Refocusing Plextek's design capabilities and services

3 min read

Nearly ten months into his role as CEO of electronics consultancy Plextek, Nicholas Hill has re-organised and refocused the company’s technical capabilities, with dedicated teams working across such areas as signal processing, communications systems, sensors systems and machine learning.

Hill was the company’s defence and security director before being appointed CEO. While in that post, he achieved a number of important milestones for the company in the defence market.

“Over four years, we became recognised as a trusted partner and a key innovator by the Centre for Defence Enterprise (CDE), which funds high risk research to develop capabilities for the UK’s defence and security space, as well as by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and by a number of leading Government agencies,” Hill explains.

According to Hill, operating in this sector requires ‘specific technical, commercial and market knowledge, as well as an intrinsic understanding of the defence business and the people who work in it’.

Interviewed last year, Hill also talked about the importance of bringing experiences derived from other sectors to the defence market. “It makes it so much easier to look at the ways in which the company is operating, where it isn’t and why and how it compares to its competitors.

“I never quite understood how people used to spend a lifetime within one company, because you simply don’t have the breadth of knowledge you would get from a more varied career.”

Hill has certainly ‘walked the walk’, with roles as a hardware and embedded software designer, systems engineer and company director across companies in the automotive, healthcare, scientific instrumentation and telemetry sectors.

Hill joined Plextek in 2007. “I joined primarily to work closely with an automotive client in Malaysia and did so for nearly three years.

“When I returned to the UK, it was as a project manager with a variety of clients. Plextek, as it was then, took a general approach to sales and marketing and I was among those who thought we would benefit from a more focused approach. To that end, I took on responsibility for the defence business and worked to build a series of long term relationships.

“While Plextek wasn’t exactly niche, it wasn’t a name that many people had heard of,” he admits. “We had to work hard to develop relationships with key players. Traditionally, we supplied ‘invisible expertise’ into these companies; generating ideas and looking to respond to the challenges and opportunities organisations face when working in this sector.

“We spent a good few years building the defence business and ended up with a reputation for developing bright and unusual solutions. We were involved with a number of successful CDE competitions and, last year, won our first Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) contract, which involves collaborating to develop advanced communications systems – that could be described as a slow burn activity.”

When it comes to defence, Plextek has five principal application areas: agile immersive training, which includes augmented reality technologies; bespoke communication systems; electronic warfare and survivability; low SWaP sensor systems for dismounted soldiers; and autonomous systems and resilient location, time and frequency technologies that provide enhanced location accuracy when GNSS is degraded or denied.

Defence, however, is just one area of the company’s expertise and Hill says his past experience will help him to grow the wider business and to nurture its innovative capabilities.

“We want to deliver solutions that meet the highest standards of robustness, reliability and ease of manufacture – whatever the technology market,” he says.

Revenue is currently growing at 20%, says Hill, and the company has increased its work with DSTL’s core research programmes significantly.

“We are, in essence, what I like to call an ‘innovations hub’. We work across a variety of sectors, which means we can transfer ideas, skills and experiences from one to another.

“Increasingly, it is about looking at different sectors and applying existing technologies in what could be called ‘unexpected ways’. There’s no need to re-invent the wheel and it is a benefit to our customers.”

Defence, under Hill, became one of the company’s key market sectors, incorporating security.

“From our perspective, the defence market has changed radically over the past 15 years. Then it was about creating innovative technology that could be developed for volume applications. Today, the defence industry is looking to the commercial world for ideas and innovations that can be re-tasked.

“At the component level, it’s about repurposing for defence. The key is that we are open to taking different approaches when it comes to solving problems – whether that’s in design or manufacturing.”

Since May, Hill has led a re-organisation of the business. “We have split security from defence and created a dedicated Security Group to tackle key security problems and to generate ideas and insight.

“We have also enhanced the medical group and work closely with established brands and innovative start-ups in terms of product development, proof of concept delivery, technology road mapping and concept development.

"When it comes to innovation, it is crucial that we look to other sectors and apply existing technologies in unexpected ways.”

According to Hill, using existing technology and applying it differently in disparate markets is not only cheaper, it also means ‘Plextek is not having to ‘re-invent the wheel’.

As a result, he believes this approach will enable the company to come up with better, smarter product designs and bring them to market more quickly.

Nicholas Hill
Currently CEO, Hill was Plextek’s director, defence and security, where he oversaw a significant growth in the company’s defence and security business, particularly in direct engagement with the MoD, DSTL and other government agencies.

Previous defence sector experience includes systems engineering for unmanned underwater vehicles and submarine wireless communications systems. Outside of the sector, he worked as a software designer, systems engineer and company director for companies across a range of industries.