Italy fields another Light Infantry Alpine Brigade

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Note to designer: Insert the photo “Eurotech Mfg 1.jpg” in the center, with “Eurotech Tolmezzo.jpg” as a smaller thumbnail inset. Wrap text around the photos.

 

Italy fields another Light Infantry Alpine Brigade

SFF vendor Eurotech Group recently invited a cadre of American and European journalists and analysts to the company headquarters near Tolmezzo, Italy1. Located in North Eastern Italy near Venice and within Olympic bicycling distance of Austria and Slovenia, this Alpine redoubt is famous for several Alpini Light Infantry Brigades established prior to World War I, brigades that continue in various forms to this day. Tough, nimble, and skilled in unconventional warfare, I imagine the Alpini formed the inspiration for Eurotech’s “go big or go home” attitude that underpins this practically unknown-in-America €100 millon (U.S. $147 million) company.

Eurotech manufactures PC/104, COM Express, PMC, EPIC, EBX, and all manner of commodity SFF boards. The scrappy Alpine company audaciously bid for England’s COTS heavyweight Radstone PLC in September 2006, only to lose the bid to GE Fanuc at the urging of Radstone’s board of directors. Now a public company with more than €109 millon (U.S. $160 million) in capital, 78 percent of which is free float, Eurotech is on a tear, with revenues growing at 46 percent CAGR from 2005 to 2008. The company was started in 1992 by local Italian businessmen with the goal of “miniaturizing the PC to address new, unexplored applications fields.” That pretty well sums up most x86-based PC/104, PICMG, and SFF-SIG SBCs.

The company acquired mil system provider Parvus in 2003, went public in 2005, acquired Arcom Control Systems in 2006, and purchased Applied Data Systems and Japan’s Advanet in 2007. Eurotech was heavily focused on Transportation, Mobility, and Surveillance (TMS) systems prior to these acquisitions, and each company addition built a stronger foundation for box-level integration and complete system problem solving. Today, the company’s catalog of complete systems rivals the stand-alone board catalog. It’s a certainty that Eurotech’s margins are fattened by system integration, not stand-alone boards.

Applied Data Systems’ military Bitsy English-to-Arabic handheld translator was the inspiration for Eurotech’s Ready-2-Use device family as part of the company’s “Pervasive Computing” scenario. The Zypad line of wrist-wearable computers takes ADS’s Bitsy much further while targeting defense, distribution and warehousing, transportation, field service, and medical markets. Based on an Intel SFF, the wrist PC includes touch, stylus, and finger sensor inputs, supplemented by body-worn sensors including a camera, radio, and biofeedback monitor. One member of our journalist group tried on the Zypad and reported a superior user experience over a handheld tablet or gun-type input device. My point: Eurotech has the whole system and infrastructure in mind along with a human factor focus.

Besides riding the same industry processor and radio technology curves as the competition, Eurotech maintains some mighty impressive labs in Italy, from the High Performance Computing (HPC) center that developed the liquid-cooled, 1 PetaFLOP (24 racks) Aurora supercomputer, to 100 percent serialized shock/vib/temp/humidity production tests, to the finest example of an RFI/EMI chamber I’ve seen lately. While Parvus is kept separate for military ITAR2 reasons, all other divisions and product lines benefit from the serious manufacturing and test know-how.

This company “gets it.” That is, they know that commodity boards and mezzanines can’t grow a business much beyond a few tens of millions of Euros (or dollars). Like European competitor Kontron, Eurotech offers board-level products. But the much larger Kontron sold off the Dolch Computer Systems group a few years ago to focus exclusively on boards and digest the Thales Computers military operation. To me, that leaves Eurotech in a stronger systems-focused position. Intel seems to agree, awarding Eurotech last November with the “2008 Award of Excellence trophy for Growth in the Intel Atom Processor Co-Selling” category.

And if all of this wasn’t enough – from PetaFLOP computers to purpose-built systems and success with Intel’s newest embedded microprocessor – Eurotech is investing heavily in building a comprehensive software infrastructure for its hardware. Comprising uniform APIs, open source plug-ins from Eclipse, and application-specific “bundles” such as OBD II, GPS, TPM, or VPN, the Everyware Software Framework is supposed to make short work of bolting Eurotech systems together with customer hardware and applications. Add in the company’s relationships with IBM, Google Health, Wind River Systems, and others, and this Alpine Brigade is ready for battle. Thankfully, the Italians are on our side now.

Editor’s note: You’re forgiven if you think the trip to Italy has caused me to write glowing words about Eurotech. But it’s irrefutable that I’ve gained an incredible respect for this company, which could easily be compared to GE Intelligent Platforms or Curtiss-Wright Controls Embedded Computing. We’ll be covering the Eurotech Everyware Software Framework in more detail in future issues.

Footnotes

1 Full disclosure: My trip to visit Eurotech’s Italian headquarters was paid by Eurotech, so I’m expected to say nice things about them. But heck, I wasn’t prepared to be extremely impressed with the company’s technology operations, which rival many of the top three rugged COTS companies in the embedded military space.

2 International Traffic in Arms Regulations