Not many companies can claim that their products have been launched into deep space and plunged to the depths of the ocean floor. But then there really aren’t many companies quite like Sensor Technology Ltd.—at least not in Canada.
The company is an industry leader in a very niche field— the design and manufacture of piezoelectric ceramic solutions, custom acoustic transducers and custom hydrophones—with customers ranging from major oil and gas exploration firms to various navies around the world, including the mighty U.S. fleet. From its long-time base in Collingwood, Ont., Sensor Technology has also become an export powerhouse, shipping its products to more than 40 countries across the globe.
A dedication to ongoing innovation, a focus on smart strategic decision-making and an emphasis on product diversification have help transform a tiny family business into a Canadian high-tech manufacturing success story.
“When the last downturn happened we had a couple of really lean years and that became a good opportunity for us to develop some new products, new markets and diversify a bit,” says Sensor Technology’s CEO Niru Somayajula. “We’re starting to see the results of that now, and we’re not tied to any one market. That’s been one of the main reasons for our growth over the last few years.”
Sensor Technology’s topline revenue has surged by an impressive 78 per cent since 2016, and management is in the midst of adding a new manufacturing facility in Halifax that will employ five people, with a rapid east-coast expansion in the strategic forecast. The company now employs 42 workers—its Collingwood headquarters is also poised to double production capacity—and ships more than 80 per cent of its products to markets such as France, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Malaysia and Norway. Perhaps most importantly, Sensor Technology holds a virtual monopoly on the piezoelectric ceramic market Canada, and competes with only a relative handful of firms abroad.
Of course, industry outsiders would be forgiven for not fully understanding what piezoelectric ceramics are, let alone what they do.
“The basic concept of what we make are underwater communication devices,” explains Somayajula. “Acoustics are the best way to communicate underwater because they transmit really well. We essentially make underwater speakers and microphones. The applications are endless for anyone that wants to talk underwater.
“A big market for us is defence, whether you’re wanting to do harbour surveillance, submarine communication, or oil and gas exploration where a company might want to map the ocean floor to look for hydrocarbons they can drill into—all of that mapping is done with acoustics.”
Sensor Technology was originally an offshoot of long-defunct Blue Mountain Pottery, which made ceramic bowls, vases and other knick-knacks. In the early 1980s the company was aiming to broaden its product line with an emphasis on cutting-edge applications, and hired Somayajula’s father to help develop a new line of advanced piezoelectric ceramics. After a series of ownership changes, he would eventually purchase Blue Mountain Pottery’s high-tech division along with several partners.
Then opportunity struck.
At the time, the U.S. navy began issuing research and development grants to help expand its supplier base of high-tech ceramics. Sensor Technology was an eager recipient, using the funds to develop the formulations and recipes to customize and perfect its ceramic products to the exact specifications of discerning government and multinational customers. Opportunities arose with other government agencies, and participation in a series of research projects eventually led to Sensor Technology’s ceramics being blasted into orbit and utilized in various zero-gravity experiments.
Somayajula joined the company in 2007, before teaming with two partners to buy it from her parents in 2011. Since then the CEO has focused on refining Sensor Technology’s sophisticated product line and further growing its international customer base. She says being Canadian has offered a competitive advantage on the world stage.
“We don’t have sales reps or agents overseas and we find we can do that in part because we’re from Canada,” she explains of the inherent trust and credibility that tend to accompany businesspeople carrying a passport from the Great White North.
Another advantage has been Sensor Technology’s emphasis on customization. While manufacturers in countries such as China make similar piezoelectric ceramics, Somayajula says they tend to be lower quality. By specializing and eschewing the temptation to focus on volume sales, the company has carved a lucrative niche.
“People can buy off the shelf products from a lot of our competitors, but when you’re charging Canadian labour prices, there has to be more value,” Somayajula notes.
Because Sensor Technology’s customers are system integrators—meaning they acquire components from various manufacturers and assemble them into one product, such as sonar systems—they tend to experience rapid component burn rates.
“We tune our production to match their input requirements,” Somayajula adds. “That helps them manage cash flow more effectively because they’re receiving so many parts per week and aren’t doing big outlays of money. We keep their production going by tailoring ours to match theirs. There’s not many companies that do that.”
While advanced manufacturing processes and high-touch customer service have undoubtedly propelled Sensor Technology’s success, so, too, has a highly-engaged workforce that relishes the opportunity to work on challenging, world-class projects, while also enjoying life away from the office. In that sense, Somayajula says that being headquartered in Collingwood has been a game-changing asset.
“I think the biggest benefit to being in Collingwood is the cultural aspect. Because we export 80 per cent of our product we don’t need to be in any particular location in North America. What we offer to our employees is the ability to have a better life and to have work-life balance.
“Most of our employees live within 20 km of Collingwood,” the CEO continues. “They’re not commuting an hour each day. If we were located in the Greater Toronto Area, that wouldn’t happen. I think that’s probably the biggest advantage. We could be located anywhere in Canada, but Collingwood’s a pretty awesome place to live.”