Abaco Brings “Start-up” Focus to Former GE Intelligent Platforms Embedded Business

Editor’s note: GE Intelligent Platforms acquired SBS Technologies and Radstone PLC around 2006. Previously, both SBS and Radstone had been on buying sprees, wolfing down Ramix, VMIC, Bit3 and other long-standing COTS companies whose names now seem largely forgotten. The sale of the GE Intelligent Platforms rugged embedded computing business to Veritas Capital closed in December 2015. Headquartered in Huntsville, AL, Abaco has 700+ employees and “a few hundred million dollars” in revenue.

When I first tried writing this story describing the transition from GE Intelligent Platforms to the standalone company called “Abaco” (rhymes with “Abba”, like the ’70s rock group), I at first didn’t get the “religion” that anything would be really different. This despite listening to Director of Marketing Rubin Dhillon, Marketing Manager Susan Anderson, and Communications Manager Ian McMurray describe the initiatives. Then Rubin suggested I sit down with Abaco’s new president, Bernie Anger. Anger was a long-time GE executive (17 years) that decided to get spun off with Abaco and now heads up the new company. Through discussions and probing “why should we care?” questions with Anger (who prefers to be called “Bernie”), a picture emerges of just how the new “start-up” company called Abaco is planning on shaking up the COTS defense market. Edited excerpts follow from several interviews.

— Chris A. Ciufo, Editor

Chris A. Ciufo “C2”: How’s business?

Bernie Anger

Bernie Anger, Abaco Systems

Bernie Anger: It’s a great time to be part of Abaco Systems. Our customers are a “who’s who” of defense and other industry-leading companies. We are a start-up company with a 30-year track record for excellence at a time when customers are pushing for change. Most recently, we’ve been mentored and managed by one of the best companies in the world—General Electric. We’ve got customers, programs and design wins all over the world. And most importantly, we’re ready to keep doing many things right and other things a lot better. We’re executing to a plan. Even If you just check our website you’ll see a big difference in how we are approaching things.

C2: What’s changed or different?

Bernie: First, let me talk about what is not different: our boards business will remain a significant and important part of our business for a long time to come. That said, the COTS [defense] industry is ready for a change; we’ve all been servicing our customers mostly the same since commercial off-the-shelf came around 20 years ago. In fact, we believe the industry is ready for evolution by increasing the level of COTS at the systems level—all part of delivering a “better buy.”

Assume for a moment that everything the customer currently expects remains at a baseline. This includes quality, ruggedization level, adherence to military specifications, and bringing the latest civilian technologies—as applicable—to the military and aerospace markets. Abaco sees a need to provide these customers and their programs more than what the industry offers today.

Woven throughout our website is the message that we plan to increase the integration level of COTS systems to make it easier for designers to create, test and deploy rugged systems. We see customers who want a faster time-to-market [TTM] or time to solution and a reduced total cost of ownership [TCO] for electronic system platforms. We think we have the right set of ideas to make more complete, integrated subsystems happen faster, at higher Technology Readiness Level [TRL] and lower overall risk.

C2: Several times you’ve pointed us to the new website. Summarize it for us: what is the big take-away message?

Bernie: The big take-away is that the website, like the rest of Abaco Systems, is 100% dedicated to our rugged embedded computing business. In the past, when we were part of a larger organization, it could be frustrating for our customers to find what they were looking for. That’s no longer the case —it’s now much easier for them to navigate. What we do is front and center, and it talks uniquely to the needs of our customers. That’s really exciting for us. We also wanted to make a bold statement about how we were going to run Abaco. That is where the whole “We Innovate; We Deliver; You Succeed.” tagline comes from.

What does that mean? Let’s take “innovate.” In a world of open architectures and industry standards, it’s easy to believe that all products and vendors are pretty much the same. But what I’m hearing from customers is that they’re facing tough problems, and they need more—much more—than just plain vanilla solutions, so we are pushing the teams to do both … Conform to standards and provide customers with their own secret sauce. We are also pushing the innovative spirit inside the company, encouraging all functions to re-look at our process and tools and innovate as needed to better serve customers.

Then, there’s “deliver.” Our industry works on tough problems, and very often that translates into the inability to deliver on-time even with long lead times. So a big part of our focus revolves around how we solve this in a sustainable way.

Finally, we talk about “succeed.” Quite simply, we believe that if we can innovate, and if we can deliver, our customers will succeed. They’ll succeed in reducing program risk, program cost and time-to-market. They’ll have a competitive edge. And if our customers succeed, we’ll succeed along with them. To make this real we are changing the whole ethos of our company, our whole philosophy so that the only metrics we’ll apply revolve around our ability to satisfy customers. It’s hard to overstate what a fundamentally different way of doing business that is.

As we break out of GE into a standalone and fully dedicated organization, we are making sure that customers know that every aspect of our business, from our culture, our business offices, to our view of the customer is “refreshed” to make our mission clear and real.

C2: I’ve heard your strong beliefs are galvanizing your staff and Abaco’s direction.

Bernie: Everyone in Abaco knows that my single strongest belief is that we take care of our customers. We do right by them. We do what we say we will, when we say we’ll do it. We live up to our promises and commitments. If we take care of our customers the way they want to be taken care of, everything else falls into place. To keep ourselves honest, we are ensuring that our core set of metrics is the one that reflects the customer experience with us.

Being unambiguous about delivering for customers as top priority also helps the organization make decisions in a more nimble and responsive way. Our team is learning that when a decision delivers for customers there is little pushback, even when there are differences of opinion on how to get things done.

The third area we are pushing is all around proactive behavior. I am a huge fan of the principles in the “Toyota Way.” Our aim is for Abaco to become a poster-child of proactive behavior. How do I define “proactive culture” … simply as a culture that looks at every defect as an opportunity to define, and put in place, countermeasures against the future occurrence of like defects. If we do that systematically, we will serve customers better.

C2: Will Abaco focus strictly on defense, unlike GE Intelligent Platforms before?

Bernie:  Even while we were part of GE, we knew that our rugged products and expertise in creating embedded computing solutions for harsh environments was highly applicable to markets beyond defense—markets like energy exploration, heavy industry, transportation and so on. Today about 20% of our business comes from applications outside of defense and we want to grow that. Don’t get me wrong: for the foreseeable future, defense is going to be our biggest market, and our focus on it will be undiminished. But: we’ll be looking more actively to see how we can help other classes of customer benefit from what we do and what we know.

C2: Whom do you consider your biggest competitors? How will you differentiate?

Bernie: Our competitors haven’t changed from who they were. Most of them advertise in this publication. Your question on differentiation is a good one, and it’s tough to give you a definitive answer, as we all learn from each other and keep evolving how we serve customers. That said, our current focus is twofold: providing excellence in customer service and advancing the state of the art in COTS systems. We will take advantage of our new status as a stand-alone 100% focused company to move the ball forward at speed.

C2: Standard practice in defense business is to lock in a customer with something proprietary. Everyone from the government—the ultimate end customer—down to the smallest supplier does it. It’s S.O.P. What’s Abaco’s take?

Bernie: You mentioned differentiation earlier. I’m not sure you’re right about our industry locking customers in with proprietary offerings. Our customers are way too smart for that. They know as well as we do what the advantages of COTS, industry standards, open architectures and so on are—and those things are only becoming more important to them.

Sure, we’ll be looking to differentiate our offering, to innovate in ways that our customers value. But will those innovations lock them into Abaco artificially? Absolutely not. We need our customers to work with us because they want to—not because they have to.

C2: What are you doing to improve time-to-market?

Bernie: We are approaching this one from different angles. Beyond boards, we continue to invest in a series of pre-packaged, pre-validated and pre-certified solutions with various degrees of customization. For a certain range of applications that makes a ton of sense, as it allows customers to focus on the bigger picture, which is where their area of expertise lies.

Beyond that, though, I’m pretty much convinced that software is one of the keys. After you’ve plugged boards together and made them work, it is time to get the highest value out of that package, and that’s the function of software. One of the big attractions of open architectures and industry standards is the plethora of software tools out there that are designed to make that development easier.

But our customers still need more, and we think, in our AXIS software development environment, we have the ‘more’ that they need. It’s specifically designed to speed, de-risk and lower the cost of developing complex, sophisticated, multiprocessor high performance embedded computing solutions. And it really, really works. Customers love it. Even better for them: it doesn’t have to lock them into us.

With both subsystem-level solutions and software, you can expect to see us putting a lot more weight behind what we can offer to help our customers reduce time to market.

C2:  The COTS trend from boards to boxes to systems is nothing new. What is Abaco going to do differently?

Bernie: With systems, you have to be more deliberate about the applications where you’re going to package more content. We’ve been doing this for a while in the areas of electronic warfare [EW], mission computing and in ISR. We’ll be combining these segments into application platforms where size, weight and power [SWaP] matters—such as in mobile applications. Not accidentally, Abaco has the right combination of products and software in these areas for mobile platforms.

This isn’t new, of course, but we are making available a “rainbow” of boards and components and enclosures that aren’t engineered for a purpose but are targeted for those applications  [mentioned] where we can make a difference. Today, our bag of tricks and our experience putting them together promise to do this for customers better than ever before— and that will give them a better buy.

C2: Can you define “better buy”?

Bernie: We use the term to get ourselves calibrated around the Better Buying Power initiative from the DOD. For us, it is all about lowering the total cost of assembling and maintaining a military platform by leveraging commercial off-the-shelf components. This reduces the customer’s development, deployment and support costs.

We then carry that type of thinking into our Product Lifecycle Management offerings. We’ve pioneered helping customers navigate obsolescence problems and have continued doing so for close to 30 years. PLM is still supporting programs that were first deployed a couple of decades ago. We expect components to go obsolete; that’s the nature of COTS and the defense lifecycle. Having proactively watched the component aging process for a long time, we’ve been able to predict what IC suppliers might do before they even do it.

C2: What IP is Abaco getting from GE?

Bernie: We certainly have access to the full suite of GE intellectual property that we had when we were GE Intelligent Platforms. This ensures none of our delivered programs or in-process programs are compromised. That said, we have the full ability to create relevant intellectual property within the walls of Abaco. Our team is coming up with some really, really clever ideas.

C2: Bernie, I was told that it’s because you are not a technology executive that you bring the aforementioned unique perspective to Abaco. That is: you’re a fresh voice to the industry.

Bernie: [Laughs.] Thank you for that, but I’m not sure I am that new to technology. I am new to running a “pure play embedded” company. I’ve actually had many technology stints in my career both at and before GE. My first job a long, long time ago was designing high-speed test and measurement systems, and I lean a bit more on the software side than on the electronics side.

Perhaps my “freshest” approach is that I expect to see a direct link between what we’re doing and the customer. If that link doesn’t exist, then we shouldn’t be doing whatever it is we are doing.

C2: Any last comments that you’d like to make?

Bernie: I want to say is how exciting it is—how excited we are—to have the opportunity to build a new company from the ground up. We see opportunities to innovate in the rugged embedded computing industry, and we see a real opportunity for Abaco to make a difference. We’ve got a huge advantage: a start-up that has 700+ skilled people, counts the foremost military organization among its customers, has a presence in a huge number of high profile programs and, under a different name, was hugely respected in the industry. So we have the energy of a start-up combined with the gray hair of an industry veteran and the resolve to become great at serving customers. I’d say that bodes well for us, and likely for the industry as well.

This article was sponsored by Abaco Systems.

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