August 2009 - Chris Lever Interview

Mil/Aero Insider: August 2009

Interview with Chris Lever

Managing Director / Business Leader Sensor Processing
GE Fanuc Intelligent Platforms

What are some of the sensor processing applications that GE Fanuc supplies products for?
Sensor Processing, as a business unit, is focused on several key application areas within the mil-aero market. For acoustic applications, we are focused on supplying high performance, high channel count data acquisition products for sonar sensor processing. In the radio frequency space, our products are utilized in signal intelligence, radar and tactical radio applications. We also have video compression products ideally suited for application in autonomous vehicles. Finally, we have recently broadened our market focus to now include medical imaging. Promoting our radio frequency digital receiver products to medical devise manufacturers, we have recently generated design wins in optical coherence tomography (OCT) applications.

What are most customers looking for when they assess their sensor processing needs?
The first consideration is, without doubt, time to market. Our customers are always looking to shorten their systems development timeline. However, they are also looking for a partner who understands the requirements of their applications. They need to have confidence that we will support them from both a technical perspective in the short run and product lifecycle management perspective in the long run. We call this customer intimacy and it is a core element in our Sensor Processing value proposition. Finally, our customers demand that we offer high quality products with the very best in analog performance. We summarize this in the Sensor Processing value statement: "product leadership, market focus and customer intimacy".

What are some of the new technologies and tools that are entering the sensor processing field? Will GE Fanuc take advantage of them?
Our products must provide leading edge capability in several areas. The first is the A/D and D/A converters since this is a key technology, where the dynamic range of the system is defined; we are always looking ahead to find the most innovative technology emerging in this area. For the software defined radio and radar markets, many applications require digital signal processing techniques to be applied immediately following the converter in order to limit the bandwidth of the signal. This enables it to be handled by the limited data transfer rates and computational capability of downstream buses and computers. We use leading edge FPGA technology for this purpose and are always striving to find the latest technology that will provide high capacity, high performance devices while allowing us to better manage space, weight and power consumption of our products.

A third area in which we seek improvements for both radio and acoustic products is that of bus technologies. The recent introduction of high speed serial buses such as those used in VPX and XMC allows us to achieve improved data transfer speeds to and from our digital receiver and high density acoustic products.

Is the sensor processing market growing?
There are a number of facets to the growth of the sensor processing market. We see inherent market growth as a result of advancement in analog to digital conversion technologies. More recently, implementation of software defined radio concepts has enabled development of applications in the digital domain rather than through use of expensive and inflexible analog equipment.

In addition, demand in our core target markets, such as signal intelligence is growing due the current nature of terrorist threats. Also, as emerging markets begin to develop indigenous defense electronics systems capabilities, they are increasingly looking to take advantage of the benefits and efficiencies of the use of commercial off the shelf (COTS) electronics products. Finally, we see growth in new vertical markets, such as medial imaging, that are now adopting open architecture product strategies in order to reduce time to market, lower cost and compete with disruptive technologies developed by new market entrants.

What global opportunities do you see for sensor processing products?
We have experienced continued growth of sales in our traditional markets in North America and Europe and more recently Israel. However, we have historically seen very little penetration in emerging markets such as India and China. Our experience and success in Israel has taught us that with focus and sustained effort, we can experience success in new target markets. As such, we are now implementing market development strategies for India and China. These two markets represent tremendous opportunity for us. In India, for example, the whole COTS initiative as experienced in the United States in the 1990’s is now beginning to take hold as companies and government agencies develop the capability to build and maintain defense platforms. In addition, supported by their economic growth, India is now investing significantly in defense infrastructure. We are planning for very significant growth in our business with a large part of this growth originating from sales to India and China.

What are the main challenges facing the Sensor Processing business from a marketing and technology perspective?
I have always been a firm believer that success is accomplished through passion and focus. As we position Sensor Processing for growth in new geographic markets and new vertical markets, we will need to find a balance between maintaining our focus while relentlessly pursing opportunities in these new growth markets. This is a challenge. However, I am confident that we will be successful, as our convictions are driven by our passion for growth of the business.

With respect to technology, we face continual challenge in staying ahead of the competition, especially in the radio market. We must continue to stretch our abilities to bring new high performance products to market. We must be efficient with our resources, especially for development of our board support packages and FPGA IP core development. While these areas are labor intensive, successful execution of a well thought out resourcing plan and product roadmap can provide differentiation and sustainable competitive advantage against our competition.