Nimble software engineering and smart product development have earned Auckland-based BCS a place as one of the three finalists in the Sanitarium Innovator of the Year competition. Jenny Pretorius reports.
The innovation that earned BCS this honour is its automated self-service bag drop (SSBD) product, marketed by the company as BAGgate™. BAGgate is aimed at optimising airport check-in capacity and at the same time enhancing the passenger experience.
Established in 1993 as a specialist control systems company, BCS is a New Zealand company that provides integrated solutions to the logistics and aviation industries. It supplies hardware, automation controls, and software products to airports, airlines, and freight and industrial customers. These innovative solutions are changing the way businesses and people connect and move globally.
Its core business operates in the aviation sector with complimentary businesses in the adjacent verticals of logistics and industrial. Its Airport Solutions business delivers design, fabrication, and installation and commissioning of complex baggage handling sortation and security screening systems for departing and arriving baggage and passengers. Its Infrastructure Support business provides professional around-the-clock operational and maintenance support for the installed systems of airports and logistics clients. It also specialises in material handling system solutions for the express parcel, general freight, and distribution industries.
Its Services and Solutions business leverages its unique IP to provide value-added end-to-end solutions to enhance operations of both airports and airlines through the delivery of innovative automation-based solutions and industrial intelligence.
BCS chief executive officer Patrick Teo explains BAGgate is a comprehensive self-service baggage check-in solution for common-use platforms that empowers passengers for total self-service. This comprises the issuing of boarding passes and bag tags at the self-service check-in kiosk followed by the passenger putting the tags on their bag and dropping it at the BCS BAGgate for a fully automated acceptance.
“Demand for self service is growing and according to the 2011 SITA Passenger Self-Service Survey, 65% of passengers are interested in self-service bag drop,” Mr Teo says. BCS first identified an option for self-service when it started working with Air New Zealand, whom Mr Teo considers an innovation leader in the airline industry, several years ago to provide solutions for New Zealand domestic travel.
“The International Air Transport Association, the trade association for the world’s airlines, now has the vision that by 2020, 80 percent of global passengers will be offered a complete, relevant self-service suite throughout their journey. BCS aims to use that gap and establish itself as a global market leader in SSBD,” he says.
Automated SSBD is not as easy as it might sound. It has to meet regulatory compliance, take up the least possible floor space; be operationally efficient from a maintenance and user point of view, help airports process the rapidly increasing numbers of people travelling especially within the Asia Pacific high growth economies; be easy and fast to use; and break the barrier between machine and personal human service.
In addition, it is critical that it ensures only valid items are injected into the baggage area – young children reportedly regularly go exploring The World Behind the Plastic Curtain via the free ride on the conveyor. Baggage pieces – and indeed also these children, a somewhat more complicated task – must be fully reconciled with the passenger they belong to.
A huge challenge for BCS was getting innovation from various areas of its business together to develop the leading-edge advances that went into BAGgate. “We’re lucky to have a culture of innovation in our company, driven by people who like to do things in new ways,” he says. The project brought together three innovative products that BCS has developed over the years and also introduces four new ones.
The existing ones are Sym3, baggage handling system (BHS) design tools, and Airflow. Sym3 is BCS’ futuristic 3D visualisation software used to assist with changes to the baggage system design to accommodate the additional throughput from SSBD, and manage the system better through providing visualisation and control of the SSBD through mobile connectivity. The BHS design tools are highly complex machine control techniques that allow full control of various equipment in a SSBD system. Airflow is BCS’ BHS backend software sortation system.
The new ones are RFID technology to comply with aviation weight and balance requirements; vision technology to uniquely identify each bag and to validate bags entering the BHS; complex algorithms added to its Airflow backend software to meet aviation and security compliance; and avatars to humanise interface with passengers.
BCS worked with innovation partners Callaghan Innovation for R&D funding and innovation support; Air New Zealand as early adopter of the SSBD technology; Auckland University and avatar expert Dr Mark Sagar for the soon-to-be-released avatar development; air transport communications and information technology giant SITA as channel and solution partner; and FormWorks as industrial design partners.
“The project is unique in that it brings together a huge variety of innovative elements. These are innovative industrial design; very clever machine control; very clever software that interfaces with complex airline and airport systems that sit in the cloud; innovative 3D visualisation software; vision technology; avatars together with artificial intelligence; and a clever productisation strategy that means the solution can adapt to varying client configuration needs and requirements.
“All the above has to be brought together taking into consideration that it must meet and exceed expectations of various stakeholders who have at times conflicting requirements. Stakeholders include airports, airlines, passengers, and regulatory agencies. It was also a challenge to supply a product for global markets with different cultural and regulatory expectations,” he says.
BCS now employs more than 450 staff worldwide. On December 31, 2014, Daifuku Japan, the world’s largest material handling integrator, became a major BCS shareholder and continues to be a close business partner. This year, BCS Group was ranked second on the Technology Investment Network TIN100 list of the top 10 highest growth companies for the year and 11th overall by revenue.