By Loralee Stevens, Special to the Business Journal
SANTA ROSA — Hewlett-Packard’s first product was a signal generator that used a light bulb to stabilize acoustical waves. And among its first customers was Walt Disney, whose engineers used it to design and test the sound system for the film Fantasia.
You could say that was the light bulb that lit up Silicon Valley, home to the world’s greatest concentration of technical innovation.
The bulb is gone, but after 40 years in Santa Rosa, the light is still shining at Agilent Technology’s locally based Electronic Measurement Group, where the descendant of the first signal generator has just been launched. It’s about a million times stronger than the original.
Mark Pierpoint, vice president of Agilent’s Software and Modular Solutions Division, said the new signal generator is the world’s fastest, operating at up to 6 gigahertz.
“It’s smaller, much more powerful and can perform 10 to 20 times more tests at a lower cost-per-test,” he said.
Agilent’s signal generators have been primarily used to test military radios and cellular base stations, but Mr. Pierpoint hopes the new product’s speed, versatility and close to zero footprint — it fits under a production line handler — will bring Agilent a larger share of the commercial cell phone testing market.
“We have about 40 percent now. … This new product could shift the balance,” he said.
Another 40 year breakthrough at the Electronic Measurement group in Santa Rosa is a handheld microwave analyzer that’s built for rugged conditions. Developed in the Santa Rosa Component Test Division, the FieldFox analyzer is the first of its kind and the result of several years of research.
“We shadowed about 300 customers to see what they needed and wanted,” said Wilkie Yu, marketing manager for radio frequency and microwave handheld products.
“They wanted speed and ease of use primarily, and we gave them that and much more,” he said. The FieldFox, weighing less than seven pounds, can instantly measure frequencies from satellite communications, microwave backhaul, military communications, radar systems and a wide range of additional applications.
Like a tablet computer, FieldFox is revolutionizing how engineers use handheld instruments due to its ease of use, including big buttons which enable thumbs, even heavily gloved thumbs, to operate it.
“We even formulated a special polymer for the case,” said Mr. Yu. “You can shake it, drop it, use it in freezing weather. It’s got lots of power and a battery life of up to four hours.”
Agilent is sure the FieldFox will find its way indoors, too, to universities and teaching labs. Aerospace is another target market. The product is a natural for jet aircraft and space travel.
“For me personally this is the most exciting project I’ve ever been involved with,” said Mr. Yu. “When you see the big smile spreading across an engineer’s face as he tries it out, you know you’ve had a hand in something very special.”
Agilent recently celebrated its 40th anniversay in Santa Rosa with an event for employees, friends and families at its Fountaingrove campus.
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