end of the day was a test that ETS-Lindgren engineers performed specifically for me. I had brought the Element Vapor iPhone 4 case along with me, and they were able to verify a 99% signal drop when the iPhone was in it. They were also able to verify a 15% antenna gain when the iPhone 4 was in the Apple Bumper case.
Other than the fact that the anechoic chamber totally looked like something out of Stargate, it gave me a scientific way to quantify the signal loss I had perceived when my iPhone was in the lovely Vapor 4 case. I wrote about those findings in another article, but in case you missed it, this is the video Andru shot of the testing process.
ETS-Lindgren offers this service to mobile phone accessory makers so that they won’t introduce products that kill their intended device’s signals, by the way. For ~$4000, you can get a full day of products testing with a dedicated engineer. Better to know how your products perform than to find egg on your face, don’t you think?
In the back portion of the building, the manufacturing side, there were several hundred thousand square feet of space from which ETS-Lindgren ships their products all over the world …
machine their products …
and hand assembles all kinds of highly specialized testing equipment sold to various companies.
These pieces are expensive, highly technical, and made right here in Texas by people who are making a god wage for a company they seem to enjoy working for; I asked and was told that turnover is extremely low, and many of these workers have been there for many years.
This article wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t show you one of the most unique things I’ve ever seen in any office or manufacturing setting …
… the supply vending machine! Employees can get whatever they need by swiping their name tags. This not only keep the employee from having to walk all the way to the other end of the building when they need something, it keeps the company from having inexplicable supply depletions. Clever!
Some of the tidbits that we picked up during the day were things that many consumers might not already know. For instance there was this nugget: the bars that show on a mobile phone indicate signal to noise ratio, not necessarily antenna strength, and they are most important when uploading or downloading data on a mobile phone.
How about this? Have you ever thought about the impact that a user has, or in other words YOU have on a device? Your head blocks a lot of the phone’s signal on its own, and the hand blocks some as well. The best way to maximize your signal on a phone is to not hold it in a “death grip”. If you are experiencing sudden signal issues, then the best thing to do is stop, slowly turn until you have the best signal you are going to get, and then stay put until your call is complete.
One of the engineers mentioned that “truly great antenna manufacturers can make one that works even better when it is held up to the user’s head.”He also mentioned that the best antennas were “the ones that extended and would reach past the user’s head. But users didn’t want them, they thought they were ugly.” I remember those! And they did give better signal strength but they truly were ugly!
If you live in a house with a metal roof and/or aluminum insulation; if you have chicken wire inside your stucco walls; or if you live in a home or work in a building with metal studs … all of these things are going to negatively impact signal.
Oh! And I got the definitive answer from engineers who would know: those you can buy to supposedly improve signal strength are (and have always been) worthless; an absolute and total waste of money. But you already knew that, right? … Right?!that
Here’s one last bit that I thought was great … People call ETS Lindgren all the time asking them to build shielded rooms to protect them from “harmful radiation emissions” or to keep the “government from beaming thoughts into their head”. Seriously.
These calls are usually vetted and ultimately declined. But if you really want (or think you need) something like this, you can get a bedroom-sized shielded enclosure installed in your home for about $10K or less. How? Simply call up and give ETS Lindgren the dimensions for your bedroom or the particular room want to shield. Don’t say why you want it or that “they are out to get you.”
So there you have it … ETS-Lindgren is a company you probably had no idea existed, and yet they have had and will continue to have an impact on the products you use daily.
I would like to thank the following ETS-Lindgren people for having us out and showing us around: Jari Vikstedt, Principal RF Engineer; Roger Hatch, Director of Service Operations; Leon Enriquez, Field Service Manager; and Michael D Foegelle PH. D., Director of Technology Development.
As they appear, I will link to other attendee’s posts on our tech day.