Executive Tech Interview:
As we finished our telephone interview acquainting me to rugged systems supplier PCI-Systems, I asked company president Claus Gross what best summed up his mission statement. You know, the old “elevator” pitch one-liner. He paused on the long-distance Skype call from Israel where it was nearly 10pm, and replied: “We’re changing common thinking.”
Then he a paused and added: ”Rugged systems to the bone. As in the George Thorogood song.” Guess The Destroyers were popular in Germany; who knew?
This cleanly sums up the man’s personality as his company, which was founded in 1995 conducting stress corrosion cracking tests on pipelines, constantly tries to push the state of the art in embedded systems engineering. From automated corrosion test systems PCI-Systems moved into data acquisition, then into standards-based small form factors (SFFs) to become the sixth (6th) original member of the PC/104 Consortium. Their love affair with PC/104 ended soon thereafter as Claus discovered customers couldn’t deal with the dangling cables and I/O challenges of stackable ISA-based boards.
Thus began his epic quest for better open standards.
Claus next turned to PICMG’s CompactPCI and soon discovered a niche in conduction-cooled boards. At the time 6U VME was the de facto rugged conduction-cooled board type, but companies like PCI-Systems and then-SBS (later acquired by GE) found ways of ruggedizing the tidy, small 3U cPCI boards. These efforts lead Claus to design chassis for their boards and also discover better ways of cooling them. Along the way, PCI-Systems discovered that the real value they brought to the market wasn’t another PC/104, CompactPCI, or even VPX single-board computer (SBC), it was in the systems design. And in particular, the chassis.
My first interaction with Claus was probably in 2011 when he unveiled his microATR chassis concept to the VITA Standards Organization (VSO), a proposal that would later become VITA 73. (Refer to the article “The smaller VITA 73 Small Form Factor“.) Brash and self-confident, Claus entertained, brow-beat, wowed and irritated the group of about 50 VSO members as he described his vision for turning a 2.5-inch SSD form factor into a set of conduction-cooled cards with more useable density than VITA’s own 3U VPX. Clearly Claus has no patience for what he implied was “dumb” engineering. Still hates it.
Today, the self-funded family company (the author of our article mentioned above is Ben Gross) employs about 25 people, with some design and operations in Sunnyvale, California, manufacturing near Frankfurt, Germany, and the core of design near Kiev in the Ukraine. PCI-Systems is impressive because the company focuses on what it does best–hardcore (dare I say “bbad to the bbone?”) mechanical and signals engineering–while sticking other company’s boards into their slots when there’s no value-add for PCI-Systems.
Q7 SBCs from Congatec are a favorite, freeing Claus to focus on uniqueness such as the patent-pending “3D stacking fabric backplanes”, special wedgelocks, a new VPX connector to replace the allegedly vibration-prone MultiGigRT2 wafer connector (Claus says they’re working with defense prime DRS), and soon a mechanical design for safe lithium-ion batteries.
As PCI-Systems starts to rack up mechanical and systems design wins, Claus isn’t toning down the rhetoric when he sees “dumb designs”. As our interview time waned, he railed on about how he’s flying over 100,000 miles per year for business “with my butt over Boeing lithium-ion batteries“, implying he’s as concerned as the rest of the world with the volatility of battery chemistry.
But unlike most frequent fliers, Claus is set to do something about it. PCI-Systems is destined to soon propose new versions of VITA 62 (power supply standard) and VITA 77.x (VPXi chassis) designed to safely cool and electrically isolate lithium-ion batteries. His message: the batteries should be broken down into smaller cells that can be conductively cooled and managed best for safety.
He’s promised to share with us his latest mechanical design as soon as it’s ready. And I’m sure he won’t be bashful about why his battery standard is the best one. So far his track record is pretty darned good.