World leaders – and growing

Local firms Forest Technology Systems and Daniels Electronics supply governments near and far.

They’re familiar sights along the roadways of North America: the green, yellow, orange, and red forest-fire advisory signs. Yet few of us stop to think about how forest-fire risk is measured. But now that Langford’s Forest Technology Systems (FTS) has begun telling its 30-year story — recently validated by a major contract win — that’s likely to change.

The company’s decision to raise its profile was, like most FTS decisions, a considered one. According to Eric Embacher, the company’s director of marketing, letting people know what they do is all part of the plan for growth.

“The whole idea of doing outreach … came about because we’re still trying to hire some really key talent, here,” he says. “We wanted to start looking across Canada, so [it’s a matter of] getting the word out … so that someone in, say, New Brunswick, who’s got the right mix of skills and talent, hears about us.”

FTS designs, manufactures, and maintains weather stations that monitor environmental conditions in remote and rugged locations across North America, providing forest services with reliable fire risk information. Several thousand FTS fire weather stations — a solar-powered mix of digital and analog sensors, connectors, touch-screen computers, computer components, and satellite transmitters all engineered to withstand extreme weather — dot the most inaccessible locations in Canada, the U.S., and Mexico. Among its fire weather clientele — which includes the B.C. Ministry of Forests, Lands, and Natural Resource Operations; the Canadian Forest Service; Parks Canada; and numerous U.S. federal and state agencies — FTS is already known as a world leader.

FTS is fast becoming a leader in its secondary division as well, developing robust sensors and stations for measuring water quality and quantity. For example, FTS systems monitor watersheds and drinking water reservoirs, including those in the Capital Regional District and Metro Vancouver. Last year, the company also won a contract worth $1.7 million to become the primary supplier of data loggers to the Water Survey of Canada, the federal agency responsible for monitoring Canada’s water resources. While the Water Survey will use FTS data loggers primarily with water-level sensors — for predicting floods, or the amount of fresh water available — Embacher notes that “the data logger is versatile enough that you can build a fire weather station with it, a meteorological station, or a hydrology station. It doesn’t care what sensors you plug into it.”

{advertisement} In fact, data loggers — devices that acquire, store, and transmit data gathered from various input sources — are the heart of all FTS systems, and they’re what the company has spent three decades refining. The first FTS data logger was developed by company founder Bill Cave, a Canadian Forest Service technician whose real-world experience continues to inform both the company’s approach to product development and its core value.

“What’s most important is that we achieve reliability,” says Embacher. “That’s what we’re known for. We learned early on that the fire community has a low tolerance for failure, because lives are in the balance.”

Decisions worth millions of dollars, such as pre-emptively moving firefighting equipment to areas at greatest risk, are also based on the data gathered by FTS weather stations. Then consider that just one visit to some of these far-flung sites can exceed the cost of a weather station, and it’s easy to see why there are many reasons for FTS to emphasize reliability. 

That emphasis is very much apparent, even as the company expands beyond core markets. Hydrology was one area carefully chosen for growth, allowing FTS to build on its strengths in a new but narrow niche. In hydrology, the plan is to develop expertise by working closely with Canadian customers and incorporating improvements through intensive R&D, much as FTS has already done in fire weather monitoring. As worldwide trends like climate change bring fire weather monitoring into the mainstream, growth is also planned by extending the company’s fire weather expertise into South Africa, Australia, and China.

But perhaps the biggest shift for FTS was the recent addition of a software component to its data logger, and key to that transition was finding leadership with software expertise. The development of the Axiom F6 data logger “really coincided with David coming on board,” says Embacher, referring to CEO David Illing, who joined FTS in 2008 following a career in consulting and telecommunications ventures in Boston, the Netherlands and, most recently, California’s Silicon Valley.

“David was actively involved in getting [the Axiom] to market. And now for the first time, here’s a traditionally hardware component with a very strong software piece to it.”

Embacher explains that most data loggers are hardware components; when clients want to change the frequency of data transmission, say, or program different measurement parameters, they must bring laptops along and plug them in. He says that was one of the main complaints from users, who reported that laptops just don’t perform well in typical field conditions.

FTS introduced the Axiom F6 data logger in 2009. Like its predecessors, the Axiom is completely impervious to moisture and extreme temperatures, but also includes an integrated computer with software and touch screen.

“We had to look high and low for just the right set of components. We had to properly vent the thing; we had to take extra steps to make it waterproof,” explains Embacher. “It was no easy feat, and ours was four years in the making. When we talk about 35 per cent of our revenues going into R&D, it’s these kinds of innovations that are the result.”

You could say the Axiom F6 exemplifies the tried-and-true FTS approach to product design and development, which fuses customer relationships and R&D into a culture of informed product improvement. As Embacher notes, FTS has already incorporated the Water Survey’s feedback into a redesign, with bigger buttons on the waterproof touch-screen interface.

“Our customers are very loyal, and our techs are very close to customers,” he says. “It’s a relationship, and we have a refined customer-listening process. Over 30 years, that has made us successful. We build what the customer wants.”

Emergency Networking

The path ahead for FTS is one familiar to Daniels Electronics, another Victoria company known in specialized circles for its rugged, reliable products, in this case base stations and repeaters for emergency first responder networks. While the company has been a fixture in Victoria since the mid-1950s, it reached a milestone for international sales in November when it signed a contract worth $2.7 million to provide its MT-4E P25 digital radio repeaters to Taiwan’s Civil Defence Command Center and its National Fire Agency.

“That’s a nice piece of business,” says vice-president Gerry Wight. “It’s not the largest contract we’ve won, but it’s certainly the biggest we’ve won outside of North America.”

This contract builds on the work Daniels started in 2001 with Harbinger Technology Corp., a systems integrator based in Taiwan. As Wight explains, Harbinger is responsible for assembling two country-wide communication networks that will help the Taiwanese government respond to civil emergencies, such as the typhoons that devastated the country in 2009.

“About 10 years ago, they approached us and said they were looking for the kinds of radios we made,” Wight says. “We did a couple of small things, and then about six years ago, we rolled out the first phase of a radio network for the National Fire Agency. That’s now going through this massive expansion in response to the typhoons, and they’ve actuall
y got a couple more phases planned in the next five or six years.” 

Wight notes that while Daniels and FTS focus on very different technologies, they share a similar business approach: “We’ve identified a niche. We both think we do it better than anybody in the world, and we capitalize on that and provide solutions that, quite frankly, nobody else can address. A lot of the high-tech companies in Victoria have identified that kind of differentiator to make them world-class against some very big companies.”