IC Reaps the rewards of developing a thick skin

IC Reaps the rewards of developing a thick skin

A system builder reported last week how it has achieved healthy growth by reversing IT marketing wisdom.

Industrial Computers (IC) never meets its customers, let alone listens to them. It also builds IT systems with a very thick skin. Yet it is now a leading supplier of specialised PCs.

The company builds systems for harsh environments: servers for oil rigs, laptops for tank crews in Iraq and intelligent devices that can survive the punishing Afghan winter while embedded in helicopter blades. It built about 4,000 bespoke servers last year for use by the Army, shipping, submarines, aircraft and even flight simulators.

The challenge of building rust-proof, shock-proof systems that can withstand extreme temperature fluctuations demands great attention to detail and endless patient testing.

Sales director Kurt Spencer explained why he will not meet clients. “I am not allowed to. It is rare that I know where the kit is going to be used. The oil industry clients are a bit more open, but most military installations and government projects are very secretive,” he said.

The extreme specs offer him some clues about the destination of the company’s systems, he admitted. When a 19in, rack-mounted server needed extra zinc plating, he guessed it was designed for a seawater environment: an oil rig, perhaps, or a submarine.

IC’s system-building niche exemplifies how assemblers can diversify in today’s competitive, commoditised PC and server market, said James Ward, managing director of component distributor Hammer.

“There is huge market growth in hard drives for extreme circumstances,” said Ward. “Hostile and military environments demand the highest standards of reliability, portability, durability and consistency.”

However, Spencer warned that the margins are not as handsome as VARs might expect. “Our solution has to last ten years and offer revision control. Think of the thousands of components on a motherboard and try revision-controlling that ,” he said.

Sourcing hard drive components is another challenge. For example, the claims for CRU-DataPortR for its hard drive enclosures had to be validated before they could be integrated into ruggedised servers. The procurement was outsourced to the distributor. “When it comes to protecting the safety and integrity of the data in hostile environments, I would not entertain the idea of using anything other than a CRU-DataPort hard-drive enclosure,” said Spencer.