Coltraco Ultrasonics continue to be at the forefront of British ingenuity and innovation

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Carl Hunter, CEO of Coltraco Ultrasonics, speaks to International Fire Buyer about a successful first year for the company’s Permalevel™ Multiplex liquid monitoring system

Last year, International Fire Buyer spoke to Carl Hunter, CEO of Coltraco Ultrasonics, Fellow of the Institute of Marine Engineers, and Member of the Royal Aeronautical Society, about the company’s Permalevel™ Multiplex clean suppression agent monitoring system. Editor Chris Beck visited his offices 12 months on to find out how the system, and the company as a whole, has progressed.

How has the Permalevel™ Multiplex been received by the market?

I think it has focused the industry’s mind on the current regulatory climate, in that it has revealed that the monitoring of gaseous fire suppression systems is currently limited to annual certification checks, which take no account of their need for constant monitoring. I think what we’ve set out to achieve is an industry re-focus, and to re-educate them on the benefits our system can bring. We have also had a realisation that we have to get in place an installation and maintenance network and that determines the calibre of the partners we work with. We are now working with some of the most capable clean agent fire suppression engineering companies in the world and we have in our Fire Safety Engineering team a former Deputy Chief of the London Fire Brigade and a Professional Fire Engineer to help guide us in our application understanding of Permalevel™ in clean agent suppression systems.

Uptake has been very positive then?

Coltraco Ultrasonics have had major interest from governmental and large corporate customers of fire suppression systems in the UK and internationally from Australia, Canada, Germany, Italy, Hong Kong, Singapore, Brunei, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Japan, Korea and the USA. We are very proud of that. We are also very grateful to International Fire Buyer for stimulating so much of this. But what really engages our attention is the quality of the fire suppression system design, installation and maintaining companies who are working with us. They know what they need and are the enablers between us and the end-user customers.

Having sent the product out to the market, have you had to make any modifications based on feedback you have received?

Many. Principally, we have changed the capabilities of the clean agent computer interface and data communication capabilities. We had no idea of the impact that the system has in terms of users being able to manage the data from the continuous monitoring of clean agent suppression systems. We had thought that would be a lot more localised, but it became clear that several users need to monitor national critical infrastructure installations, internationally. We have to keep modifying the system and embed greater capability to enable this, and we are doing this within a UL certification track.

We have also done basic mechanical developmental work to the sensors, to assist installers and users alike, to prevent them being accidentally dislodged, for example. We’ve used 3D printers to make sure each component is designed perfectly for each application. It’s the first time we’ve used 3D printing technology. I had no idea how they worked – it’s quite incredible! We are delivering technology that enables greater business continuity potential to critical infrastructure.

From a business perspective, how has Coltraco grown over the past 12 months?

Coltraco Ultrasonics Ltd. have become the leader in continuous fire suppression monitoring technology from an ultrasonic perspective. I think Permalevel™ will change the company by a significant factor as it takes us from being a product manufacturer to a systems provider. We are focussed on applications for the system on highly sensitive, safety-critical assets. I imagine that once that whole installation and maintenance network is firmed up, and UL certification finalises, Permalevel™ Multiplex will embed itself as a core monitoring technology in clean agent suppression systems, particularly in NOVEC™ 1230 and FM-200™ systems.

Were high-end applications always the target for the system?

For the first three or four years we dedicated our focus to the technology build and capability enhancements, because we had done so well to create a portable system in Portalevel™, once we realised we had the potential to produce a fixed system that constantly monitors, we were more focused on getting that right than thinking of specific applications. It is only as we began working jointly with some of our international strategic partners, particularly Chubb Hong Kong or Kidde Australia or Tyco Fire & Security UAE LLC that we realised that this system is best-suited to high-end safety critical installations. Our main applications would include mobile telecommunications, relay stations, mass transit railway systems, offshore-petrochemical, data centres, Defence and Naval infrastructure and so on. We had no idea of the scale and size of those sort of installations until we stated speaking to those companies and industry partners.

What we have realised is that the primary driver for the customer for Permalevel™ Multiplex is the company or organisation whose value of business continuity outweighs the cost of the fire system by a considerable margin. Often these are large corporations, with huge data centres, and if they get interrupted for a day or even an hour it would be critical in risk management terms. They are the sort of companies we are targeting and teaming with the best of the world’s fire safety companies to enable its integration.

Would you say that Coltraco is more recognised internationally now?

We export 90% of our portable liquid level indicator products for CO2, FM-200™, NOVEC™ 1230, FE-13, FE-25, FE-36, HFC-225 & 227 and the old Halon 1301 to 104 countries. In terms of our fixed monitoring systems I think we are, yes, largely thanks to the attention we have received from the leading fire suppression technology system providers and to the coverage we have received in the press. I think that set us on a journey to connect with organisations across the world in a more complex and integrated way than we had ever done before. I would say it is due to a combination of manufacturing the technology, the customer base becoming assured of its 24/7 accuracy and its data management capabilities, with the news coverage that we have received.

Last time we spoke you were in the process of opening international sales offices. How have they progressed?

They were a bit slower than we anticipated because we didn’t quite realise how complex it would be to integrate them to our head office. The first ones have opened in Dubai and New York, and we had hoped that Singapore and Hong Kong would be open already, but we plan that they will now open in Q4 2014. We are looking to domicile companies in Singapore, the USA and Hong Kong in the next couple of years, and possibly in the Middle East as well. Asia, in terms of from Australia, Japan and Korea through to the Indian Subcontinent, makes up 38% of our business, so we are very focused on Asia and North America.

What is the next step for the business in the next five or so years?

I think we are starting to realise that instead of being seen as niche product manufacturers, we are now seeing the first glimpses of becoming technology providers as we establish ourselves as systems manufacturers. We also see a future beyond ultrasound. We want to become the masters of our field in ultrasonics and provide mathematical justification for our accuracy claims. We are halfway through that process, and certainly a few offshore oil and gas companies already recognise that we are mathematically the most accurate manufacturer in our field in fire safety in the world.

Beyond that we see a future utilising other technological pillars, such as radar, light and magnetism. I think that over the next decade that is where Coltraco will go – breaking out of its ultrasonic speciality and bringing in other technologies to become a systems integrator and a technology provider in a broader sense. I can also see a day when Coltraco manages its own monitoring data. One day, a Coltraco employee in London will be able to monitor the systems data incoming from Sydney, Dubai or New York from their own central data management station.

We are now engaging physicists to undertake deep scientific research. We will eventually extend that to mathematicians, chemists, engineers and computer technologists. One day we hope to become a centre of excellence across those four technology strands – ultrasonics, radar, light and magnetism. We wish to make a strategic contribution to risk management systems and fire safety.

Where are they going to be based?

I would imagine Oxford or Cambridge would be the most logical place, given their reputational integrity, their scientific and technology leadership as ancient university cities. We believe that traditionally manufacturers haven’t supported their equipment with sufficient mathematical or scientific data to substantiate their accuracy claims. This isn’t meant as a slur against other companies but because of the work we have done with those senior fire suppression technology partners we need to go to that next level of being able to move the technology and capabilities of Permalevel™ Multiplex forward to a true point of integration. Generating more capable algorithms and formulae that can be interpreted easily by an operator and their systems are now becoming an opportunity for us. Being able to create data in a form that is as easy to use as a mobile phone is what we are looking to implement in future.

In terms of the other technology strands, where do you see them being applied?

I can’t go into too much detail, but on the radar side of things, we are looking to make something that is a bit more usable than traditional radar. In terms of magnetism and light, I couldn’t define where that is going to go at the moment. As I get older, the more I realise that the core physical principles I defied as a schoolboy and thought were so boring are the basis for so much of what we do. Physics and Mathematics provides the basis for so much of our lives. Whilst we all accept that, for example, light is used that in fibre optics, people often don’t realise that data is being transferred through that light in the cables. People don’t always grasp the importance of magnetism in terms of how the Earth holds itself together in the universe. We don’t know how magnetism can affect sound waves through air, so it will be interesting to see how we can apply it to what we do in fire safety. I am excited about developing our R&D capabilities to become a UK centre of excellence. Who knows what these brilliant young men and women will be able to deliver! We have met professors that are unable to immediately explain what we are doing, ultrasonically. That’s exciting in itself. We are doing something in Permalevel™ Multiplex that is beyond common understanding and applying that to clean agent fire suppression systems and adding an integration capability in the incredible journey that the world’s leading fire safety companies are undertaking to saving lives.

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