Switzerland: Acutronic gets into motion

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You might expect the country that makes the world's finest timepieces to be good at all sorts of precision products. So it is with motion test simulation equipment. Acutronic - a company of 120 employees based in Bubikon, near Lake Zurich - is not a brand of watches but the world's biggest supplier of the highly specialist machines used by the makers of missile sensors, flight display units and other inertial guidance systems.

It is a niche market even when you add the automotive and consumer electronics sectors Acutronic also supplies, with about five players. After it established US production facilities in Pittsburgh in 1989, a burst of consolidation in the 1990s and 2000s saw Acutronic, founded in 1973, acquire two of its competitors.

Together with its legacy businesses Acutronic has delivered about 1,000 inertial guidance test systems and so-called hardware in the loop equipment for missiles and smart munitions, and the company continues to build up to 40 systems a year, most of them for aerospace.

 
Acutronic's customers include the elite of the aerospace industry. Picture: Acutronic

The equipment ranges from off-the-shelf one-axis systems used to calibrate low-tech products such as gyroscopes or accelerometers to top-of-the-range five-axis motion simulators, built to order for customers including MBDA, which uses an Acutronic machine to test the seeker head of the German Panavia Tornado's Taurus missile.

Customers comprise the elite of the aerospace industry - BAE Systems, Boeing, Honeywell, Lockheed Martin, Meggitt, Sagem and Thales - as well as some small start-ups, says Beat Brunner, vice-president customers and markets.

It is not a price-sensitive market - motion test simulation equipment is a vital one-off purchase that customers need to get right, says Brunner. However, Acutronic's cost base is a challenge, given the high value of the Swiss franc and the fact that more than half its Swiss staff have engineering degrees.

Another problem - ironically - is the reliability of the equipment, making the products attractive but replacement purchases rare. "It lasts almost forever," says Brunner. However, the machines do need to be serviced annually with parts occasionally replaced, and aftersales make up about 20% of the company's SFr44 million ($44 million) revenues.

With the European market fast becoming saturated, Acutronic has just opened a sales office in China, and may add a production facility. "Although we have some potential in Europe with start-ups or customers increasing production, the real growth for us will come from new markets in Asia and Russia," says Brunner.