14 March 2012
Shipping orders: Interview with BEEAs winner Kevin Page
Last year's BEEAs Grand Prix winner tells Graham Pitcher about life in a small company.
Being a small company can be a blessing, but it can be a curse. While small may equate to agility, the presence of a large – maybe multinational – competitor could easily put you in the shade.
The secret is picking your market, as Kevin Page, managing director of 2011 British Engineering Excellence Awards Grand Prix winner ICS Electronics points out.
Page is managing director of ICS Electronics, which specialises in marine communications equipment. With just 10 employees, ICS competes with far larger companies in its quest to sell products to marine authorities around the world.
"It's an interesting market to work in," Page said, "but it's not massive. And things take a long time to develop. It's not unusual to get calls which say 'this quote from five years ago …'. That market pace is one of the things which keeps the bigger companies at bay."
ICS is a 30 year old company, originally set up by a pair of keen sailors, one of whom happened to be an amateur radio enthusiast. Page has been involved with ICS since 1990, when the consultancy he was running was asked to help with the design for ICS's Navtex receiver. "This was a device aimed at ships and leisure craft," Page said, "and that's when ICS started to take off."
With similar products already on the market, ICS was a late entrant. But a decision in 1993 by international organisations to make Navtex a mandatory fit for ships of more than 300tonnes provided a springboard. "The technology was new and cost effective," Page recalled.
That was the point where Page joined ICS. "We started looking at developing products for digital selective calling (DSC); which was planned to be made a mandatory fit in February 1999. Prior to DSC, if you wanted to send a distress call, it was a case of shouting 'mayday' on a distress channel and hoping someone would be listening."
With DSC, the user simply presses a button and the system sends an emergency message, complete with location information. "But we had to add DSC to existing voice radio systems onshore," Page continued. "And there was also the need to distribute radio traffic from stations around the coast to coordination centres."
ICS has maintained its market share in the marine communications market by keeping involved with the various legislative and governing bodies. "We're involved with the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) and its conferences, as well as with ITU, IEC and ETSI committees."
By playing a full role with its market, ICS has a good idea of what technical developments are coming up. "But we also get an opportunity to influence the way things are going. Attending conferences is also useful; you get to meet people from other countries who are specifying communications systems."
ICS hasn't always been independent. "In 2002, the founders were looking to exit," Page said, "and sold the company to a larger group with three divisions, including marine electronics. The marine mobile products were moved to another company, leaving ICS to concentrate on coast stations. Five years later, that division was broken up, we bought the business back and are building marine mobile products again."
Despite the fact that the marine communications business is slow moving, ICS needs to keep the technology up to date and one of its recent developments is to address voice over internet (VoIP). "It's one of the biggest areas of advance in the sector,"
Page noted. "Previously, we used analogue or digital switches which we bought in. But we had the opportunity to spend time developing our own VoIP solution and, once we had that and some gateway products, we could do a lot more things which weren't possible before – and at a reasonable price."
ICS' technology is upgraded continually. "Hardware and software improvements are made all the time, helped by the fact that we have yet to make two systems the same. Change is driven by the customer; if the changes they want are good, then they will become part of the core system."
As a small company, ICS not only needs to maintain relations with existing customers, but also to develop new ones. While much of its business is in larger systems, it is becoming interested in the leisure market. "While DCS was brought in to make distress calling easier," said Page, "it can be used for ship to ship communications. Each device has a nine digit ID, so you can call another station." He said that functionality didn't take off as well as it might have. "Early solutions were quite technical.
Now, they're more user friendly and more like mobile phones. In a new development, we're looking to integrate GPS, which makes the leisure market attractive."
Having said that, ICS recently exhibited at the London Boat Show and Page said it was the quietest show he'd been to. "But there's always a constant level of activity in the commercial market," he said.
Page is now involved in an IMO activity looking at the future for the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System. "It's been around for more than 20 years and there's a work programme looking at whether it can be updated. There are potential changes," he said, "but the wheels turn slowly in the IMO."
Winning the Grand Prix at the 2011 British Engineering Excellence Awards has made a difference at ICS. "The most significant effect was the impact on the staff," he concluded. "It was a big boost to their confidence and has motivated them to do more."
Kevin Page is managing director of marine electronics communications company ICS Electronics. Since joining the company in 1993, he has been developing and supplying radio communications products and systems for customers in the leisure, commercial and coastal search and rescue markets. Having been responsible for the development one of the first GMDSS coastal radio communications systems for the UK Coastguard in 1998, he has been influential expanding the business to more than 50 systems, deployed around the world.
His early career was as an embedded software designer and was responsible for product developments in the fields of textile processing, hydrography and hydrogeology.
As a member of CIRM – the International Association for Marine Electronics Companies – he has been a keen contributor to the development of standards through the International Maritime Organisation, ITU, ETSI and IEC.