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The industrial Lego of automation

Advantech Australia celebrates 25 years of its ePlatform products and services. Santo Gazzo, General Manager; Andrew Deighton, Technical Manager; and Damian Trubiano, Sales Engineer, explain how their products can be like a LEGO for legacy systems.

This year marks the company’s global anniversary, but it hasn’t been around that long in Australia. What is the local history of the company?

Santo Gazzo: In 1989 I joined a company called Priority Electronics. The following year we started selling Advantech products, and their range was so good for us that it became 80% of our business. In 2001, Advan­tech made a very good offer to the then owner of the business and acquired the operations, and so Advantech Australia was born. It was a very good marriage combining our people resources and the market presence with Advantech’s global resources. Since then, the business has grown 190%, and looking at our first quarter figures for 2008 we are grow­ing at a rate of 18%. We expect that number to increase with many major projects in the pipeline. Much of this growth this year can be attributed to the new GIE global restructuring which is changing how we do business — opening up our worldwide offices to a global set of resources, in marketing, manufacturing and business support services.

How would you introduce Advantech to someone who doesn’t know it?

SG: When you look at our products you’ll see that we’re not in the same market as, for example, Siemens. We

don’t sell PLCs, although we do offer products that, similarly to PLCs, can be used for monitoring at a much

cheaper cost. We also have legacy products that help connect those ven­dors together. If you have a serial link

PLC and you need to connect it back into a networked system, we can pro­vide the interface linking the old with

the new if you like. You can look at it like a LEGO system, where we pro­vide those little bits and pieces to help

you put it all together.

Damian Trubiano: Another impor­tant point is the longevity of our prod­ucts; we can offer a minimum of three

to five years on any product that has been released.

SG: Our company is predominantly a PC-based manufacturer of industrial PCs. If you put a desktop computer in

an industrial environment, not only will it be affected by the environment, but if you run specialised software

and the computer fails, you might have to do some redevelopment. We can offer PC continuity of sup­ply, because our head office works directly with Intel, who determines which processors they’ll retain for the

industrial market and guarantee sup­ply to us for at least five years. Know­ing which processors will be available,

we design our new generation products around them. That is why we could be about six months behind the

latest processor boards, however more user friendly, because Intel needs to work out which ones they’ll keep so we can sit down and design the next generation boards.

What trends affect your offering?

Andrew Deighton: We have many customers that use legacy hardware because they follow an ‘if it’s not broken, don’t fix it’ kind of approach. Advantech needs to allow for legacy hardware, making sure new technolo­gies can interface with older technolo­gies; its all about compatability.

The trend is for people to network their existing products, but also incor­porate new technologies as needed.

For example, we supply bus to serial converters because there are PLCs out there running off serial ports, and

replacing them implies a huge cost. That’s where the converters come in handy, catering to all types of legacy

products. This way, the customer doesn’t need to redo a complete solu­tion that might cost $50,000; they can

get a $200 product to get them past the hurdle, solve the problem, and they can plan their major upgrades for

the future in a timely and economical­ly viable way.

SG: And there’s a trend that you see in many markets, a requirement to be connected to what we call the eWorld. Companies and products connect via worldwide databases/networks and there is an enormous demand for real-time information from anywhere around the planet. Currently we sup­ply to a company that uses our products in tractors, which pick up the harvest and send information about quality and quantity back to a website in real-time, where clients will be able to bid on the product that’s just been picked out of the ground.

Your top markets are medical, trans­port and industrial automation. How diverse are the applications?

DT: We have a broad base of system integrators that incorporate our products into areas like factories or min­

ing, where our AAU hardware is being used to monitor underground activi­ties and manage vehicle fleets via wire­

less communications. The Australian Water company is using UNOs and ADAMs to suck up ground water for use in dams, while agriculture compa­nies use a GPS computer system for harvesting, guiding the tractors and monitoring the fertilizer.

SG: We have industrial computers running at every train station in Mel­bourne, collecting and relaying ticket­

ing information back to the command centre in the CBD, and also at fire sta­tions in Sydney, where they automati­

cally switch off any gas/electric appli­ances when the firemen leave the building. Being an emergency, they sometimes leave things on, and they surely don’t want to return to a burn­ing depot!

What solutions do you have for indus­trial automation and mining?

SG: Our main offering consists of Panel PC for Human Machine Inter­face, and remote I/Os for monitoring and controlling. Mining is an interest­ing case for us because we don’t sell intrinsically safe products, but we have the ARK unit, a very compact, fanless computer system, which is used to monitor fleets of mining trucks and other vehicles at a mine.

Monitoring can increase efficiency, and we’re finding many more uses for these products in that sector. For equipment manufacturers, we have our System on Module (SOM), a PC system board that is plugged into cus­tomer’s system boards. The main idea is its interchangeability; it keeps down the cost and provides a wide range of solutions for the customer. It’s very small, about the size of a credit card.

How do you cater to specific needs?

DT: DTOS is our Design To Order Service for industrial boards and sys­tem platform; a one stop solution for

the customer, so they don’t have to add in the resources of an engineering department; they can leverage the

resources we have here. There’s also CTOS, the Configure To Order Ser­vice. We’re about to launch an online,

eStore, shopping facility, where cus­tomers will be able to pick and choose the parts they want, custom build, and get a quote instantly online, a first for the industrial markets.

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