Dunstan Power, director and co-founder of Bytesnap Design, talks to Steve Rogerson in our series of interviews for CIEonline. Having graduated with a degree in engineering from Cambridge University, Power has been working in the electronics industry since 1992. In 2004 he founded Diglis Design, an electronic design consultancy, where he developed a number of electronic boards and FPGA designs. In 2008, he teamed up with former colleague Graeme Wintle to establish Bytesnap Design to supply clients with integrated software development and embedded design services.
Power became a Chartered Engineer in 1998 and has designed a large array of products that are in use all around the world, from marine to medical, industrial to automotive, gaming platforms, energy metering, and electronics used in researching condors and porpoises.
In 2011, his company won the Elektra Design Team of the Year Award and was a finalist on the same award the following year. The design team was also shortlisted in the 2011 and highly commended in the 2012 British Engineering Excellence Awards. In 2010, Bytesnap Design became the first electronics company to win an Accredit UK quality standard.
His hobbies include drumming, hill walking and climbing.
1. How important was it for you to win the Elektra Design Team of the Year Award?
That was really important. We had been going four years at the time and it was great recognition of the work we had been doing over those years. From a marketing point of view over the following year, it was really great. It gives customers more confidence in us; it shows we are established with a track record. Having the accreditation from a third party helped us gain business over the next 12 months.
Consultancy is a real trust business, so potential customers are looking for as much validation as possible, so recommendations from other people are very important. Having an award like that is important for getting customers who we haven’t dealt with before. It helps make up their mind.
2. You have designed electronics used in researching condors and porpoises. How and why?
We do projects in all sorts of fields and one of the nice things in this business is that when the phone rings you never know what it will be. These two contracts were completely independent of each other.
The porpoise one came from the Sea Mammal Research Unit. They go out on trawlers with binoculars and write down how many porpoises they have seen on a particular day. If someone wants to put in a wind farm, for example, they need an environmental impact report and that is part of it. They have now worked out algorithms to detect and identify mammals from their sound rather than using ad hoc methods. This sits on a buoy and says that’s a porpoise or that’s a whale and so on. But they needed a low-power analogue-to-digital converter, so we designed the card for them.
The condors one came from Swansea University. A researcher was looking at flight paths of condors in the Andes. They would attach GPS trackers to them and see where they go. The problem they had was getting the information back. You couldn’t have a high-power radio transmitter because the battery doesn’t last. We developed the release mechanism that drops the pack onto the ground and they could then find that. They are now looking at tracking mountain goats and maybe even badger tracking.
3. What are the pitfalls of offshore manufacturing and design?
We get customers from all over the place and some manufacture in the UK, some never manufacture anything, and some manufacture in China and other countries. There are mixed levels of success with all these options.
There have been a number of customers who have been manufacturing in China and have later wanted to move manufacturing elsewhere and have been surprised to find they don’t own any of the IP. What looked like a great bargain at the outset suddenly looks very sour. We have seen some quite large companies fall for this.
The business model is very different over there. If you want to move, you can be left with nothing. This is common. If you are going to build products in China, think about it first. For low volumes, you don’t need to go that far afield. Those that make a success of it spend a lot of time developing a relationship with the factory over there.
There are also issues about finding local suppliers in design and manufacturing. And there are advantages of the customer being able to visit to look at what is being designed or made if they want to make changes. You can’t do that if you are the other side of the world.
The economics are shifting as well. Transport costs are going up. But for high volume, it will continue to be attractive for European companies, though it makes less sense that it did in the past.
4. What was the hardest mountain or hill that you have climbed?
Without doubt, the hardest mountaineering challenge that I have done is the Welsh 3000s. That is climbing all of the peaks over 3000ft in Snowdonia in one go. Four of us set off at 4am up the first mountain (Crib Goch) and only two of us completed the challenge, finishing back at the car at midnight. The trick to completing it was a big bag of cola bottles.
I am in a group of guys who are now trying to do the Munros in Scotland. These are all over 3000ft and there are hundreds of them. We are working our way through them.
In midsummer, we will try to do the Inaccessible Pinnacle on the Isle of Skye. This is the only one in the UK that you need ropes to get to the top.
5. Bytesnap developed the electronics and software for the electric vehicle charging posts used during the London Olympics. How did you come to be chosen and how important was that contract for gaining future work?
It was pretty much a chance meeting. Round the country there are various schemes and one is called Plugged-In Places. They had a day event at Worcester University and at the event I met someone from Chargepoint Services, who had the Olympics contract from GE. But the problem they has was that the charge posts didn’t meet the specifications that the Olympics committee and Transport for London wanted by a long way. They didn’t measure consumption or communicate with anyone. We designed a board that let the post talk with the server. Every time it charged a vehicle, it communicated with the server so they knew how much to charge people. It was a very pressurised project as they were under a strict time limit.
In terms of future work, it was a high profile job. It is something we can talk about and it gives people confidence in us. We have done a lot of work since the Olympics making posts and related work. The electric vehicle market is still at a young stage and it is a good place to be.