21st Century Technology Solutions – Board change brings new strategy for tech specialist
A strategic change has been made to the board of 21st Century Technology Solutions in the UK
At the end of last year, Russ Singleton was announced as the new CEO of the bus and coach technology specialists and Glenn Robinson was made the new Group Finance Director. Both with entrepreneurial backgrounds, they were appointed to bring a fresh approach to the business
Chris Peat met Russ and 21st Century’s new Divisional Director for UK & Ireland Bus Operation, Andrew Prince, at the company’s Croydon headquarters to get an insight into what this change has meant
According to Russ, the move is expected to bring about a strategic change in direction for the business in 2014, seeing it concentrate much more on collaborative integrated solutions. Although it is fair to say the company is one of the best known suppliers of bus and coach CCTV, its latest activity involves a whole lot more than cameras. Its most recent push is aimed at integrating entire bus and coach electronic systems, including driver and vehicle efficiency and passenger counting solutions amongst others, into one wider onboard and back office compatible network. It moves from there being a series of different, independently working electrical systems to a network of attached devices, which can all be accessed remotely.
This is something the company is already very capable of doing. As Andrew explained, on a typical ‘frontline’ double decker there can be 16 CCTV cameras, which can then be linked up to at least half a dozen subsystems, including passenger counting devices, destination displays, GPS and wi-fi as well as a number of others. This modern approach of integrating such systems means that if, for example, an accident occurs, it can provide information on when and where it happened, as well as how many passengers were onboard at the time. One advantage of this is that it helps protect operators from fraudulent claims.
Backing all of this up, the company has an extensive back office helpdesk that can provide any number of bespoken reports to support the customers’ operational demands, ‘the flexibility of these reports is key to our customers operation’, commented Andrew. All hardware, from cameras and passenger sensors to TFT displays and driver performance monitoring devices is also all supplied for these joined up solutions. One recent innovation that helps 21st Century achieve this connected network of devices is the use of 4G telecommunications technology, which doesn’t require any specific access points or other costly infrastructure to provide efficient wireless broadband internet access.
The decision to further focus its business towards integration follows a difficult trading year in 2013, when the business saw a reduction in sales, particularly in continental Europe. 21st Century believes the combined skill and experience of Russ and Glenn makes for a ‘powerful team’ to lead the business. It is believed their track record of building small to mid-scale security companies will be particularly valuable as it implements the new strategy.
Russ said, ‘The Board of 21st Century has taken a bold step in allowing myself and Glenn to re-focus the business in order to improve customer service, increase technical capability, empower management and deliver sustainable long term organic and acquisitive growth. 21st Century will continue to lead the field in terms of the specialist provision of integrated mobile technology to the UK bus and rail industries. To achieve this we will be working with global scale product companies and local specialists to deliver highly reliable and cost-effective solutions for transport operators. The service offering includes design, tailoring, installation, on-site support and back office systems which allow our operators to focus on running their fleets.’
As well as this push towards integrated systems, the company continues to provide its innovative transport solutions and service support options across its wide customer base within the UK and Ireland, and has won two major rail contracts in the regions. In continental Europe, it has both retained and grown its existing business for CCTV and passenger counting systems with Keolis and Arriva. In 2013, the company’s driver behaviour systems, EcoManager and the new ‘Konfort’ system, were installed in vehicles for Deutsche Bahn in Germany and Keolis in France, with further deployments looked forward to throughout this year.
Closer to home it has fitted EcoManager to Preston Bus’s 90 strong fleet. There was an initial scepticism amongst drivers who were suspicious of having their driving monitored. Preston Bus worked very closely with 21st Century to overcome the initial concerns and introduced an EcoDriver Awards Scheme. Drivers earn financial rewards for being the best or most improved EcoDriver.
EcoManager is a web based system that helps influence drivers’ behaviour by monitoring their driving and giving immediate feedback through a red-amber-green dashboard display. While the product’s dashboard display informs drivers of their performance instantly, EcoCoaches are deployed for ongoing training both in theory and in practice onboard the vehicle. Extensive, user friendly online reports give drivers access to their weekly and monthly overview via a password on the website, allowing them to compare themselves to the depot average, while managers can identify drivers who may require specific additional training.
The operator took the decision to install the equipment in an effort to improve fuel economy and the safety and comfort of passengers. It has been about one year since it did this and it has reported that those objectives have been realised. Passengers have noticed a difference, with Preston Bus reporting fewer complaints about poor driving, harsh braking and cornering.
Almost the entire Preston Bus fleet is being fitted with EcoDriver (with the exception of its hybrid buses). It has gone down so well with the operator that 21st Century is now in the process of fitting the same system to all 540 vehicles in the fleet of Preston Bus’s parent company, Rotala.
Additionally, the operator has found it has lowered the stress levels of its drivers. Preston Bus’s Marketing Manager, Fiona Whalley, said, ‘Our drivers are telling us that they are experiencing reduced stress levels. We believe this is a direct effect of their EcoDriver training as they are driving with smoother braking and acceleration.’
With around 8,000 installations, EcoManager and its recent derivative ‘Konfort’ is now in its fourth generation. The second incarnation of the product saw the system able to connect into a vehicle’s CANbus system, allowing the data it collects through this to be integrated with other bus system performance information. It has developed from simply being a green driving device to a fully functional telematics solution. The company is currently developing the fifth generation of the system, which sees it integrating even more of the previously standalone technology together into the unit.
EcoManager is not the only solution 21st Century is focusing on at the moment. The company is predicting that passenger counting in the UK will follow Europe’s lead and grow in importance over the next 12 months. It is receiving enquiries from companies wishing to explore cost effective ways of obtaining accurate passenger figures, particularly in support of operator contracts.
21st Century has already extensively rolled out its Passenger Counting software in continental Europe, where accurate passenger numbers are required under many contract operating terms. The data gathered by this technology is vital to anyone who requires accurate, real time information about passenger movements in order to maximise fare revenue and optimise vehicle allocations. Knowing how many passengers board and alight each vehicle at every location helps traffic planners draw up appropriate and efficient timetables, ensuring routes are appropriately served at differing times of day to meet varying demand. As well as providing ‘proof of performance’ when negotiating tenders, operators can also link passenger information to ticketing systems to help identify and combat fraud.
Andrew Prince said, ‘There are a number of reasons why operators require accurate passenger numbers. Now with the aid of technology we can deliver the data, in a cost effective way, and in many cases integrate with existing infrastructure.’
Working with customers
Whether it is installing passenger counting systems or EcoManager, Andrew said one of the main challenges is having to work around operators’ schedules. Fitting equipment and putting in place software solutions should not interfere with busy transport firms’ day to day activities, some of which are on the go 24/7. This means the company’s team has to be flexible, not only with installation, but with its service and support. To this end, 21st Century’s service helpline is open all hours of the day. In terms of maintenance, flexibility is again practiced, with scheduled or reactive maintenance options tailored to meet customer needs. It employs experienced on-site engineers and provides full access to its technical support team and its web based customer reporting system.
Something else 21st Century has to consider is the ‘very harsh’ environment its products are being fitted to in the transport industry, particularly for things like its mobile CCTV solutions. Not only do they have to contend with vibrations from the vehicle, but also extremes in temperature, moisture and dust. Andrew said, ‘I don’t think people fully appreciate how demanding an environment it is.’
The toughness of the operating environment requires the company to constantly maintain and develop its quality in order to ensure its equipment has a long operational life. It carries out extensive testing on its items, subjecting them to shake tests and extremes in temperature. Its hardware could probably last the full life of a bus, potentially around the 18 year mark, according to Andrew. Its software is similarly designed to be long lasting, based on an open platform so it can be linked in with other programmes. Russ said the company’s ethos is to do all it can to prevent its customers from buying into any products or software that is closed or proprietary as this would otherwise lock the customers into a single manufacturer. All in all, he said the business aims to use open platform software and ‘best of breed’ products to build durable and expandable solutions for its customers. This is what enables the business to offer long warranties on all of the solutions it sells.
Russ said 21st Century works hard to keep customers appraised of any new developments in technology that offer improved performance at lower cost life cost. It employs a small R&D team to ensure new technologies and software that are under development can then be trialled in real-life bus operating environments to iron out any issues prior to fleet deployments. For many years, the UK led the way when it comes to bus and coach digital CCTV recording, which according to Russ came about in response to the threat of terrorism during the 1970’s.The rest of the world has been catching up fast since 9/11 which was a major catalyst within the US market who have since accepted public area surveillance with some large scale network deployments of IP CCTV networks.
Greater roll out of high definition CCTV is part of what Russ sees as a wider scale introduction of better connected technology along the lines of the Smarter Cities initiative. He says that in the long term, it will play a key part in the mass movement of people, which is expected to become an even greater concern as city regions grow, exacerbating the traffic congestion issue. To ensure its products match up with future demands for CCTV, 21st Century works with leading suppliers, including AD Holdings, Timespace Technology and Hikvision, having developed what Russ considers strong relationships with them.
It is not just about having the right products; 21st Century aims to look after the ‘human element’ too. It offers training in its products for its customers and staff. Russ said that as the business model evolves it will offer to manage the personnel and systems on behalf of its customers to enable them to concentrate fully on their key operational issues; reducing their cost and improving performance.
To further ensure it delivers the outcomes its customers are looking for, Russ said the technology specialist is actively seeking businesses it can partner with, to bring in skill sets useful to the company. He is looking forward to the next few years, which he believes will bring about the further roll out of integrated onboard bus and coach systems, seeing the move from a series of standalone items on a bus or coach to fully connected networks.