René Raaijmakers
6 May 2016

Mechatronics and software are now a single division at Alten. All the company’s engineers now work for Alten Technology. The French company is also making a global bet on business intelligence, and its Dutch branch is joining in. Managing director Eric Haesen on Alten’s redesign.

Alten intends to harness the synergy that comes from mixing engineering and business IT. To underscore that commitment, Alten Mechatronics and Alten PTS are merging to become Alten Technology. The unit’s engineers will work closely with Alten IT, the new name for the activities the company added last year when it acquired Eclipse IT.

Eclipse operated primarily in company-wide automation and IT for the banking and insurance industries. In addition to a hundred new employees, the acquisition of the just-ten-years-young company gave Alten access to major customers such as T-Mobile and Achmea. Eclipse contributed two new specialties: testing and business intelligence. With their addition, Alten is positioning itself in non-engineering markets for the first time. In testing and testing services, the company will compete with CGI and Sogeti. Like Alten Technology, Alten IT provides both consulting services and project management. In addition, the IT division runs centres where it fulfils service contracts and manages customer applications.

Synergy between technical and business automation: we’ve heard that before. It was Ronald Kasteel at Ordina who in 2003 in Bits&Chips sketched the added value of housing embedded software and business IT under one roof and stated great ambitions for the unification of these two specialties at his company. Along the way he dismissed small software specialists as unimportant. ‘Pretty much anyone can sell embedded software services now. That world will soon cease to exist,’ predicted Ordina’s director in 2003. ‘Ultimately, only four major players will remain.’ Nearly every technical automation company fell upon him back then, arguing against his claim in several columns in this magazine.

Bill Gates told us twenty years ago that the changes in IT may not seem large from year to year, but that a decade makes a world of difference. The manufacturing industry now works in the cloud, its plants and machines spew out massive amounts of operational data, and companies have an urgent need for technology that can distil these towering haystacks into useful information. Add in the Internet of Things and big data, and the link between engineering and office is once again hot.

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Eric Haesen, managing director at Alten Nederland: ‘Not even we thought that our user experience division would become this big.’

On the money

‘Internationally speaking, we’re seventy percent product development, R&D and other engineering disciplines, and the rest is IT,’ says Eric Haesen, Alten Nederland’s managing director. The composition differs from country to country, depending on the company’s history there. ‘Only in Germany and Sweden are we one hundred percent technology.’

To achieve its goals, Alten completed no fewer than nine acquisitions last year, mainly in European countries but also in Canada. That added more than eight hundred employees to its roster. The company’s organic growth was even greater. In total, the number of employees at the French company grew in 2015 from 18,400 to 20,400. Total revenue grew by 12 per cent that year, to 1,541 million euros. When the company announced that last figure, it said it would continue to follow its current strategy of acquisitions and organic growth.

In the Netherlands, we know Alten primarily for its information-intensive engineering disciplines with a focus on R&D. Eric Haesen and Arjen van Herwaarden began the Dutch branch in 2005 and soon thereafter took over the technical software company PTS. Four years ago Alten also moved into mechatronics, for which it created a separate division. That decision turned out to be right on the money. Largely under the influence of trends in robotics, Alten Mechatronics expanded to thirty-five employees (at the end of 2015). Alten Technology currently employs more than three hundred mechanical engineers, computer engineers, mechatronics engineers, electronics engineers, and specialists with backgrounds in mathematics and physics.

That technological expertise is a good fit for current trends related to the Internet of Things and big data. Business intelligence has everything to do with data analysis and with creating reports that are comprehensible to management and other decision-makers. ‘Companies want to extract what makes sense and what doesn’t from mountains of data,’ says Haesen, ‘whether that data comes from plants, devices or sensors in the field. Our engineering activities put us close to the sensors, and our business intelligence centres us in the world of analysis.’

Haesen expects his technological specialists to be a huge asset for customers in the business world. ‘Everywhere where you’d need an engineer in regular IT. Look at business-critical things like payment systems. At telecom companies and banks, they’re ridiculously complex. They’re dealing with problems that we know how to solve. Consider stability and availability. While regular IT service providers often focus on the functional side, we focus on the more technical aspects, the non-functional requirements such as availability, performance and robustness. These lurk quietly in the background, but they’re exactly the things that often create problems. Just look at data traffic flows at the Dutch tax authority.’

Eye opener

Alten spent the last five years consistently growing its presence in user experience, a new specialty that has achieved striking success. User experience, or UX as Alten calls it, was initially housed under the Alten PTS hood, making it largely invisible for quite some time. Now the company employs 15 UX experts. ‘And these are not software specialists,’ Haesen emphasizes. ‘Five years ago we had trouble convincing customers. Now demand just keeps on growing. Not even we thought it would become this big.’

User interfaces bubbled up as a focus area at Alten five years ago, within the company’s technical software operations. At first the company had the idea that its UX experts should also develop software, but it has since let go of that thought. ‘It’s truly a different animal from software development,’ says Haesen. ‘Software engineers do need to make sure they have a good understanding of UX, however, and they need to know when to call in a UX expert.’

UX was an eye opener for many of his customers, Haesen says. Often, they were initially unconvinced and started out small, with a four-week project. ‘But after a few weeks the value of the extra focus on UX became clear. We no longer have to explain it to our existing customers.’

User experience is no longer solely about functionality; it also has to be easy and attractive. Pretty much all product developers now understand that a good interface can set them apart from the crowd. ‘It’s eye candy,’ Haesen says. ‘Smooth animations are appealing. It seems pointless from an engineering point of view, but if it looks good, that has value. The wow factor is important in engineering, too. The amount of attention now focused on UX underscores just how important. For companies that make consumer products, it was already that way, but now you see it in business-to-business. We all want a pleasant experience.’

Alten has completed several UX projects, among them creating interfaces for fruit-sorting machines, radar systems and medical applications. ‘These are intensive projects,’ says Haesen. ‘You used to have an industrial designer draw up a concept, and then the engineering department took over and turned it into software. Now the designer or UX expert is involved from start to finish. In a software development team of seven people, there’s typically one UX designer. He or she often spends a year on it, from initial design to product release.’