An education in the Athens of America – Signal Hound’s experience at (and getting to) IMS 2018

An old nickname for Philadelphia is The Athens of America, referring to Philly’s reputation for science, industry, art, and intellectual life (and no, I didn’t already know this – Wikipedia taught me). This year’s International Microwave Symposium (IMS) fit right in. The talks and content of the conference were fantastic, and the RF and microwave industry-related wares on the exhibition floor were impressive as usual. I’ve stated before that we always learn more than anticipated when we attend these shows, and this year was no different.

Independence Hall… just right down the road from IMS 2018 this year

It’s a fact – we love the crowd that IMS draws, plain and simple. It’s always fun, stimulating conversation.

However, getting to the show this year was something that we did not love, not in the least…

I’m (not) leavin’, on a jet plane…

We should have taken it as a bad omen when our flight out of Portland was delayed by a couple hours. Granted, it was nice to have time to grab a bite to eat with our crew, but the delay sent us into a tailspin (pun fully intended) that ended up with us standing in line for an hour in Chicago at midnight waiting for hotel vouchers due to a lack of connector flights. We should’ve been nearing Philadelphia at that hour, but it just wasn’t in the cards. There are obviously worse things that can happen while flying, but this was more than a little inconvenient.

The looming issue wasn’t just the flight situation, it was the fact that our rescheduled flights got into Philly Monday night – about an hour after the IMS showroom floor closed for the day. For those not familiar, Monday at IMS is the last setup day where exhibitors open their shipping crates and assemble their booth. It’s noisy, messy, somewhat stressful – and totally necessary – hence the stress. The tricky part is that if you don’t empty your crates, they are cleared from the floor and locked back in the warehouse until the end of the show. This would’ve left us in a serious bind for the week.

We tossed around the idea of renting a car, hitching a ride in a Ryder van, or thumbing our way into Philadelphia (okay so it was actually just renting the car, but that’s not as exciting), but nothing seemed to pan out. No matter where we turned we just couldn’t get into Philly in time.

Looks of confusion and barely open eyes – connecting flights should NOT go missing at midnight

After some serious brainstorming, we realized we had an ace up the sleeve. My wife, Meagan, came along for the trip to take advantage of the location and see some of the fantastic sites that Philadelphia has to offer. However, she had taken a different flight and didn’t experience any delays – and even though she was initially scheduled to be in after us, she made it to Philly about 12 hours before the Signal Hound team.

After a couple quick phone calls, we made arrangements for Meagan to unload the crates into our booth, and the wonderful IMS management team agreed to meet us way too early in the morning on Tuesday for us to assemble the booth. It was a fantastic team effort involving some people that really went out of their way to help, but the effort paid off. We were able to relax and enjoy the opening reception on Monday night (almost immediately after we flew in), and we finished assembling our booth with about 30 minutes to spare on Tuesday morning.

New digs

It took us a bit of extra time to set up this year because we bumped our booth size up to a 10’x20’, instead of a 10’x10’. The new booth size required a larger backdrop, and some kiosks on which to display our devices (previously we just set a few items out on a table). The new backdrop was simple enough to design and acquire, but the kiosks… well, I would call them the opposite of simple.

During the research process, Bruce couldn’t find any kiosks to his liking. A few of us in the office located and presented several different types and models, but nothing seemed to fit what he had envisioned. After notifying us that he had finally settled on one of the models we presented to him, we returned to work the next morning to see that he had spent most of the previous evening designing and putting together a bill of materials for his self-designed kiosks. Go figure. It really came as no surprise to us – or anyone that knows Bruce for that matter. Bruce’s “if you can’t find it, make it” attitude is what’s gotten Signal Hound this far anyways, so it makes sense.

So after a few weeks of napkin drawings, parts ordering, cutting, welding, 3D printing, and drilling, we ended up with a set of three stout kiosks ready for easy transport to Philly and simple assembly in the booth. The kiosks were designed to house gear in the back and provide ample room for device use and easy demonstrations while standing. They worked flawlessly.

The new, larger booth size was a welcome addition to our tradeshow attendance, and it was nice to not be standing on top of each other this year. It’s actually a game-changer for us in terms of enjoying our time in the booth.

Like a good neighbor…

We were fortunate enough this year to be just across the aisle from one of our all-time favorite vendors, Analog Devices (ADI). In addition to chatting and connecting with some folks we hadn’t talked to in a while, we were also able to lend a hand in one of their demos by providing them with some necessary equipment. One of ADI’s demos consisted of some live EMC measurements on a handful of their new components, and we were humbled to find that they were using the EMC Precompliance Analysis Mode in our own Spike software!

They were in a bit of a bind, though, because their team had been provided with one of our USB-SA44B spectrum analyzers to use in the demo, and full EMC precompliance functionality in Spike is only enabled when connected to our BB60C or SM200A analyzers. Since we had a few BB60Cs on hand for the show, we walked over and set them up with a new BB60C so they could demonstrate their products as intended. We of course jumped at the opportunity – as a small company, this type of publicity is rarely stumbled upon – and had the demonstration working as planned in just a few minutes.  Sure, it was nice to have equipment running in their booth, but the reality is that they’re such a great group of folks it was fun to be able to help!

Spike spectrum analyzer software analyzing ADI components
Well looky there… Spike’s running in the ADI booth

Let me write this down

After we were (finally) up and running in our booth, the fun part started. The conversations started as visitors began to trickle in, and we talked with folks from all corners of the industry. We spoke with people in the education field about a need for greater interest in the test and measurement field and support for the related programs. We chatted with engineers from around the globe about their needs and applications, including everything from EMC requirements in small electronics shops to 5G rollout challenges. We were also fortunate enough to spend time with existing customers who were able to tell us their likes/dislikes regarding Signal Hound products and provide us with priceless feedback that we wouldn’t be able to easily gather elsewhere.

Also, the niche audience for RF engineering and products makes for a relatively small group of people working in this field, and we were able to connect with friends from throughout the industry. To hear the challenges of other companies breeds a camaraderie of sorts, even amongst competition. The sharing of business advice and opinions between different companies is essential for the growth of the industry, and these events are an excellent venue for this type of information exchange.

Lessons learned

More than anything, this year’s IMS taught us that flexibility is key. Whether dealing with changes during product development, company growth issues, getting just the right kiosks, rescheduled planes at midnight, or unstaffed trade show booths – the ability to think on your feet and act accordingly is priceless.

We had a blast, and you can count on one thing for next year – we’ll all be taking separate or non-stop flights to guarantee that someone will be in the booth on setup day – that’s for sure!