Military Embedded Systems

In the cage with 800-lb gorillas: How to compete or compute


September 24, 2009

In the cage with 800-lb gorillas: How to compete or compute

In an arena dominated by industry heavyweights Curtiss-Wright Controls Embedded Computing and GE Fanuc Intelligent Platforms, Kontron is still coming out slugging, according to Thomas Sparrvik, vice chairman of Kontron AG and CEO of Kontron America and Asia-Pacific. But how? Our recent Q&A reveals the key strategies: worldwide R&D; an affinity for VPX, SWaP, and the Atom; and an 800-strong engineering staff. Edited excerpts follow.

In an arena dominated by industry heavyweights Curtiss-Wright Controls Embedded Computing and GE Fanuc Intelligent Platforms, Kontron is still coming out slugging, according to Thomas Sparrvik, vice chairman of Kontron AG and CEO of Kontron America and Asia-Pacific. But how? Our recent Q&A reveals the key strategies: worldwide R&D; an affinity for VPX, SWaP, and the Atom; and an 800-strong engineering staff. Enough to beat the 800-lb gorillas? Sparrvik asserts an equivocal yes. Edited excerpts follow.

MIL EMBEDDED: It’s been more than 18 months since Kontron made the Thales Computers “lucky buy.” What’s been happening?

SPARRVIK: It has certainly been an exciting 18 months since the acquisition in March 2008. The team at Thales Computers has been fully integrated into Kontron and we are moving forward as one company, under one name. Both Thales Computers and Kontron customers are benefiting from an expanded portfolio of rugged and commercial products. The acquisition enabled Kontron to extend its PowerPC-based and relevant operating system support to provide everything demanded by the VME, CompactPCI, and mezzanine card markets.

MIL EMBEDDED: Where do you expect Kontron to be ranked in the industry against heavyweights Curtiss-Wright Controls Embedded Computing (CWCEC) and GE Fanuc Intelligent Platforms (GE Fanuc)?

SPARRVIK: Kontron is well-positioned to grow further in this market. Even before the acquisition, Kontron’s experience with VME and harsh environments started back in the 1980s. However, we saw a critical opportunity with the acquisition to further expand our offering with an even more aggressive and advanced VME lineup. We believe solutions from Kontron are very competitive compared to Curtiss-Wright and GE Fanuc. We’ve got an 800-person engineering organization, worldwide R&D capabilities, and a strategic partner network that spans the entire globe.

MIL EMBEDDED: What new products can we expect to see from Kontron in the future?

SPARRVIK: Specifically for A&D, we will continue to develop our rugged COTS offerings. There was the launch of our VPX product line this year, which included the VX3230 and VX3020 PowerPC- and Intel-based VPX product offerings. Both VPX and VME are critical architectures for A&D, and while we see VPX as the future of rugged COTS, we know VME remains very viable and is not going away anytime soon. And we continue to incorporate advancements in processor technology such as the Intel Atom, now used in our low-power, small form factor lines.

MIL EMBEDDED: Kontron is a super-tight partner with Intel on the commercial side. How will this translate on the military side?

SPARRVIK: Our strategy is to develop successful commercial products and directly duplicate that success in our rugged COTS product offerings. Our 6U CompactPCI product line is a great example. The CP6001 is an Intel Core 2 Duo rugged processor blade available in three versions, each suitable for a specific environment. We offer a standard air-cooled version; another that is ruggedized for high shock and vibration, air-cooled environments up to and including VITA 47’s EAC3/EAC6; as well as a fully conduction-cooled version that meets VITA 47’s ECC4 requirements. With a product like the CP6001, both commercial and A&D customers benefit from our partnership with Intel. This partnership also allows us to release our products at the same time Intel releases a new chipset, ensuring our customers have access to the most leading-edge technologies.

MIL EMBEDDED: Most of the strong A&D COTS players have two key technology areas we haven’t noticed within Kontron’s lineup: data acquisition modules and FPGA/reconfigurable computers. What about Kontron?

SPARRVIK: In June Kontron launched the VM6250, a high performance 6U VME PowerPC-based single board computer. As evidenced by the VM6250, designed to be easily extensible with an FPGA (via an FMC), Kontron is in full support of the VITA 57 FMC standard. Kontron’s lineup also includes data acquisition PMCs such as our FPDP and HotLink PMC. As I mentioned earlier, our engineering groups around the globe are continually developing products to address the needs of our customers in every market segment, including A&D. Since this is a key focus for Kontron, you can expect to see continuing updates and additional products that meet evolving military program requirements.

MIL EMBEDDED: Where do you expect to see technology move in the 2010-2012 timeframe?

SPARRVIK: We see the growing technology trend for smaller, faster, and more power-efficient computing platforms. This is true for both commercial and military markets. And technologies being integrated into applications within these spaces are expected to meet the most stringent requirements – especially as budgets continue to be cut. Companies are looking for the most efficient way to balance their technology and economic goals.

For the A&D market, it’s all about SWaP [Size, Weight, and Power], and that will continue to push new designs toward smaller form factors such as 3U VPX, 3U CompactPCI, and MicroTCA. Costs will be more important as well. To that end, we are often asked which of these smaller blade form factors are going to “win.” From our perspective, there is a place for all of them – each brings its own advantages – so there is no clear “winner.”

Our customers are looking for proven, reliable, cost effective, and scalable technology. And while it’s important to offer the latest-and-greatest, we support the form factors that are widely deployed and continue to be a viable option for many programs and applications. Kontron is an active member of the PICMG committee for Rugged MicroTCA and we stand firmly behind the conviction that this technology will have a big impact on future defense programs. VME, VPX, and CompactPCI as well will continue to be strong and evolve over time to meet the changing demands of military applications.

MIL EMBEDDED: Tell us about your software offerings (especially beyond RTOS BSPs).

SPARRVIK: Kontron’s core business is embedded hardware, but through in-house expertise, we are able to offer customers the option of a full solution, which includes both hardware and software. Unlike many of our competitors, we develop software in-house for BIOS, drivers, BSPs, and so forth. Having both software and hardware expertise in-house allows us to more efficiently customize our offerings to meet customer program needs. In addition, Kontron actively pursues experienced software and middleware partners such as Wind River, Microsoft, QNX, ENEA, and others. These partnerships let us further expand our portfolio of tailored products and services so that we meet exact program specifications.

MIL EMBEDDED: How do you see President Obama’s and SECDEF Gates’ new DoD budget affecting the market? Affecting your company?

SPARRVIK: Looking at Gate’s plan, it appears that some vehicle and aircraft programs have decreased budgets, but UAV programs are receiving an increase in funding. Because of this, many companies may actually see programs grow – which is fine with us and benefits our diverse product line. With DoD budget cuts, the focus for many military system manufacturers now becomes sustainability.

Kontron is seeing many upgrade programs that include electronic maintenance that cannot be delayed. Defense companies are looking for suppliers who will help maintain technologies currently deployed as well as offer a diversified path into the future. Kontron is not tied to any one form factor, so we have the flexibility and technical strength to be a true resource to our customers in everything from software and OS support to highly integrated low-power and prevalidated platforms. We remain committed to exceed the requirements demanded by defense suppliers – whether it’s for new programs or those that have been around for years.

MIL EMBEDDED: Can you tell us about some of the on-the-books DoD programs into which Kontron supplies boards?

SPARRVIK: Kontron’s products can be found in many DoD programs. To name just a few applications, one of the most current is the P-8 Poseidon, a military aircraft for the U.S. Navy. Another aircraft program includes the Airborne Early Warning & Control (AEW&C) or “Wedgetail” as it’s commonly known. Kontron products are widely used throughout many naval programs and have been integrated into several aircraft carriers and destroyers. It is interesting to note that these programs are using a wide variety of form factors.

Thomas Sparrvik is Vice Chairman of Kontron AG, a member of Kontron’s managing board of directors, and CEO of Kontron America and Asia-Pacific, where he is responsible for worldwide sales and marketing. Previously, he was CEO at Laserstans AB, Sweden and a subcontract manufacturer and CEO at Betech Components AB, Sweden. He holds an MBA from the Warwick Business School, University of Warwick, Coventry, England; an MSC in Electrical Engineering from Lund University, Sweden; and a BA in Electrical Engineering and Telecommunications from Pauli College, Malmoe, Sweden. For more information, e-mail [email protected].

Kontron 858-677-0877


Featured Companies


9477 Waples Street
San Diego, CA 92121