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Turning on a dime

March 6th, 2015

I don’t know why it happened but I use a lot of expressions in my speech. I think I learned them from my father and I think he picked them up from my grandfather or even my great-grandfather. This has caused some confusion over the years because people my own age don’t know what I’m talking about when I use these expressions which I do every day. So I have to educate them. The other difficulty is that they are American expressions. Anyone who didn’t grow up here stands an even smaller chance of understanding. Two of my personal favorites are “don’t take any wooden nickels” and “I have more problems than Carter has little white liver pills.” If you have any interest in knowing what those mean it should be easy to find on the web. I will spare you the explanation here.

Spending time in east Africa in the mid-eighties and living in a bush camp without electricity working for a British boss, much of my time after dark was spent reading with a flashlight. I read his books which were mostly written by British authors. So I started picking up British expressions and I can tell you that those are not well understood in California either. I’ve even met some British people who didn’t understand them.

But the title of this blog had to be “Turning on a Dime” because it perfectly describes what we just did in our engineering department in December and I can tell you it was a beautiful thing.

For the first half of 2014 we were working on developing a very,very lightweight GPS with remote download. We actually produced it at 0.4 grams. Pretty incredible. We offered it at fairly low price point because it had limited usefulness and limited features compared to our other GPS products. We brought it to market and learned something very interesting. After hearing this from potential customers for years “We need a lighter GPS unit” the truth was that they didn’t really need a lighter GPS unit. There was almost zero interest. In other words, no one bought it.

But the project spawned an idea. Why waste all of that engineering effort? Let’s turn on a dime and create something really cool from this project. I get very excited about new projects because I can see the potential usefulness for customers and I thought I was really on to something big. I even managed to get the engineer excited about it. I decided to use the basic features that we had already developed but to add to that some really desirable attributes to make something with mass appeal. I gave permission to bring the weight up to 3 grams. We added a 500,000 position memory, a better GPS antenna as well as a powerful accelerometer that will allow the device to turn on and off depending upon the behavior of the study animal. And we created the circuit on a flex/rigid hybrid circuit board. That allows us to curve the circuit or even bend it 90° in two places so that it will be more compact in the final application. In other words, we can curve it around a portion of a small collar rather than have it just a long, flat, rigid thing that creates a less than compact final product. But we’re not loading any components on the flexible part of the circuit board so reliability will not be affected. And of course we retained the automatic (no human required) wireless data download feature.

This project is coming to a close now and the product is about to be released for sale. But it spawned another new project of which we are in the planning stage now. We are a small company and making decisions is fast. Changing course is extremely fast too when that’s what we decide to do. Our hope is that ultimately this capability to act and react quickly benefits you, the wildlife biologist customer.

Quintin

The beauty of advancing technology – reducing your cost for micro GPS trackers

May 7th, 2014

Making custom GPS tracking devices for wildlife and industrial applications keeps us busy and interested.  2014 has already been very busy and full of new technologies. We added a new micro GPS device to our product line this year and while this isn’t really new for us, we had one 4 years ago, this one has more features including remote data download and it only weighs 0.4 grams without the battery.  We designed this using new technologies and it allowed us to offer it at a much lower than normal cost.

But there is another technology we added this year that is helping us to cut costs and we are passing that on to our customers.  It’s not exactly a new technology but until recently we didn’t think it was practical for us.  I’m talking about 3D printing.  I have been considering purchasing a 3D printer for about the last 3 years but couldn’t pull the trigger because they were a bit too cumbersome, using strange materials and requiring a lot of cleaning after each job.

But in December while shopping with Naho and finding myself just a touch bored I wandered into a Microsoft store.  This wasn’t much more interesting than the fancy kitchen / cooking store I had been in but at least there was a possibility of finding something interesting.  I shuffled in and was greeted by a kid who looked about 15. He was probably 25.  He quickly realized that I didn’t want to look at phones, computers or tablets and said to me, “Come look at this.”  He showed me to a 3D printer they had on display.  It is not a Microsoft product but they are allowing them to be displayed in their stores.  The machine is made in Brooklyn, New York.  I got very excited very quickly and started firing questions at him.  For those of you who don’t know what a 3D printer is, it is a machine that accepts a CAD file and then lays material down on a platform, layer by layer, building up the “thing” represented in the file.  Basically it prints a part.  When I saw how clean it was, how good the resolution was and how many different plastic materials it can build from I knew it was time to finally get my 3D printer.  I asked pimple face to wait while I ran to get my wife.  Naho is the head of finance here at Telemetry Solutions and I figured there would be no better way to get that department’s approval for the purchase than to show her.

In a few minutes she was standing with me watching this machine work.  Purchase approved!  It is really great to have the machine because it has seriously increased the output of one employee.  Recently I needed a housing for a test of an Iridium product for a customer in New Zealand.  It was just for a test in the forest, no need for a real housing that could withstand abuse so we printed one up real quick and Bob’s your uncle, out it went.

For our new micro GPS product we have 2 related devices that need housings.  One is the charger and the other is the base station.  Instead of spending thousands of dollars stocking housings for an entire year’s production, now we can design the housing and just print them out as needed, this greatly reduces our cash outlay and we are passing that savings along.  If you want to see a part being printed click the link and watch this video.

Printer building parts

 

Is there a correlation between GPS reliability and salespeople working on commission?

April 16th, 2014

As the owner of Telemetry Solutions, over the years I have directed various surveys intending to put our finger on the pulse of our customers and our potential customers.  We often ask wildlife biologists what they want but are not getting from telemetry companies making GPS tracking devices for wildlife projects.  The answers vary widely but one of the most common is “reliable equipment.”

That desire for reliable equipment seems reasonable enough to me.  As a satisfied customer told me just today, “….it is expensive equipment so we try to find a product that will fail the least.”   Of course there are many reasons why GPS for wildlife projects don’t work as well as the GPS that was mass produced and resides snuggly inside the controlled environment of your family car but that doesn’t mean that these things can’t be mitigated.

The subject of one of my recent blog posts was how we (I) select what I believe to be customers who have a reasonable chance for success.  Most of the time this is really obvious based on just a few email exchanges.  Today, talking to this customer, she mentioned that in the past she had tried a collar from company X and that the salesperson promised her the moon.   But the collar didn’t deliver.  So what was that sale person’s motivation for taking this approach, that’s what I started to wonder about.  Why promise the moon?  What’s the motivation for that?

Could it be a commission?  I don’t know because I don’t know which company it was and I don’t know how any other company compensates their sales people.  But I can say that we no longer hire salespeople to work on commission, I stopped that a long time ago.  My sales people will earn their wage regardless of whether or not they make any given sale.  Additionally I don’t think it’s fair to the rest of the team anyway that one person……doing one of the easiest jobs…..has the ability to earn so much more than everyone else.  In fact my last sales person left in August 2013 and rather than hire someone new I just slid myself back into that roll.  Maybe it is time to consider another person in the sales position.  And when I do make that decision they will be taught that 1) we will not over promise on performance and 2) the sales person will not run amok in any way, there are boundaries that we operate in and those boundaries  have been established so that our customers have the best result possible and continue being our customers…..which most do.   My job isn’t to sell GPS tracking equipment for wildlife research.  My job is to operate a profitable company that grows and gains strength over the long term.

Wrapping this up…..last night before I left the office I responded to a sales inquiry in which the potential customer clearly defined his project as well as his GPS collar expectations.  I completely understood, he left no question about what he intended and wanted.  So I told him that we can’t meet those expectations and that I doubt any other company can either (this was a performance issue not a features/benefits issue).  His expectations were far beyond reality.  I offered to discuss this with him over the phone and I did this with no intent of selling him anything or changing his expectations.  I just wanted to tell him what I know and how it directly relates to what he is trying to do.  He needs this information.  If someone does take the rather large order for GPS collars that this person is getting ready to tender I hope that the “expectation” conversation takes place first.  Just as we try to learn from our customers the reverse can also be true.  It takes time and it takes thought but it would go a long way toward this reliability issue.

 

 

GPS data loggers for wildlife, how far have we come?

April 3rd, 2014

I started working with GPS collars for wildlife in 1997, 17 years ago….ouch.  For those of you too young to remember, back then GPS wasn’t nearly as advanced as it is now.  For example, we had the choice to set up the GPS timeout at up to 240 seconds!  GPS timeout is the length of time that a GPS is allowed to remain on before being forced to shut off even if it had not acquired satellites and calculated a position by then.

Really, 240 seconds?  That ate up a lot of battery but it was a choice.  Here is what 17 years have yielded…..our newest GPS product will have a timeout option as low as 10 seconds and can be deployed in such a way that the first 3 days of use will always result in hot starts.  Hot starts occur when a GPS receiver has ephemeris data that allow it to know where the GPS satellites are in the sky.  The result is GPS positions sometimes taking as little as 1 second to calculate.  Normally to have hot starts one needs to keep the GPS receiving turning on very frequently.  But this is no longer strictly true.  With a new feature we are including in our FLR II GPS data logger you will be able to deploy with 3 days worth of ephemeris data stored in the GPS data logger.

I have sort of mixed my topics here……there is much more to be said about the 10 second GPS timeout that does not really relate to the ephemeris data but I think I’ll save it for a future post.  For now suffice it to say that we are going to have some very long battery life estimates for GPS devices that weigh in the single digits and part of this will be due to the fact that we are able to use the 10 second GPS timeout when before it would have been much more difficult.

A failure of telemetry companies selling wildlife GPS

March 27th, 2014

I spent 13 years with extreme back pain.  It never went away.  It affected every aspect of my life.  It got so bad that I found myself in crosswalks, having started crossing the street when the sign indicated “walk” and only being halfway across when the light turned red.  Yikes!   By the end of the 13 years there were days when I couldn’t walk at all.  I used a cane in the house.  This lasted from the ages of 33 to 46.  I had long since given up the idea of a remedy, seems I had tried everything and had been kicked out of several doctors’ offices with the refrain, “Get used to it, there isn’t anything we can do for you.”

Ok, so I gave up trying to solve it.  But I had this friend who was experiencing serious neck problems that also affected his arms and it got serious.  He found a doctor who turned him on to a surgical solution.  After he was whistling Dixie he said to me, “You have to go to my doctor, she’s the best.”  That reminded me of a Seinfeld episode in which Jerry said something like, “Yeah, everybody has the best guy.”  My wife chimed in and between the two of them and their prodding I found my way to this doctor.  She looked at my MRI and said she had good news and bad news.  “Bad news first please,” I said.  The bad news was that it was severe (I already knew this).  The good news was she thought it could be fixed!  Boy that made me happy.  Hope at last!

She sent me to the next doctor, a surgeon in Walnut Creek, California.  Doctor number 2 met me, looked at my MRI, asked me some questions and suggested to me, “I think we can help you.”  I thought I was dreaming.  This was November 2009.  By February 2010 all that pain was gone and it has stayed gone.  I was given an artificial disk made of titanium and UHMW plastic.  I’m 4 years in now and there is still no pain.  It is as if it never happened.  Sitting down used to be death for me, last October I drove for 12 hours per day for 3 days straight, no problem.  I sat the entire time then turned around and drove back for 3 more days.

After the surgery I was told that I would have to take time off work, no driving for 2 weeks and that I would need physical therapy.   I walked slowly and deliberately for a few days and I still used the cane and I took 1 week off work.  After 1 week I went to see the doctor for a follow-up.  He told me that I could start driving, could go back to work and that I would not have to go to physical therapy after all because I had so many plans to start undertaking physical activity again.  He said my motivation was enough to preclude me needing that P.T.

Ok, that is my back story.  Probably only mildly interesting and what the heck does it have to do with GPS for wildlife telemetry?  Bear with me, it’s coming.  Every time I went back for a follow up my doctor was very happy and finally I asked him how successful these surgeries usually are.  He told me that his success rate is in the high 90s.  Then he told me why.  It’s all about patient selection.  He only chooses patients that fit the profile which he determined makes them good candidates for the surgery.

Wildlife telemetry companies do not practice good patient selection.  The sales process goes like this.  A potential customer makes an inquiry.  We get excited because we are sure we can do this.  How hard could it be?  We’ve done it many times before.  But we fail to get to know that potential customer and their needs as well as we should prior to taking that order.  Many times that customer doesn’t know enough about the product to know where the weaknesses are in their plan with the product in question.  It has to be up to us, the telemetry companies, to determine if this project has a chance for success with our product.

Just the other day I had an inquiry from someone in California for a species for which we have sold a lot of equipment.  We have customers placing repeat orders for this product on this particular species so that would imply that everything will be fine for the new customer right?  Not necessarily. Luckily the person making this inquiry was open to my request for a phone meeting.  Emails are great but the level of communication in email is not conducive to the back and forth one can achieve in a phone call.  Things can be hammered out on the phone.  BANG!  We found it!  The sticking point.  I stopped him in his tracks and red flagged the product for his project.  Same species as some others but one big difference……unlike others using this equipment on this animal, he would be unable to get within the range of the data download feature on the collars.  We continue to talk and look for ways around this hurdle.  My point is that it had to be up to me to stop the forward progress.  The burden to get that information out of him was on me.  This time it worked.  Often times my request for a phone conversation is turned down.  Whether that be out of fear of being subjected to sales tactics (which I do not employ) to not really needing equipment but only being interested in the cost for funding reasons, folks usually do not want to get on the phone with me about our equipment (Australians excepted, they love to call on the phone).

So what’s the moral of the story?  It is this,  the next time you are asked to “give me a good time/day for a phone conversation” put aside your fears of being sold something and realize that this request is being made with your best interest in mind, it’s all about patient selection after all.

-Quintin Kermeen