Technology Crossovers

In the current climate, tech companies have to be alert to opportunities for cross-sector re-use.

My favourite CD at the moment is Dark Hope, by Renée Fleming.  She is of course an opera diva, but that hasn’t stopped her from dropping a couple of octaves and producing a stunning album in the smooth jazz genre.

Similarly with technology companies.  There’s no reason why a company that operates mainly in aerospace and defence can’t find an outlet for its skills and experience in other market sectors.  A case in point is Critical Software Technologies, which is making inroads into the renewable energy market with technology that it has been working on in the helicopter industry.

Our customer, a leading helicopter manufacturer, found that its major customers were demanding a shift in how their mutual business was transacted.  Whereas in the past, the contracts had been all about selling helicopters, now they were all to be about selling helicopter operating hours.  Ownership of the aircraft remained with the manufacturer, who now became also an operator.  This naturally changed the risk model, and meant that maintenance, logistical support and the supply chain could no longer be managed on a timed-interval basis.  To reduce risk, streamline the supply chain and improve profitability the manufacturer had to get to grips with predictive condition-based maintenance (CBM).

This new methodology had to be integrated into every area of its business, and this meant a big change for us too, as we had hitherto been involved in trying to refine many of the aircraft manufacturer’s advanced logistics management information systems.

The new requirement called for the implementation and integration of an advanced CBM solution that would enable entire fleets of aircraft to be remotely monitored.   Health and Usage Monitoring Systems (HUMS) have been around for a while of course, but now they move more to centre stage with maintenance schedules being responsive not only to actual usage but also to environmental and other conditions being encountered in service.  Previously, fixed maintenance schedules all too often resulted in expensive maintenance procedures being carried out when they may well have been unnecessary, simply because the schedule called for them.  With accurate sensing and recording of vibration, stress and temperature levels encountered during actual operations, it becomes possible to carry out expensive maintenance when it’s required, and not before.

The renewable energy market, in particular offshore wind energy, has at least its rotor blades as an obvious point of commonality with the helicopter market, but beyond that the similarities are harder to spot.  Nevertheless, we realised that the maintenance issues associated with offshore wind farms exhibited much the same challenges as had arisen for helicopter fleets.  The major items of plant involved are seriously expensive and so there are obvious advantages in being able to postpone their replacement if at all possible.

Even checking the equipment out in situ is expensive as it involves the employment of engineers with offshore work cards and qualifications, including divers.  It was our involvement in an Artemis research project into wide-area networked sensing that enabled the company to come up with a remotely monitored predictive CBM solution that is now generating a lot of interest among wind farm operators.  A classic example of a technology crossover from an established market to one that is emerging.

The Artemis research project has actually shown that these crossovers are not one-way traffic.  We are taking this technology, which involves networks of smart sensors distributed over many square kilometres, into the military and security environments where it is proving its worth in securing wide areas against hostile intrusions.  Not only does it have obvious applications in war zones such as Afghanistan, but also in the anti-terror operations that must be planned to ensure that the 2012 Olympics are not compromised.

The moral of this story is that, especially in times when new business is hard to come by, companies must be imaginative and flexible.  It is not enough for them simply to be innovative in their core markets.  They must broaden their thinking so that they may find new ones that previously they may not have even dreamt of.  This approach is essential not only for companies’ survival but also for the growth of the private sector economy that the government is relying upon to beat the current economic crisis.

A version of this article was published in the March 2011 issue of Design Solutions and there was further coverage variously by Technology Marketing Corporation, High Beam Research and IT Showcase.

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