Solid state microwave ovens; unlocking new opportunities for food

Rob Hoeben
Head of Multi-Market and RF Energy Business Unit
Solid state microwave ovens
Microwave ovens are synonymous with magnetrons, but now their days are numbered as solid state technology at last takes a foothold.

It’s just over six months ago that our business formed as a result of a divestment from NXP. During our business planning we identified the new and emerging RF energy markets as extremely attractive for us moving forward. There are a number of different application areas for RF energy, such as plasma lighting and solid state cooking. Each has their own particular technical requirements, established ways of doing business and future aspirations.

To the casual observer, they use similar amounts of RF power, from similar power amplifier sources and the same frequency spectrum. But start to look at how the energy is coupled into the application, the market in which the end device sells into and the diversity of potential manufacturers and partners engaged in the market. Another aspect of changing the core technology within, for example, a microwave oven, is that it can have a disruptive influence across the whole market. Microwave ovens for example have continued to use a magnetron as a low cost way of generating raw RF energy since the early 1950s.

Now a very mature product, the only significant consumer benefits added include that of a digital timer, with pre-set food defrost/cook settings, a more stylish contemporary look and, for some, integration with conventional heating elements to create a combination oven. As users, we have all learnt to accommodate the occasionally unusual cooking results, and clearing up the mess afterwards.

The use of a solid state based cooking method is seen as the next step forward for booth industrial and domestic cooking applications. Unlike the magnetron, the solid state approach shrinks the space required for the electronics and gives a more precise control over the distribution of heat inside the oven cavity.  

Over the past six months we have seen interest in solid state cooking grow significantly. Also, competitive factors are noticeable, which most would agree is a positive indication of market potential and healthy for growth. As a manufacturer of RF power amplifier devices we have two major semiconductor technologies to choose from. For example, LDMOS is a solid well-proven process technology that meets the high volume requirements of cost, quality and reliability. For the professional marketplace GaN is likely to emerge as the technology of choice.

What is clear from the collaborations we have made with white goods manufacturers to date is that a supply chain is becoming established in much the same way as other industries work, for example the automotive industry. OEM white goods manufacturers understand the skills gaps they have in exploiting and bringing in new technologies and are starting to look towards Tier 1 designers to deliver them. Like in so many market-centric applications, modules are becoming a convenient way to deliver the RF power amplifier stage of the oven.

Just as in the automotive markets, the top brands will have the new leading edge technologies first, so our belief This that during 2017 a tipping point will be reached that sees the first solid state oven for professional food service applications launched in the market. Over time it will trickle down to the consumer appliance brands too. This is a nature process of market development, from the high end to the low end.

Again, just as we have seen in the automotive markets, the competitors might not just be the established brands. Who could have forecast that Google might launch a car, let alone a self-driving one. The disruptive factors of a changing business model have been around for longer than you think. Take HP and their approach to printers where the ink cartridge sales produce an annuity revenue stream, funding selling printers at very little cost. Another recent example is where food company Nestle, with their Nespresso brand has achieved significant market share using a business model not dissimilar to that of HP. Consider then the opportunities that solid state cooking offers food manufacturers. With a software controlled power amplifier, providing control of frequency, cooking time, output power and way the power is distributed within the cavity it would be extremely easy to, for example, program the oven via an NFC chip or QR code on the packaging of a pre-prepared meal. The embedded cooking instructions would provide a degree of uniformity that would allow the meal to be prepared in the home in almost the same perfect way that was achieved by a restaurant chef.

Solid state cooking looks certain to herald in a transformation in the way we cook our food.

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