Executive Interview: Jim Liu, CEO, ADLINK
As ADLINK prepares to celebrate a 20-year anniversary, its CEO remarks on how much has changed in the industrial, defense, transportation, telecommunication and medical industries it serves—yet how much opportunity remains for the growing company.
In January 2015 I was asked by ADLINK executives to provide an embedded market overview at the company’s annual Sales Conference. While my observations of the market—and the company—didn’t all find favor with ADLINK’s executives, it did earn me the opportunity for some 1:1 time. Presented below is an excerpted and edited interview with ADLINK’s CEO, Jim Liu.
Per Jim and the company’s website, ADLINK’s core business is building industrial computers that fulfill different vertical markets with special differentiated features while targeting major infrastructure industries such as defense, transportation, telecommunication and medical. The company is impressive in the breadth of products and industries, as well as the amount of developed-in-house IP such as its SEMA Cloud for M2M/IoT.
Chris A. Ciufo (C2), Editor
C2: Tell me about ADLINK’s 20-year anniversary. What an accomplishment!
Jim: Actually, in those 20 years, a milestone even for a human being, that means that you have gone from being a kid to becoming mature. But even at 20 years we are still a young company compared with most of the big companies. We’re having a large celebration next month in Taiwan and are including our customers, key vendors, some of our sales reps, plus some of our distributors or system integrators. We are going to thank them for their close relationships and talk about the future opportunity with us. Our slogan “Building Forward Together” is aimed towards the next 10 or 20 years.
C2: Even though you humbly describe ADLINK as a “young” company, what changes have you seen during these 20 years?
Jim: Okay, so the first [change] deals with customer outsourcing. Before, all industries and most of our customers used to build everything from scratch. 20 years ago they had their own [silicon] components and they built their board and platforms, added their software, and provided the whole system. But the big change is how more and more companies today are focused on their core competence.
The second change is how companies are now seeking to leverage their partners to get more and more out of their out-sourcing strategies. Most of our customers are looking for trustworthy and reliable partners who can offer reliable and intelligent platforms. I think they realize that some parts of the system they sell are not in their core competence—that’s where ADLINK and others come in.
Another component of this goes to customization, which we define as low volume, high mix. This kind of volume is not big, but the mix is getting more and more complicated, and customers need lifecycle management. They also need customization, so they can focus on their core competencies. This is another trend that we have seen in the past few years.
C2: Are these changes regional? That is…more common in the West?
Jim: In the United States, and also in Europe, this is quite significant. Especially in the U.S., most of the customers very clearly understand what their core competence is. And they also understand the need for reliable outsourcing. In Europe, we’ve only seen it over the past five years. Companies in Germany, and some of the companies in France and in the U.K., are very industry-focused and vertically focused.
But things are different in emerging markets in places like Asia, China, or Japan. Japanese companies, for example, are really quite conservative. But if they want to compete in the global market, they realize they have to speed up. So the outsourcing and “trust” trend has also happened in Japan, but more slowly.
In places like China or some other countries in Asia, they just build everything from scratch. They try to copy an idea from some of the tier one guys in the U.S. or in Europe. So I don’t think they have any chance to design everything by themselves. So they also come to us, looking for computer systems that will offer solutions.
C2: What are the top technology changes you’ve seen over the past 20 years?
Jim: One of the more interesting trends is mobile: everybody believes they need more and more mobile devices. They’re not just for personal use, nor are they just for voice communication. Secondly, the technology is becoming more and more intelligent.
Everybody talks about Internet of Things, and these “things” have become smarter and more intelligent. So you will find that the smartphone is not just a phone: it has become smarter, right?
So my answer is mobility, and smarter mobile “things.”
C2: So following on that, what are the top three technologies that are still needed to achieve ADLINK’s continued growth? These technologies may or may not already exist.
Jim: ADLINK lives in the middle of the food chain; we provide reliable and intelligent platforms that fit in all areas and at all integration levels of various types of systems. The number one technology need is for more edge computing requirements. This is a booming market. The reason is not all data can be pushed to “big data” residing in the cloud-based data center. But sooner or later—and we believe sooner—the requirement is that everybody will want immediate or instant information. This means more edge-based processing.
One example is the need to download high definition video. No matter how fast your bandwidth—even with next-generation 5G technology—you need to push the data down a pipe. We can take some load off of the network [5G pipe] by putting more and more computing and intelligence in the field and at the edge. This is a key technology and trend that will affect ADLINK’s business.
C2: Okay, so what’s another trend? That’s the first one.
Jim: IoT stands for the Internet of Things. That means that everything is going to use the Internet for connectivity; that is fundamental. But I argue that “IoT” is the “Intelligence of Things.” Think about the industry trend where every industrial machine, every vending machine, and everything else becomes smarter. So, if you want to have smart equipment or smart machines, what is the most important element? The intelligence part requires software inside the machine, but it needs a very powerful computer to execute this software. Combining software and hardware together, the machine is smarter and intelligent. This is my interpretation of the IoT opportunity.
This exactly aligns with ADLINK’s strategy. As you know, ADLINK is one of the premier partners with Intel in the IoT Alliance. In the next 10 years, the Intel sphere will still be very strong in CPUs, especially in high computing power CPUs. We’ll continue to collaborate with Intel, so we know how to leverage the Intel CPUs to fulfill a different vertical market or different industries with different requirements.
C2: ADLINK’s SEMA Cloud is an example of technology your company had to develop in order to meet requirements. What might you need to create in order to meet your next few years’ plans?
Jim: We are asking ourselves: what is the differentiation between ADLINK and other vendors who also can provide a similar platform to the customer? As you mentioned, ADLINK is not just focusing on hardware as we move more and more from hardware to the intelligent platform.
We’ll need to provide the firmware, and some middleware to make it easy for the customer to adapt [their] application on the top of the system.
On the processor side, we are not going to compete with Intel, but there is a need to connect to external machines via an interface between the CPU and the machine. We see a need for FPGAs and the focus for ADLINK in the near future is how we can provide more and more software inside the FPGA to enable machine-to-machine communication. We don’t want our customers to worry about or be troubled by the hardware needed to connect our new machines to their legacy systems.
C2: ADLINK participates in a lot of standards. Can you pick one or two standards that you think will have the biggest impact on the future and then talk about what ADLINK is doing in that area?
Jim: The first one is OCP, the Open Compute Project. The OCP Foundation did a tremendous job leading their strong community in growing and innovating the most efficient server, storage and data center hardware designs for scalable computing. ADLINK has been an OCP member since 2013, and we are actively participating in the engineering working groups, such as the Telco Working Group, to get involved with the latest development of this exciting open standard for rack scale architecture, as well as to leverage our own vision of the industrial hybrid cloud infrastructure within the foundation.
Secondly, we still think about how we can put more intelligence inside small form factor computers while maintaining reliability and longevity. I’m speaking about adding more monitoring capability, value prediction and diagnostics. Those kinds of capabilities only exist in very high end products, like military platforms. But now we are going to add this kind of capability to industrial platforms without customers having to spend a lot of money. These kinds of capabilities are going to be embedded or adapted to the entire Internet of Things.
C2: A year or so ago, ADLINK bought Penta, which brought in medical panel PCs as well as a lot of great technology, including ruggedization and ingress protection technology. To realize your vision going towards smaller form factors, rugged, and moving up the software stack into middleware, what type of company or type of technology might you need to go shopping for?
Jim: Actually this is a really sensitive question.
But I think to align with our strategies, ADLINK’s goal is to focus on the most extreme rugged platforms and to provide the most reliable equipment for harsh environments. Today ADLINK already has a bunch of reliable and wide temperature building blocks, such as the panel PC CPU monitor from Penta that you mentioned.
There might be companies out there who are system integration experts or who are mechanical experts, and we’d examine how we [could] align with them to provide application-ready platforms. Most of these companies are in the United States.
Besides ruggedization, I mentioned that we are going to make the machine smarter, not just from the hardware/CPU standpoint, but also with middleware and software. So we might be interested in acquisitions of these kinds of companies, especially in Germany due to capabilities in industrial automation and “Industry 4.0” and smarter machines or the smart factory.
You know, even five or ten years ago, everybody talked about the industrial computer of the future, but nobody really understood what that meant because every product was just embedded in some way. But now I think especially with IoT and Industry 4.0, everybody is talking about smart in major functions for transportation, for cities…for everywhere. This is a really tremendous opportunity to expand our business and show our capabilities.
It’s ADLINK’s vision to build the most trustable, reliable platform to make all these things more intelligent and smart. This is a great opportunity for my company.
This article was sponsored by ADLINK.
Chris A. Ciufo is editor-in-chief for embedded content at Extension Media, which includes the EECatalog print and digital publications and website, Embedded Intel® Solutions, and other related blogs and embedded channels. He has 29 years of embedded technology experience, and has degrees in electrical engineering, and in materials science, emphasizing solid state physics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.