Let's get on the right track

6th February 2018
Lanna Cooper

Getting the best of all worlds is the ultimate goal for any manufacturer, but just how achievable is it, in reality? Vehicle tracking and theft recovery present particular challenges for innovators - challenges that the team at Sure-Track believed had not yet been overcome when they started developing their product. Breakthrough Magazine met Operations Manager, Tim Edwards and Co-Founder Will Hirons, to find out if they’d finally tracked down the perfect solution.

There are hundreds of units out there in the tracking market,” Edwards said. “But if you imagine a triangle formed of three essential components - it must be small, it must have a long battery life and it must be feature-rich - all the existing units fitted onto only two sides of the triangle. If it was small and feature-rich, it used up its battery quickly. If it had lots of features and a large battery, it couldn’t be small, and so on. With Sure-Track, we were looking to make a device that met all three requirements.”

Sure-Track’s story is a classic case of spotting a niche in the market and responding to customer need. The Warwickshirebased company started out in 2002, one of the first to bring first generation GSM (Global System for Mobile communication) tracking to the UK.

Founders Will Hirons and Debbie Davis were approached by another business that needed help to service the vehicle tracking market, particularly in the plant hire industry.

With a background in GSM-based CCTV and using video over the mobile phone network, Will was well-placed to help the other company, which was using the mobile network for the tracking of stolen assets.

“The market that was really addressed at that time was plant hire, which had exploded as far as theft was concerned,” Hirons said. “It had become a soft target for thieves, so there was a massive requirement for a low power, batteryoperated system that was robust enough to work in very harsh environments. You had to actually submerge the unit into the heart of big pieces of plant machinery and that, realistically, discounted GPS systems. So this was a system that used RF-based and GSMbased location services.”

Initially, Sure-Track took on just the monitoring of this system and also set up a network of finders to reach the stolen assets on the ground once their location had been discovered. But, as time went on, it became apparent that the tracking device company’s product development had stalled. Guided by feedback coming from existing customers, Sure-Track started to work on their own, better solution.

“At the time, the GPRS system wasn’t available so everything had to be done over SMS, which was expensive and infrequent,” Hirons said.

“So one of the main problems was that the product was really dormant and didn’t respond often, to let you know it was okay. You could have a product out there that hadn’t spoken to you in two years, so when it got stolen you had to send it a message and hope it was going to answer. Whereas as soon as the GPRS system was released, you effectively had a mobile internet connection, so you could get the product viably talking to you on a regular basis and doing a health check every five or six hours.

“So, the up-and-coming mobile internet was the attraction for us to develop the product, and the inability of the existing company to do that.”

After floating the company on the PLUS Market to raise funds and working their way through early prototypes that proved to be 'tedious failures', the Thatchamaccredited MT2 was finally launched in 2009.

“The first unit we produced was outsourced to an external company and presented to us as a finished product,” Edwards said.

“After monitoring the original unit and then our own product for several years, we moved from just monitoring and finding to bringing more services in-house. We were learning more about it and what was best practice, and taking control of as many of the elements as we could. That way, we could better control the cost, the quality of service to the customer and various efficiencies that interlink between different areas, of which we could take advantage.”

Much of the innovation came with the design of the case and the way that key components are integrated inside. When the unit has to survive being shaken around inside plant machinery as it travels across rough terrain, it’s vital that all the essential elements are protected. An increasing demand for smaller units and the need to outwit criminals have also required innovation within the tech itself.

There are competitor devices out there, but Tim believes they all present one of two problems - both of which Sure-Track has overcome.

“Wired-in trackers that monitor where the vehicle is, how fast it’s going, how well it’s braking etc tend not to be very good for tracking stolen vehicles, because the wires leading to them mean they can be easily found,” he said.

“Plus, they rely on external power and even if it has its own internal battery, it won’t be designed to last very long once the thief disconnects the car’s battery. Also, these units are designed to ‘talk’ all the time and that data chatter can be picked up by any scanners the thieves may have. If you know something’s there, it’s a lot easier to find and any tracker that’s been compromised becomes pointless.”

Naturally, with technology moving on in leaps and bounds, Sure-Track haven’t rested on their laurels. The team is currently working on the MT4, which - in terms of service and operation - will appear to customers as a straight replacement for the existing unit. In reality, it will represent a complete overhaul, based on Sure-Track’s extensive monitoring experience and field research.

“We’ve simulated years’ worth of the units being used in different conditions of coverage, having lots of text messages sent to them - both long and short messages,” Edwards said. “We’ve tested the tamper plate and movement on various different settings. We’ve sent our new trial units to a range of different customers in various parts of the country and asked them to fit one together with the existing unit, so we could run the two in tandem and have a direct correlation to see how our new device performs versus our old one.

“All these different areas of the business, along with my focus and research over the last couple of years, have been fed into every element of the unit. To start with we just wanted a smaller case. Then I thought, ‘If we’re redesigning it like this, how do we get the tamper plate to work? If we do it like that, maybe we can add in some extra features?’

Looking to the future, Tim believes having control over their own design and manufacture process gives them a distinct professional advantage, as they will be able to offer a more bespoke service to their customers. The new design offers the potential to reduce monitoring costs and enter new and related markets.

“We’re the only company we know of that builds its own product - all our competitors buy in units from Europe or China,” he said. “This means there are no middlemen between us and the end user. The amount of flexibility that’s been built into the hardware, the case and the firmware will allow us to develop the product more easily going forward and build on the portfolio we’ve got.

“There are many elements of the design of the physical unit that are innovative, but also the way I’ve designed the firmware, the parameters we’ve put in and the logic the unit uses to operate allows it to self-manage much better. That will also bring about the possibility for lower cost monitoring practices going forward.”

Sure Track has worked with Breakthrough funding, a company that helps UK SMEs achieve R&D tax credits - a government scheme created to enhance and reward innovation amongst UK businesses. Could you be eligible? Click here to learn more.

For more information, click here.

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