High-tech Kiwi company Rakon turns blocks of quartz into the tiniest possible global positioning system (GPS) components for smart phones and telecommunications.
Rakon has been riding the wave of growth in the telecommunications industry since Warren Robinson launched the family company in his Howick garage in 1967. Back then, Robinson was in the marine radio business and manufactured quartz crystals. He set up Rakon after becoming frustrated by lengthy wait times for crystals for which the New Zealand Post Office controlled the import and supply.
Fast forward several decades, and Warren and his sons Brent and Darren have had to transform Rakon several times over as the telecommunications industry itself has changed. Through necessity and a willingness to adapt, Rakon has developed unique manufacturing processes.
Still working with quartz crystals, the company is now a leading manufacturer of time-compensated crystal oscillators (TCXOs). These provide reliably stable frequency references in GPS systems. Rakon’s small, powerful TCXOs regularly outperform similar products on the market, and the company’s GPS specs are now the industry standard.
As international demand for data grows and grows, the company is not content to stop at the latest achievement. Rakon is now using a 3D photolithography process to develop even smaller, ever more powerful high-frequency oscillators.
Every electronic device has a heartbeat; a frequency control.
In telecommunications, the more regular the heartbeat, the more likely you’ll be heard.
Sometimes, staying in contact counts…
Getting from A to B by GPS requires information from four satellites, each around 23,000 kilometres away from your car.
And yours isn’t the only car on the road. With so much data flying around, getting a clear steer should be hard work but Rakon make it easy. They’re a family business, started in a garage in Howick in 1967, now a global company with factories in India, Europe, China and Sylvia Park. You could say they’ve arrived.
GPS – We have reached your destination.
We make piezoelectric quartz crystals for radio communications. We make oscillators out of those, temperature compensated oscillators. A quartz crystal used to generate the radio frequencies of most radio communications, GPS receivers, cellular phone base stations, sometimes satellite communications so we really think ourselves as the heartbeat of radio.
Ministry of Science and Innovation funding has helped Rakon deal with the massive growth of mobile data connections. In the next 4 years international data demand could grow 25 times, some say we’re running out of bandwidth.
If you think of a quartz crystal as a resonating device, so if I pluck a guitar string, it vibrates and that tune eventually dies out. Well a crystal’s the same, you can pluck it with an electrical voltage and it will vibrate and then die out. A oscillator is like it continues to pluck the quartz crystal element, so its resonant frequency is to put into a electrical loop and a feedback and it continues to keep it oscillating.
So the more steady the tune or stable the frequency, the narrower the bandwidth you need, and the more channels you can have. Rakon is good at is making frequency control devices that are smaller, cheaper, and more powerful than the rest.
In fact, they are world champions at it. In 2003, they developed the world’s smallest TCXO or ‘Temperature Compensated Crystal Oscillator’.
So this is where the whole process starts from. This is a piece of quartz and from this very large piece that we buy in we end up with a whole lot, nearly 1000 of these little parts when we go through about 70 different process steps.
The finished product might only be 2mm wide but it’s the reason you have GPS in your smart phone. And that took military-grade precision.
This is where the magic of what we call the TCXO happens so once we’ve made the crystal resonator we put it together with some other electronic components to make a temperature compensator crystal oscillator. And this is where you see the innovation in the product and in the process and equipment. A lot of the equipment that you can see here was designed and built specifically by Rakon to enable us to make really high performance products.
Rakon’s GPS spec’s are now the international industry standard. In 2011 they were named New Zealand’s High Tech company of the decade.
Right now they’re working on a different way to grow crystal, so they can make their oscillators smaller still.
They’ll get smaller; already we’re working on a 1.6 by 1.2 millimetre version. I keep thinking that it’s going to stop but it doesn't seem to, it just gets smaller and smaller and now I can hardly see them.
They’re being used in space too so not even the sky’s the limit.
This is part of the Innovation Stories series produced in partnership with the Ministry of Science and Innovation, it featured on TVNZ 7 during the Spotlight on Science + Innovation month in August 2011.