Electronics firms still make it big in Massachusetts

Minicomputers fueled Massachusetts' high-technology boom in the 1980s. The
state's Route 128, "America's Technology Highway," was second only to
California's Silicon Valley as the country's high-tech center.

Later that decade the boom went bust. Minicomputers became obsolete with the advent of PCs. Computer companies and related electronics firms went out of business or laid off thousands of workers. The recession didn't help, nor did the decline in defense spending.

But Massachusetts and the electronics industry has rebounded. Today, the state enjoys the second lowest unemployment rate-5.2%-among the leading industrial states. That's down from more than 9% at the depth of the recession in 1991. And the state still boasts one of the highest concentrations of high-tech companies in the nation.

With engineering schools such as MIT, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and the University of Lowell, Massachusetts turns out lots of engineering talent. Graduates have started high-tech companies right out of school that are now flourishing.

Moreover, 33 Bay State companies made the Inc. 500 in 1994-the magazine's ranking of the nation's fastest-growing private companies. "In its jump to 33 companies this year," noted Inc., "Massachusetts increased its Inc. 500 ranks a whopping 50% in a single year." The state now ranks third in the nation, after California and Florida, in the number of companies on the list.

These companies may hold the key to the state's high-tech future. They tend to locate outside of Boston and not along Route 128. But don't count the Route 128 companies out. Among the five electronics companies I visited in my week-long tour, only one-Keithley Metrabyte-is located outside the 128 ring.

Knocking out the competition

Analog Devices in Wilmington, a Fortune 500 company with a national presence, recently won a $3.4 million award under the federal Technology Reinvestment project. The objective: development of the next generation of MicroElectroMechanical Systems (MEMS).

Many experts-including Analog CEO Ray Stata-say these tiny silicon electronic and mechanical devices could change the world the same way integrated circuits did several years ago. Analog was the first to take MEMS, or surface micromachining, technology out of the R&D lab and into volume production.

Analog touts its first micromachine, the ADXL50 accelerometer, as a completely specified acceleration-measurement system on a chip. The chip has a surface-micromachined movable element as the sensor. Because the sensing element measures less than 0.5 mm 2, the chip has plenty of room for signal-conditioning and self-test circuitry. The complete chip takes up only about 9 mm.

Analysts have predicted micromachined silicon sensors to be a billion dollar market by the year 2000, says Accelerometer Marketing Manager Bill Riedel. "And most of these applications don't even exist yet."

One ADXL50 application that does exist can be found in air-bag systems in Saabs. The sensor detects the rapid deceleration that occurs during a crash. Signal-conditioning circuitry transforms the signal into a form that travels to the air-bag system's electronics module. The module "decides" if a crash is in progress and, if so, triggers air-bag inflation.

What really sets ADXL50 air-bag systems apart is that engineers can test them. Digitally toggling the self-test

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