An Evolution

Dim Jones addresses the evolving role of the Barco division, the Frederikstad, Norway, based projectiondesign.

Regaining Focus

A user judges the fidelity of a simulator by two yardsticks: does it handle and perform like the real aircraft; and does the world outside look as it should? The latter depends crucially on the quality of the projector. Dim Jones reports on organisational changes at Barco to refocus on the business basics of simulation projection. 

Although there are many companies manufacturing projectors for various applications such as entertainment and corporate audiovisual, there are few at the high end of the market where projection for simulation sits. One of them resides in Fredrikstad, a coastal town some 80 km south of Oslo, population some 75000 in winter and closer to 250,000 in the summer. projectiondesign was acquired by, and integrated with, Barco in 2013, but has continued to be an important design and manufacturing centre for projectors. I recently had the opportunity to visit Fredrikstad and see the organisation for myself.

This is a high-tech operation. Virtually all components for the projectors are manufactured on-site; very few are outsourced. One exception is the optics, pure-glass lenses which are manufactured in Japan, but to a very stringent specification. The first assembly step is the light engine, which is rigorously tested before being passed as suitable for incorporation. Stage by stage the projector takes shape, each stage monitored and quality-controlled until the finished product is ready for final testing, a process which takes between 12 and 18 minutes per item, depending on the complexity of the model. The efficacy of the process is demonstrated by the fact that the ‘FirstPassYield’ success rate is currently 94%.

The production line is only one part of the organisation. In order to keep abreast of advances in technology, and indeed lead them, the company has an extensive internal R&D department which designs and tests prototypes, and monitors the comparative performance of competitors’ products. New ideas are mainly driven through feedback from customers, with whom close ties are maintained, or can come from the workforce itself. One area of current research is solid-state illumination (Laser and LED), which provides significantly longer lifetime than conventional lamp-based products.

projectiondesign has been able to retain its own DNA as an integral part of Barco partly through geography, but primarily because the product lines were seen as complementary, rather than competitive. The projectiondesign portfolio for simulation (the F-series) is characterised by single-chip Digital Light Processing (DLP) projectors, whereas most of the SIM series – the equivalent Barco product line - use Liquid Crystal on Silicon (LCoS) technology. One significant difference between the companies at the time of acquisition was that, whereas projectiondesign was solely product-based, Barco was also involved in systems integration. This proved to be a bit more of a conflict in the simulation market than anticipated; some major simulator companies felt that it ‘muddied the waters’, and showed a little more reluctance to engage with Barco for fear of competition from the systems integration side. This ultimately led to a net decline in sales of the F-Series products.

In a major move, designed to focus the company on its key growth markets, Barco has now sold its Defence and Aerospace division to US conglomerate Esterline; at the same time Barco is withdrawing from the systems integration business to focus entirely on product manufacture. This effectively means that the Fredrikstad division becomes the simulation products arm of the company; Barco will continue to manufacture the SIM series of projectors in Belgium, custom-designed simulation-only products, but will supply them exclusively to Esterline. This arrangement does not preclude F-series projectors – a COTS product line which cuts across audiovisual and entertainment applications - also being supplied to Esterline for inclusion in their simulator applications worldwide.

Barco’s streamlined organisation now comprises 3 divisions: Entertainment (which includes Simulation); Enterprise; and Healthcare. With a sharper focus on its 3 core activities, the company’s immediate strategy in simulation is to re-establish a footing as a product-only company in the US and European markets, before turning its attention to Asia.

Norway is known as a high cost-of-living area; how, therefore, does Barco/Fredrikstad remain competitive? Dave Fluegeman, Barco’s new Vice-President Simulation, ascribes it to various factors: employing and retaining a highly-skilled and qualified workforce; outsourcing very little component manufacture, thereby keeping tight control over the manufacturing processes; limiting the supply chain, reducing risk and retaining the ability to respond quickly to customer demand; and stage-by-stage inspection and quality control, which result in very low rejection rates and warranty costs. Post-delivery customer satisfaction is enhanced by comprehensive product support arrangements. In sum, quality is the key, and it comes at a price; these are not commodity products for a commodity market.