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. MS&T’s 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 Norwegian 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.
From the first stage of the manufacturing process, warehousing and component distribution, it is clear that this is a high-tech operation. ‘Autostore’ is a Norwegian designed and built robot-operated storage and distribution facility that manages up to 11000 storage boxes of items and automatically delivers raw materials and parts in the correct configurations to the production lines one day in advance. It represents an investment of 17m Norwegian Kroner (at today’s rate, about $2.2m), can be expanded to meet increased demand, and can handle 360 storage box transactions an hour. One class of item that is not handled by Autostore is the circuit boards in order to avoid any stress, distortion or damage to them. The circuit boards and other components enter one of five production lines, each manufacturing a separate model of projector, and are populated with the necessary sub-components, using state-of-the-art machines – which represent an investment of a further $2.6m – at each stage being optically monitored for exact placement and alignment, and adjusted if not perfect. The PCB production line can place over 150,000 components an hour. Initial heating of the boards is achieved by vapour, rather than hot air, which allows a working temperature of 240oC (rather than 260o) thus reducing the risk of thermal stress on the components, and has excellent heat transfer capabilities because of the vapour; with the same aim of minimising thermal stress, some boards which require subsequent selective soldering of manual-mounted components also have the whole board pre-heated from top and bottom.
Virtually all components for the projectors are manufactured on-site; very little is outsourced. One exception is the optics, pure-glass lenses that are manufactured in Japan 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. The projection industry appears to be a very practical and open one; at trade shows, there is always keen interest in what the competition is doing, and how the various products match up. The R&D department at Fredrikstad tests and analyses competitors’ projectors, and accepts that the same happens in reverse. New ideas are mainly driven through feedback from customers, with whom close ties are maintained, or can come from the workforce itself. Design parameters of projectors always involve a trade-off between the brightness and resolution required, and the heat and noise generated. In order to maximise the former and minimise the latter, the R&D department includes both EMC and audio test laboratories, and an environmental test facility. A 3D printer can be used to manufacture development components. 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, ultimately leading 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. The 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 three divisions: Entertainment (which includes Simulation); Enterprise; and Healthcare. With a sharper focus on its three 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. The competition to Barco’s F-Series from other companies varies across the spectrum of products; these competitors include Sony and JVC in Japan, UK-based Digital Projection, and Christie in the US.
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.