THE KEYSER FILE
BW Technologies Engineers Put Big
Ideas in a Small Package
BY TOM KEYSER
He wasn't mentioned by name, but recent financial
statements released by BW Technologies Ltd. paid a silent
but specific compliment to the ingenuity of Sean Costall,
P.Eng., one of the Calgary manufacturer's core of 15 staff
The 16-year-old company supplies top-drawer, low-cost gas detection equipment to global markets and reported its 16th successive quarter of year-over-year sales growth last month.
And driving those sales was a slick, sturdy and compact new gizmo called the GasAlertMicro. It's a concussion-proof, triple-alarm unit, able to sniff out traces of oxygen, hydrogen sulphide and carbon monoxide, as well as a range of combustible gases. The Micro weighs a smidgen more than 200 grams and sits comfortably in the palm of your hand.
Designed primarily by Mr. Costall, a 33-year-old senior design engineer who's been with the company since graduating from the University of Alberta nine years ago, the Micro replaced a five-year-old tool known as the Defender. He designed it, too.
"The Defender was originally developed because of a perceived need in the marketplace," Mr. Costall explains. "The reasoning was this: The manufacturer that's first to build a four-gas detector for less than $1,000 wins," he adds with a mischievous smile.
The older-generation Defender remains an excellent tool. But it's larger, somewhat clumsier and not as technologically quick-witted as the feature-packed Micro.
The Quick and the Good
The current star among a sizeable product line, which also includes disposable and water-resistant gas detectors, the Micro was a logical next step in product development for BW. It is, after all, a $54-million public company with an expanding market share and a management team on a mission to crank out new, improved products every year.
A genuine Alberta success story, BW Technologies (BWT-TSX) spends as much as $4 million a year on R&D and relies on its energetic home-office team - specialists such as Mr. Costall - to spend the bucks wisely. It all adds up to an extremely stimulating work environment for a creative and still-youthful engineer.
Cody Slater, the CEO and president of BW, explains that the current economic climate renders it all the more important that his design groups be on the ball. Despite last quarter's healthy revenues, earnings dropped off as a direct result of the shrinking value of the U.S. dollar.
"The speed at which the U.S. dollar has declined was a problem," Mr. Slater says. "Most of our costs are fixed in Canadian dollars," the value of which has remained surprisingly strong.
He quickly adds he doesn't see the North American dollar disparity as an insurmountable problem. "Our increasing volumes will overcome the differential in the dollar. Another solution is to concentrate on our continuing use of engineering to drive our costs down."
That's the perpetual challenge facing Mr. Costall and his colleagues.
Say No to Price Increases
Mr. Slater calls it smart engineering: using improved technology to build better products at lower costs, while refusing to compromise on quality.
"And since we focus on remaining the low-cost leader in our market, an increase in our prices is not something we want to consider, either," adds the CEO.
By developing the GasAlertMicro, Mr. Costall was able to touch every base. "The major premise was to keep it as small as possible. But we wanted it to be equipped with our existing, proven, high-quality sensors. Our customers need a high-degree of confidence in their sensors, and we didn't want to cut corners just to minimize costs," Mr. Costall says.
"Fitting everything into a shell that's about two-thirds the size of the previous model (the Defender) was the major difficulty."
Nonetheless, it came about fast. From conception to production, development of the new product took only six months.
And once BW Technologies' crack sales team went to work, response was rapid and enthusiastic from the energy companies, chemical processing plants, sewage and waste water processing systems, and oil tankers that installed the new Micro.
Since then, Mr. Costall has been working on product upgrades, to make the Micro smarter still, while tweaking and adding features as a direct result of customer feedback.
He and his colleagues also remain hard at work at BW's beautiful southeast Calgary manufacturing facility, dreaming up the Next Big Thing.
Before saying goodbye, a visitor poses one last impertinent question to the accommodating Mr. Costall: "Did they give you a raise for helping develop the Micro?"
He replies with a sudden grin: "They did, actually." Now that's job satisfaction.