MPL: small, space-ready, low power...and "cheese-immune"

Air travel is not as it used to be and everyone knows it. Most flights originating from Zurich airport depart and/or arrive late and waiting in the airport lounge is now a daily experience that gives me extra time for contemplation.

Flipping pages of old magazines, I realized some of the pictures seemed awfully familiar: computer boards, some cables, and colorful display panels in the old GEO (a German language National Geographic equivalent). Suddenly, I was reading the technical descriptions of some of the many projects and solutions of MPL, a small company in Switzerland. I needed to know more about this company, its market philosophy, and its people.

Remy Loertscher, managing director of MPL located in Baden-Daettwil, near Zurich agreed to meet with me to tell me more about his company. Shortly I found myself in the conference room waiting for Remy to arrive, looking at the glass displays surrounding me. On the wall, I noticed a plaque that read Brand Excellence Swiss Trophy (BEST 2005), a prestigious prize for a small company focused on ultra low power systems.

Remy explained that some odd looking products in another glass display were earlier MPL designs: G-96 and CompactPCI boards. There was another box with Cyrillic markings on it, accompanied by a plaque indicating that this very box was had been on board the Russian Mir space station, a predecessor of the International Space Station (ISS). It had been launched from Baikonur, the 620 ton heavy PROTON rocket and had make communications with NASA possible. It circulated earth until the end of life of the Mir space station.

This brought memories back when I was working as a system engineer on the design of the Canadarm, the now famous robotic arm that is attached US space shuttles to perform lifting and manipulating assistance for astronauts while outside the shuttle. It turned out, as Remy explained, that MPL was also there. On board the space shuttle was a small fanless unit that circulated the earth 8016 times, flying over 341 029 077 km (over 200,000,000 miles) and allowing communications with the Mir space station back when it was operational.

However, MPL systems work just as well on the ground as they do in space. Everyone recognizes the French supertrain TGV, carrying passengers between Spain, UK, Germany, and Italy at speeds exceeding 450 km/h (265 mph). Part of its tracks run over tectonically active terrain, especially in the south of France. Should tracks suffer a discontinuity caused by earth tremors, the consequences would be disastrous. MPL was asked to supply monitoring units located along the tracks to monitor earth movement.

Should a tremor exceed a set level, the unit is designed to shut down that stretch of track until further verification can be made. Besides surviving in space, systems from MPL work remotely during sizzling summers and snowy winters. Clearly these systems must have demonstrated the required reliability in all possible (and impossible conditions), as they protect millions of passengers’ lives.

Across the country, I found yet another example of MPL excellence in the city of Calais. The French trimaran L’Hydroptere, a tri-hull vessel with an underwater hydrofoil had just broken the speed record in February 2005 crossing the English Channel in record time (Figure 1). This trimaran, skippered by Captain Jean-Mathieu Bourgeon, had an MPL box aboard that controlled a weight distribution system designed to protect the delicate hydrofoil—while at the same time guaranteeing the highest possible speed.

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Figure 1: The French trimaran L’Hydroptere, a tri-hull vessel with an underwater hydrofoil had just broken the speed record in February 2005 crossing the English Channel in record time

And as I write this from Switzerland, there would be no story complete without a mention of Swiss cheese. Trucks filled with various cheese rounds (some weighing 35 kg or close to 80 lbs. each) shuttle from store to store selling the cheese on the spot to store owners. Due to the harsh environment, laptops used to handle bookkeeping and invoicing ceased operation within a short time. Truck vendors turned to MPL for a solution, whose fanless “brick” could work in this corrosive environment. Apparently, the cheese aroma permeated inside the laptop and caused rapid hardware degradation.

The company was founded by Rudolf Hug, who in 1970 received his Swiss Youth in Research award when he was 20 years old for his digital computer named ANGELA 1. He started MPL AG in 1985, and the company now belongs to HT Holding AG and BIBUS Holding AG, with combined revenues of 200 million CHF (approximately $160 million).

The company’s custom applications are obviously diverse, as I’ve described. But MPL also uses industry-standard COTS processors including PowerPC, ARM, and various CPUs from Intel. Operating systems and BSPs include LINUX, Windows, VxWorks, OS-9, and QNX. Form factors include PC/104-Plus, CompactPCI, PCI, PC card, and G-96.

At MPL, I sensed the company’s strong sense of determination to stay smaller in order to survive in their niche market. Most projects now are referrals and several new interesting endeavors seem to be in the pipeline. Sales activities are outsourced as well. That is why Remy was able to claim “we have the lowest power consumption solution in industry.” And many believe him.

For more information, visit www.mpl.ch.

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Stefan Baginski is the European Representative of OpenSystems Publishing. Prior to OSP, Stefan held positions in General Electric at the Danforth Facility, Ontario Research Foundation, Sniffer Technology (network security, wireless) in Santa Clara, SAAB-Fairchild Electronic (avionics) in Södertälje, Sweden, and PEP Modular Computers (VME-Autobahn Project with Motorola) in Kaufbeuren, Germany. Stefan’s responsibilities progressed from System Engineer to Managing Director and CEO.

He received his B.E and M.E. in Engineering Science from the Technical University of Breslau.

Stefan’s professional affiliations include (past and present): Society of Manufacturing Engineers, American Management Association, Society of American Engineers, Association of Professional Engineers of the province of Ontario, Royal Engineering Association of Sweden, German Engineers Society, and VITA Europe.

For further information, e-mail Stefan at sbaginski@opensystems-publishing.com.