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Interview

with Nalin Advani, Managing Director, Barco Electronic Systems

26.04.2011 / Energyboardroom

Where are Barco’s points of contact with the oil and gas industry in India today?

Barco is a B2B display and visualisation company active in key markets, where the visual data is critical to the mission’s success. So although you would see us doing LCD panels or multiple kinds of displays, you won’t find us in a living room. You find us across our various markets in spaces where visual information is critical to the success of the mission. This could be in entertainment, healthcare, control rooms and simulation, which is specifically the area where we work with the oil and gas industry.

Our points of contact with the industry are multiple, but the two biggest ones that we have are in upstream and downstream activities. In terms of exploration, what we do in a nutshell is help explorers amplify their efficiency in terms of how much they get to extract in the discovery process. Barco is the medium that brings this together: we work with integrators, who stitch the whole thing together, or the guys who are doing the exploration have their own internal resources to stitch it together.

We help the customer on two points: efficient discovery and efficient extraction, because we give the customer the tools to see in 3D where they are going to drill, and we want to make sure that every time they drill they hit something. Each drill costs a lot, between $1 million and $10 million USD, so success is critical. The PhDs who know how to analyse seismic data may not necessarily be on the rig, but those who are on the rig have first level visibility of what is happening, and they need to collaborate to make sure that what they are exploring is in fact going to be a hit.

So on the one level it is that efficiency of discovery. The second issue is efficiency. If they are going to make two drills they want to drill for the one that has higher yield. So again, by looking at that data in 3D and collaborating, with everyone looking at the same data and interpreting it and analysing it. That is all basically mission critical visual information, and Barco gives these companies the platforms and systems to do that.

I imagine that there are a lot more parties involved than simply you and the client at this stage though, because obviously you have data acquisition and processing – in a standard collaboration with an oil and gas company upstream, how do these collaborations come together?

This is where our partnerships with specialist organisations come into play. We work very regularly with companies like Schlumberger with whom we share a very strong relationship worldwide. We work with them specifically in the Indian market as well. We also work with Halliburton and Paradigm, who are also specialists in providing oil and gas services and software applications for this industry. These companies are responsible for stitching all the pieces together and presenting it as a single platform for the customer, while we bring in our expertise by providing a large-scale collaborative and immersive display solution.

As you were saying, your software isn’t just used in the upstream side, but also downstream right across the value chain, from transportation, to refining and point of sale. When you form partnerships with oil and gas companies, is it generally across the whole value chain?

The answer for most companies is no – there are some companies here in India that try to share technology partnerships across the whole breadth of their business, and those are the larger companies that have a degree of in-house systems integration. But if you look for example at the PSUs, they have split up their roles, and we may have touch points with them through systems integrators and not across the entire enterprise. The best example I will give is Reliance Industries, with whom we are present from exploration all the way down to refining and transport. That is the kind of company where we are present with them at multiple divisions.

Downstream, we have a range of products that essentially we call control rooms. It is these large displays that show the entire process from where the raw petroleum comes off the boats into the refinery to all the steps in refining it, separating it and redistributing it. The whole process end-to-end needs to be monitored to make sure it is safe and efficient and that at the end of the day it all works and makes money for the company. We provide the displays and the underlying controlware and software to put that up on a large screen, so that those operators and the decision-makers in that refinery see everything and make the right decisions.

The biggest such control room in the world, at Saudi Aramco, was created by Barco. It runs around 360º, the only one in the world of its type. We have the same application in telecom, traffic and surveillance, which would be the same display with different kinds of controlware, different inputs, but you could monitor anything from an airport to a train line to power distribution. I am venturing a little bit of a guess here, but I would say you probably cannot make a phone call in India or consume electricity in India today that is not monitored on a Barco display. Our presence is that strong.

These displays are made from cubes, and the control room at the Jamnagar refinery has 198 cubes. There is so much information that needs to be looked at and shared in making decisions and ensuring smooth operations that you really want to have it all up there in front of you. You can’t get it all in one place unless you have a large display. Some companies try to run this from a normal computer screen, you don’t want to be caught in that situation – but want to have all your information available to you, and you want to have alarms.

We provide the controlware in a refinery like Jamnagar, which by the way processes 2% of the world’s petroleum. In such a critical refinery you don’t want Windows to freeze. There is a ton of information that needs to be dealt with. To make sure that it operates smoothly you want to represent that visually, and you want to have it in a very simple form – you want to have all the sensors that much petroleum, there is a lot of information coming in from sensors and all that data from the sensors is represented there.

Also what’s interesting is that because there are so many different integrators in the process and different software and hardware platforms, they do not necessarily speak the same visual language. The visual vocabulary will be different. If you have Microsoft software for some applications, Adobe software for others, and Oracle software for others on your PC, it’s not necessarily the case that all of them will have the same interfaces. As an operator, you do not want to be in a situation where your refinery is burning down, and you have to ask whether it is the red or blue button that you have to push! We have software that abstracts the interfaces of these various applications, and allows the end user to define a common visual vocabulary so that their operators and managers are seeing unified information – green means everything is good, orange means let’s be careful, red means alarm.

Your hardware and software has huge numbers of different applications across many different industries. To what extent do you have to tailor your offering for specific sectors? To what extent do you have to focus on getting exactly what that sector wants, and how difficult is that when you are working with so many different sectors?

Before, when Barco was only selling displays, there was no room to customize and no room to add value, and so somebody else had to figure out how to put that in place or we had to live with the fact that the blue button was used for one company and the red button for another. And more and more, as Barco as a company evolves, our technology tries to make life easier for the customer. What we do is provide building blocks. We will do some of our customization as we have done up there, together with some partners, but more and more the first thing we have is the displays, the control ware and the software, and the software is where all the hooks are present for customization.

So we try and make that extensible, we try and work both with partners – the first and easiest level would be the IT department inside the customer’s company, followed by systems integrators. How much is required? It can vary. Jamnagar is a high customization job. In a more basic situation like a security application, the inputs are cameras, could be 64 cameras and 64 little windows that you see displayed, but then there would be a layer of software in there that says, why should we show all 64 inputs – let’s show the 4 important ones and have alarms so that if there is an unusual event then that particular camera feed moves up front. And is that customization? It is. Is it very difficult? It is not hugely difficult, especially with the platforms we provide.

The key words would be building blocks and extensible – we provide the building blocks, it is extensible, it can be customized by us but the customer depending on the extent required can also customize it.

I imagine that your business model here in India is to target the biggest players and wait for the trickle-down effect for companies to latch onto your technologies. Not everyone is going to be an early adopter – the multinationals will bring you to the market and local companies will follow. In terms of market penetration in India, what are your aims and ambitions? Are there still big targets left to achieve?

In some sectors of Barco like medical we might go with the early adopters first, but certainly in oil and gas, utilities and infrastructure we tend to go with the big players, because the scale and scope of their projects are large, and the larger things are the more complex they are, and the more complex they are the more you need the right tools to manage them, so it is a natural progression in how we interact with our customers, to go with the larger customers first.

That being said, we have got a very strong position with the larger players. Does that mean game over, we won? No it does not. In the energy sector, India has a chronic undersupply and lack of efficiency in energy: we are not able to produce enough, and what we produce does not get transported to the user very efficiently. Therefore the need for more efficiency through systems like this and also the need for more and more exploration is crucial, because supply is limited, so from both points of view there is plenty of scope for us to grow, and we are in the commanding position because Barco leads in both upstream and downstream.

My understanding is that there are 14 virtual reality (VR) centres for the 3D exploration side of oil and gas activities, and Barco has an 80% market share. However, we know that two years from now, there will be 8-10 more of these VR centres to be built.

How does Barco, this incredibly efficient Belgian company view its operations in India, not the easiest place in the world to do business and get things achieved?

We have been here for a long time, about fifteen years. We do manufacturing here. Barco globally has about 3500 employees. Of that 3500, 1500 are in Belgium where the company is headquartered. Of the remaining 2000, almost 500 are here in India. For the non-Belgian workforce of our company, we in India have one quarter of them.

Obviously, we believe in the country, both as a market and as a global location for many competencies. We are doing manufacturing, but we also do R&D here – we have both hardware and software R&D for multiple divisions and also at multiple stages in the product development lifecycle. We have a couple of other back office functions here, including IT for some segments of the company globally, which is managed out of here. We also run customer services for Asia Pacific out of this location, so our commitment to India is very serious, we have been able to target and harness the skills that are available.

You came to work for Barco in Japan, Having lived most of your life there. Japan is a very technologically developed country, and in India the market is very different: there is huge demand but huge room for growth. What were the biggest differences and challenges you faced when you first arrived here?

First of all, the very interesting and nice thing about Barco is that we have different verticals and I look at them as pistons in an engine – they fire at different rates of efficiency, so what you see in Japan, even in the years I was running Barco Japan, there were some years where the entertainment business was the core, and then years when utilities and infrastructure business was at the forefront. The beauty of Barco is that perhaps not all of them are going to be at the highest level of efficiency, but when you spread things out, it all resonates and harmonizes.

In Japan the entertainment business was a big part of our business in the years that I was there. Today, healthcare is doing very well and control rooms is doing very well. Likewise with Barco India, we have always had a strong business in control rooms and the large infrastructure and utilities sector, but coming here, one of the things we have really worked on is growing simulation, entertainment and healthcare. The strengths of each economy become very clear when you start looking at it from this point of view, and emphasizing different business units here than I would in another country, and I am sure that evolution will happen at different rates but across all the different countries we operate in.

Do you have a final message that you would like to send to our readers about Barco India?

The potential of the market is very large. Don’t treat it like you might treat any other country, because there are some specific requirements here. The need to analyse the data and the reports well is very high, because that market intelligence, having it or not having it will make a very big difference in the outcome of your investments.

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