Improving functionality of hearing aid microphones has been at the core of Knowles Electronics’ success.

In the large and growing market of hearing microphones and receivers, Knowles Electronics is a giant, generating in excess of $100 million in hearing technology revenues and serving as a leading product supplier to some of the nation’s most prominent hearing aid manufacturers. Fifty-seven years since its 1946 founding, this Itasca, Ill-based company is capable of making a bold declaration about its market leadership: “Knowles,” the company declares, “is the world’s leading manufacturer of microphones, receivers, and related components for the hearing aid industry.” It is a market leadership that has proven both undeniable and, at many times, wholly impressive.

But Knowles’ size and growth have not come at the expense of entrepreneurial product creativity, which, in many ways, has been the foundation of its success. Since its founding, Knowles and its various business units have been behind a series of cutting-edge hearing technology product advancements. “We are out there to be the innovative solution component supplier to the hearing health industry, and that is one of our key corporate strategies,” says Knowles’ product manager, Chad Ritsema. Through this approach of serving as a provider of innovative solutions, Ritsema says, Knowles has set about “improving hearing aids through improving hearing aid components.”

Ongoing Miniaturization of Acoustic Transducers
Perhaps most significant in its development as a major force in the hearing health industry, Knowles has been the technical brains behind the ongoing miniaturization of acoustic transducers. Much like the miniaturization of the semiconductor, which has permitted smaller and more consumer-friendly computer and other applications, the significant progress made in reducing the size of acoustic transducers has made hearing aids increasingly more functional and convenient for consumers.

“If you go back about 55 years, when Hugh Knowles first started Knowles Electronics,” Ritsema says, “Hugh was able to make the first transistor-based microphone for hearing health. Prior to that, you had to have, basically, huge microphones.” While Knowles now offers some 30 different microphone, receiver, and acoustic products and 18 products in its electromechanical segment, Ritsema says the progress the company has made in improving the functionality of hearing aid microphones has been at the core of its multi-decade success.

Particularly emblematic of this technological innovation, Ritsema says, is Knowles’ FG Series of hearing aid microphones, which the company markets as having both low vibration sensitivity and high mechanical shock resistance. Ritsema credits the FG’s technological and functional appeal to its “very flat response, broad bandwidth, and small size” (the microphone itself is a tenth of an inch long by a tenth of an inch in diameter).

Building on the success of the existing product lines and its history of hearing product innovation, Ritsema now sees new and exciting opportunities ahead for Knowles in the development of new, or further refined, microphones, receivers, and electromechanical products.

“On the microphone side, I see a lot of developments in optimization of current technology,” Ritsema says. “There also is the advent of microphones that give you a digital output,” he says, which could provide product lines superior to those with the more traditional analog output. “In the future, I think you will see a microphone that will have the analog digital converter built in, and then the hearing aid will have an all-digital chip set,” he says. “Finally,” Ritsema says, “you have to look at the rise of silicon microphones, which will allow hearing aids to go to automated assembly.”

While Knowles has a significant number of in-house personnel devoted to product development, the company’s seriousness about innovation also can be witnessed in its relationship with Evanston, Ill-based Northwestern University, where the company has established the Hugh Knowles Center to provide engineering and audiological support for Knowles’ product development.

In addition to maintaining top-notch product development resources and a fairly sophisticated vision of the potential of hearing technology developments, Knowles has solidified large, ongoing partnerships with leading hearing aid manufacturers, which lie at the heart of its current success. “Really, we are out there to be a strategic partner with our customers,” Ritsema says. Of the six largest hearing aid manufacturers in the nation, Ritsema contends, Knowles is the leading external supplier to each of them.

Continual Product Improvement
Driving the philosophy behind Knowles’ relationships with manufacturers is its effort to serve as a partner in continual product improvement. “We partner with them to try to find products that provide solutions to problems they are facing,” Ritsema says. One example of such partnership is the ongoing effort by Knowles to improve the shock survivability of hearing aids. The challenge is a common one. “Grandma drops her hearing aid off the kitchen table onto the tile floor, and it just goes dead,” Ritsema says. “Well, we are working on receiver components that have a much better survivability rate in shock situations.”

Knowles also is endeavoring to evaluate end-user surveys regarding hearing aid satisfaction, and then utilizing this information in assessing possible opportunities for continual improvements to hearing aid functionality.

One constant concern, Ritsema reports, is hearing aid feedback. In response to this challenge, Knowles is working on at least one product, called the Pantograph, which would seek to minimize feedback. “This device will have less vibration, and less vibration means less feedback within the hearing aid,” Ritsema says. “Feedback is one of the top four complaints of end users. The thing whistles, or you can’t turn it up loud enough because it starts whistling, and what this receiver will do is shake the hearing aid less, and you will be able to turn the hearing aid up louder before it starts whistling.”

Looking out further, Ritsema says, there exist even greater opportunities for exciting hearing health product enhancements. One such opportunity is the merging of hearing aid technology with telecommunications technology. “There is a big stigma associated with wearing a hearing aid, but if you are talking on the cell phone, that’s cool, that’s acceptable,” Ritsema says. “I see people using their cell phone,” he says, “but they are listening to it via a hearing aid, and [the two technologies] are just merged.”

Should such hearing applications ultimately develop, Ritsema sees Knowles being well positioned to potentially capitalize on the trend. “With our base as a leading component supplier for hearing aids,” he says, “it will definitely translate over into that merging of telecommunications and hearing health. We address all those industries right now, and we are definitely poised to be a major supplier in the convergence of those industries,” he says.

When it comes to marketing, Ritsema says Knowles’ effort has been subtle, but the company does seek to position itself with rank and file dispensers and audiologists as a reliable provider of hearing health solutions. “From the end user side,” he says, “it is basically making your rank and file dispenser or audiologist aware of who Knowles Electronics is. We have been in the industry pretty much since it started, and we have been a big player in it the entire time, but we have been a quiet player.

“Our focus now,” Ritsema says, “is letting them know we are Knowles Electronics, and we are the major supplier—bar none—of components within the industry, including microphones, receivers, and electromechanical, and we are working hard to make your lives better and your patients’ lives better.” The way to do this, he says, “is to have dispensers and audiologists say this is a great technology, and have them inquire whether hearing aids are being made with the Knowles Pantograph receiver, the Knowles FG microphone, the Knowles push-button switch, so there is a subtle pull-through campaign to raise awareness that we are a solutions provider of components.”

Like the hearing industry itself, Knowles is drawing revenues from both inside and outside of the United States, with roughly 40% of the company’s revenues coming domestically. The company maintains locations in nine countries in North America, Europe, and Asia, and its largest operations are in the United States, China, Malaysia, and Hungary.

Knowles Electronics is the oldest and most prominent Knowles business unit, but the Knowles family of companies, known as Knowles Electronics Holdings, comprises six business units. In addition to Knowles Electronics, these include Deltek, which provides microtechnology solutions; Emkay Innovative Products, a provider of acoustic solutions; Synchro-Start Products, a leader in innovative control technology used in industrial engines and mobile equipment; ElectroForce, which provides actuation products; and Ruwido, a provider of infrared applications.

In total, the business units combine to generate revenues in excess of $200 million annually. While the company has family roots and a history of family ownership (its founder, Hugh Knowles, accounts for its name), it has been owned since June 1999 by Doughty Hanson & Co, a private equity fund manager with diversified global holdings.

Michael Johns is a Melville, NY-based health care writer. He has served previously as vice president of a Fortune 1000 health services company, a senior associate at a leading health care consulting firm, and a White House speechwriter to former President George H.W. Bush.