October 2001

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Build It Fast, Build It Well

Gas Detection Leader BW Technologies Fast-Tracks Its Way To the Prestigious Westaim Manning Innovation Award

Freelance Writer

When BW Technologies Ltd. entered the bidding to build a carbon monoxide detector for a major U.S. test tool manufacturer a few years ago, the Calgary company was several months behind its international competitors. A mere six weeks later, it had an attractive, usable prototype in hand -- while the frontrunners could only muster drawings. Not surprisingly, BW landed the prestigious contract with Fluke Corporation.

"Typically, we can develop a new product in about six months. Some take as little as six weeks," says senior design engineer Sean Costall, P.Eng. "We can usually modify an existing product in one to three months."

Speed, innovation and doing whatever it takes to meet customers' often demanding needs are the hallmarks of BW Technologies' rapid rise to preeminence among the world's manufacturers of gas detection equipment. Now, the company has the added prestige of the Westaim $5,000 Manning Innovation Award to add to its resume, the national awards program announced Sept. 18. The company received its award Oct. 1 in Calgary.

First Disposable Detector

"We are considered the technology leaders in the industry. A lot of the industry is copying what we are doing," says Barry Moore, vice-president of product development. "We were the first company to develop a disposable, maintenance-free gas detector. It took a while to get market acceptance, but everybody in the business is now doing it."

In 1987 Cody Slater, the company founder and president, developed the Rig Rat, the first wireless hydrogen sulfide detector for the oil and gas industry. Since then BW has been introducing at least one major new product a year to industrial and now commercial markets; its annual research and development budget is now $2 million. With major distribution networks established in North America and Europe, the Toronto Stock Exchange-traded company has nearly doubled its annual revenues to $28 million in the past two years alone.
To accommodate this rapid growth, the company has just moved its 100 Calgary employees into a new, 33,000-square-foot building in the city's northeast.

Rapid product development and refinement are, quite obviously, one reason for BW's success. They come thanks to such things as 3-D computer-aided design, stereo lithography construction of prototypes and a fast-track approach to design. "The mechanical and electronics design, the user interface and the ergonomics are all done at the same time," says Mr. Moore. "We don't develop the electronics first, then wrap it in an enclosure. Those things are done simultaneously."

Bulky Boxes Begone

Not that anything suffers. Ergonomics and attractive enclosures, in fact, are another longstanding BW trademark, a departure from the bulky boxes that once dominated the gas detection business. The company has won several industrial design awards for its distinctive yellow-and-black products.

BW also strives to work smarter. Rather than develop its own complex and expensive battery system for its portable GasAlertMax detector, the company opted for a rechargeable Black and Decker VersaPak battery, which can be purchased off the shelf for about $10. Similarly, it is incorporating flash memory cards into the latest, data-logging version of the GasAlertMax which detects the presence of carbon monoxide, explosive gases, hydrogen sulphide and oxygen.

By such means, BW has managed to keep its prices below those of the competition, while still offering feature-rich products that are easy to use.

"One of the things we identified early on was the need to reduce the cost for the end-user as much as we can. That has made a huge difference for us," says Mr. Moore. "Eliminating the number of components in a product and picking the appropriate means of production are other ways of driving costs out of the final product. For example, we use injection moulding to manufacture our portable products because the volumes justify it."

Another cost and time saver for BW is to resist the urge to reinvent the wheel every time it develops a new product. A recently released furnace efficiency instrument, the Gas Probe, is built on the same mechanical platform as the GasAlertMax, which in turn replaced an earlier four-gas detector called the Defender.

Initially, the Gas Probe was supposed to be a slight variation on the GasAlertMax. But the British client kept changing the specifications, and BW ended up with a new product, after producing a prototype in about three months. While BW was the runner-up among 14 companies vying for the contract, it later landed a $700,000 deal with another British company, Heating Replacement Parts and Controls.


Gas Probe also allowed BW to diversify from its oil and gas roots into the lucrative heating, ventilation and air conditioning market. "There are some pretty big and growing industrial markets we can hit with our hazardous gas detection equipment," says Mr. Moore, noting it is a US $1-billion-a-year industry. "A lot of the growth is driven by tougher safety legislation in Europe and North America."

Further diversification has come with the launch of Toxypoint, which monitors carbon monoxide levels in underground parking garages. "It's a maintenance-free product that can run three years without calibration. At the end of its life, you change it just like a light bulb," says Mr. Moore. "A lot of existing equipment is not very accurate. In winter, a lot of parking garages unnecessarily exhaust warm air full-time because their safety equipment is not working properly. We can build a higher-end product and reduce costs, without affecting performance."

As one of a half dozen engineers working for BW, Mr. Costall is responsible for the design, development and maintenance of such products as the GasAlertMax and the Gas Probe. "At some companies, one guy does the circuit design, another does the board design and another the software. Here, one person looks after the development and maintenance of a product from cradle to grave," says Mr. Costall, who joined BW seven years ago after graduating in electrical engineering from the University of Alberta.

"You learn a great deal about the overall products and the different steps required to get products to market because you're dealing with every department in the company. The biggest thing you learn in school is how to learn, which is a good thing, because when you get into business, you've got a lot to learn."

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