25 Apr SLE of Eau Claire lands $2.2 million in federal contracts
In a long-planned departure from its traditional focus, high-end computer chip company Silicon Logic Engineering has contracted with the U.S. Army for development of two different products.
SLE, based in Eau Claire, announced today that it has secured $2.2 million in federal contracts for fiscal year 2005. The company has been working with the Army’s Research, Development and Engineering Command (CERDEC) to develop a low-cost battery life indicator and data acquisition device for use with a speech recognition system. The company began working on research and development last year; it is now in phase two of the projects, which is to turn the R&D done in phase one into actual products, according to SLE President Jeff West.
“It’s a nice win to get this year,” West said. “It’s something that we’ve been hoping the last three years to grow, and we’ve been doing quite well with it.”
SLE’s core competency for many years has been the design and development of complex application specific integrated circuits (ASICs) for use by such high-end customers as Nortel Networks and Cisco Systems. The company also has co-developed ASICs with the likes of Texas Instruments. Though SLE is using an ASIC to integrate the various components of its new battery power level indicator, these latest projects represent the first time the company has ventured into actual development of items that could be taken into mass production.
“It’s certainly a different direction,” said West, who co-founded SLE in 1996. “It’s still leveraging the engineering talents we have here, but it’s leveraging it in a form that we haven’t done typically in the past.
“We have felt for quite a long time that we could have some value if we found the right fit within some of the armed services projects we saw out there,” he added. “At the same time, it allows us to expand and stretch our engineering capabilities as well.”
That process has taken SLE beyond its typical regimen of working with a single customer and a single silicon vendor to produce a chip. This time around, SLE has been just one of numerous companies and support organizations giving input on the two products, according to SLE’s Jason Pecor, who is program manager for both projects.
“There’s been a lot of relationship-building with other contractors for the government as we go forth in this process,” Pecor said. In addition, SLE has been challenged to think beyond the chip and consider industrial design and the mechanics of the products it is developing.
“We spent a lot of time talking with the Army, understanding what their needs were and then also understanding some of he other users that would perhaps benefit from this and finding out what their needs would be,” Pecor noted.
In funding the two products, the government and the Army called on SLE to help solve a couple of problems. The need for the battery indicator, which basically looks like a small circuit board and some LEDs that indicate the remaining charge in a battery, has become apparent because soldiers using electronic devices routinely swap out batteries without knowing the amount of juice remaining in them. Without knowing how long those batteries have left to live, Army units buy, stock, carry and dispose of more batteries than necessary. SLE’s new product is meant to significantly reduce premature disposal of good batteries, which the Army hopes will result in reduced cost and support.
SLE will be working with the Army’s largest battery supplier to do field testing of the indicator later this year or in early 2006, West said, and hopes to have the indicator in production by the second half of next year.
The company also is developing a prototype, which it hopes to have completed by the end of this year, of a data acquisition device for speech recognition technology. Noting the amount of time it takes for a soldier on the ground to key in coordinates and other information on enemy movements to a central command post, the Army is working with SLE on a device to collect voice data reliably in environments with lots of ambient noise.
The idea, Pecor said, is to have a device that can interface with other equipment over a standard protocol bus, such as USB. “That way it can be applicable to numerous platforms instead of having some proprietary protocol,” Pecor said. “Wherever we want to use it, they would have to be able to adapt to it.
Working on the product R&D was one thing; getting help with the federal appropriations process was quite another, West said.
“We had tried on our own for a few years to see if we could get in the queue on these and found out that with a government project, you need to be either well-connected or know how the game’s played, which is really different than out in the commercial space.” So SLE hired a sales representative with the appropriate expertise, who helped guide the company and connect it with U.S. Representative Ron Kind, D-La Crosse, who played a key role in landing the appropriations from Congress for SLE.
“The key pat of it is understanding how the appropriations process happens,” West said. “It’s a long lead time. We’ve already worked on and got in the appropriations money that we’ll need for next year. So you have to be thinking much farther ahead than you typically do with external commercial customers.
“It’s not for the weak of heart; on the other hand, if you find somebody who knows that process who can help you, there are a lot of opportunities there, a lot of places we’ve found that we can add value.”