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It’s all systems go


Workers monitoring how the many signals from various sensors are being relayed to control rooms from the actual equipment on site.

Workers monitoring how the many signals from various sensors are being relayed to control rooms from the actual equipment on site.

Ecava Sdn Bhd, a local company specialising in integrating various automation tools and systems, started as a three-man outfit but now serves clients as far away as the US and Europe, writes LIM WING HOOI.

BUSINESSES exist to serve a need, but identifying needs isn’t always easy. Even large corporations running full-fledged businesses sometimes fail to spot new opportunities.

Sometimes, it’s the employees of large companies servicing clients who realise there’s a deficit in the service. And if they are entrepreneurial enough, they capitalise on this by starting their own business.

This certainly was the case with Lee Kok Peng, founder and CEO of Ecava Sdn Bhd, a systems integrator.

Lee, who was working with a conglomerate in the oil-and-gas industry, was not happy with the software used to integrate various automation tools, from conveyor belt systems to pumps and other monitoring sensors. He thought he could do better.

The Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s gave that nudge for him and two of his colleague, Wong Kin Hoon and Wong Foot Yow, to strike out on their own.

“Times were bad during the financial crisis, and we knew we were on the verge of losing our jobs so we decided to start doing freelance work as systems integrators,” he remembers.

Some of their clients included those serviced by their former employer, and they also managed to get new clients in the O&G industry.

As they worked on a freelance basis, Lee and his team put their heads together and developed their own software called the IntegraXor or IGX. It took them about two years to develop the first version, and it was rolled out in 2003 and used in-house.

It’s vital to test the various sensors to ensure that the right signals are being sent back to the software system.
It’s vital to test the various sensors to ensure that the right signals are being sent back to the software system.

According to Lee, developing a programme like the IGX, which uses programming software like the Visual C++, on a commercial basis usually requires a company of the size of about 400 people.

There were only the three of them, but they still managed to build it, even if it took a longer time as they leveraged on existing web interface to use as their dashboard and other open-source software to design items that mimic the actual equipment in real-life, such as valves and dials on control panels.

With their own software firing on all cylinders, the trio then went on to establish Ecava in 2005 using their savings. with Kin Hoong as chief technology officer and Foot Yow as chief financial officer.

“We started in a rented shop office with no staff – we had to do all the administrative work ourselves,” Lee recalls.

(From left) Foot Yow, Lee and Kin Hoon worked as freelancers when they first started the business.
(From left) Foot Yow, Lee and Kin Hoon worked as freelancers when they first started the business.

They also started using their software to serve the needs of their customers, which include local transportation providers and utility companies. The scope of their work includes providing monitoring and control software.

Ecava’s control software can be downloaded onto the smartphones of engineers, and this would allow them to do rectification activities remotely, away from the site.

Even after the company grew, employed with a staff of 12 and moved to the Technology Park in Bukit Jalil in 2008, they did not have any sales or administration staff – everyone was a systems engineer.

“We automated everything, from payroll to leave application,” Lee explains.

Of course, there are things you can’t automate, like public relations, he laughs, adding that they have embarked on hiring for the sales and marketing department.

Explaining how they begin each contract job, Lee says they begin by understanding what a client needs to address.

Most of the staff at Ecava are system engineers. They only started hiring sales and marketing people recently.
Most of the staff at Ecava are system engineers. They only started hiring sales and marketing people recently.

A project could take as long as three months for straightforward monitoring work for substation or telecommunication monitoring, while for more complicated projects involved many parties, it could take up to two years.

Ecava has projects in the local market, as well as overseas, including in the US, the UK, Germany, Italy and other EU countries. Once a deal has been sealed, engineers of their clients overseas can download and use the software to build their own monitoring projects using the documentation provided by Ecava.

Lee says they prefer to sell their software rather than become the system integrators themselves.

For a business, any delay could affect the cashflow, Lee explains, and hence not something that they are overly keen on.

“We prefer to sell the software and let system integrators use the software to help them in their project-based work,” he stresses.

This business model is more scaleable, and attractive to investors as well, Lee adds.

As such, along this line, Ecava has moved on to develop a software which is more modular and could become a source of revenue on its own.

“We begin with doing documentation and packaging as well as optional upgrades,” Lee says, adding that the software is sold for about RM2,000, depending on the customised features of the software. The software price could even go as high as RM100,000 for fabrication plants in the semiconductor industry where they would need to integrate hundreds of thousands of points in the fabrication process.

The software was launched as an off-the-shelf platform in 2010 with over 700 copies sold for use in the semiconductor, nuclear power, airports to building automation industry.

Moving forward, Lee says they will develop more optional features to cater to the growing needs of automation in today’s society.

   

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