The New Zealand Inc brand is about much more than just good food, great software and Richard Taylor – it’s also about very powerful lights.
Kiwi company Vega Industries Limited has built a reputation as a world-leader in design and delivery of high-end lights and technology for the specialised global aid to navigation market.
Founded in 1972, Vega and its staff of around 40 is the only company in New Zealand designing and manufacturing for this niche market, exporting 80 percent of its product to its core markets in North America, UK, Europe, South America and the Middle East. Its navigational lights provide safe guidance in major waterways, ports and harbours from the English Channel, Panama Canal and Congo River to supporting the US Coast Guard.
Low-cost overseas manufacturing has become a necessity for many New Zealand firms, yet for one Kiwi firm, Vega Industries Limited which specialises in marine aids to navigation, keeping the work firmly on home soil is their global competitive advantage.
World-renowned for its high-precision, high-performance navigational lights, Vega designs and manufactures all its products on site at the company’s factory in Porirua, 20km north of Wellington – overlooking Porirua Harbour where Vega’s first products are still operating.
Vega was born out of a public sector R&D project back in the 1970s in the Physics and Engineering Laboratory (PEL) of the New Zealand Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR). The project was to develop a specialised harbour sector light, which became known as the ‘PEL’ light. It had very strong commercial potential so Vega Industries Limited was established to refine and enhance the design concept into a commercially viable sector light product. The Vega PEL continues to be an important part of the company’s product range accounting for a significant percentage of their revenue.
Its navigational lights are providing safe guidance in all the major waterways, ports and harbours from the English Channel, Panama Canal and Congo River to supporting the US Coast Guard.
Vega has built its market-leading reputation for innovation and superior products on the back of four decades of investing heavily in home-based product research and development. This is essential to servicing the niche market in navigational aids, a large chunk of the work focused on designing and producing customised solutions for a variety of specialised end-users.
By undertaking all critical steps on site – from prototype and testing to finished product – the Vega engineers can keep tight control on the high-precision, highly technological processes involved in making the often complex equipment. And, as engineering manager John Brook says, it means they can work quickly to meet client needs, which is essential to staying ahead of the market.
“Vega has a strong brand in this market because we have this vertical integration with the tools and skills to make these products and the know-how behind them giving us our competitive advantage.”
A case in point is the work Vega has done fine-tuning optics to maximise the performance of LEDs (Light Emitting Diodes), which are core components in their equipment due to their combined high performance and high efficiency. However, there has been little information available on how to use LEDs to meet the rigorous requirements of navigational lights.
“We’ve done that R&D work here. Now we have a very good knowledge of the optical, thermal and electronic aspects of the best LED components available. Having the ability to do all of that research on site is critical, and it is something that our competitors can’t easily replicate.”
Vega has now incorporated LED technology into virtually all its beacon products.
Vega is also an exciting environment for R&D engineers, giving them the rare opportunity to see the tangible fruits of their labours every step of the way rather than having their prototypes sent offshore to be made.
The work is challenging. Vega must design and produce to meet rigorous requirements including high visibility, high precision, high efficiency products that must operate in salt laden environments, extreme weather conditions, and cope with assault by sand and bird droppings. That requires precise yet rugged engineering, including high quality aluminium, stainless steel and rugged plastics and UV-stable and chemically tough lenses, providing an expected minimum life of up to 20 years.
For example, one of the company’s state-of-the-art products, the Vega ‘VLB-92’ was first designed to meet the demanding specs of one of their most prominent clients, the UK’s Trinity House, which is responsible for major aids to navigation around the English coast. A high-end LED lighthouse beacon, the VLB-92 is capable of up to 25 nautical miles visibility and has since been installed at many other locations worldwide.
As with other Vega beacons, the VLB-92 may be remotely monitored which helps to ensure that the beacon is always operational. Compared with traditional lighthouse beacons, the VLB-92 is almost maintenance free.
To ensure its products are the most practical and reliable in the market, the company designs and builds its own software and electronic control systems and also produces monitoring systems, which offer remote logging and management of beacons. If problems occur the monitoring system automatically sends off an emergency signal to an on-land monitoring station, which screens the signal to determine the type and nature of the fault.
As Vega CEO Arjen Maarleveld says, this is a critical sales point for customers: “When it costs a client up to $10,000 just to make a maintenance visit to a lighthouse or beacon, we can deliver enormous value through a product that can be controlled remotely and reports faults automatically.”
It’s this market knowledge and innovation that underpins Vega’s strong market position. The government’s international business development agency, New Zealand Trade and Enterprise (NZTE), has played a key role in supporting the company’s export growth over the past six years.
NZTE customer manager Ken Gardiner says that NZTE has helped Vega with market research and advice, to identify and facilitate trade and distribution partnerships, enhance marketing collateral and other support through its network of offices located in key markets around the world. NZTE has also assisted with building Vega’s operational capability in New Zealand by introducing it to lean processes to improve business flow and productivity.
“Vega is now regarded as a world-leader in the market with a brand reputation for high-end innovation, quality and reliability,” says Gardiner.
“It’s challenging for specialised manufacturing firms in New Zealand to get traction in export markets. But Vega has shown us how innovative companies can succeed and that the New Zealand Inc brand is about much more than just good food. .”
Vega’s current strategic focus is to drive into the private aid-to-navigation market for ports, marinas and the oil and gas sector with their high-volume, off-the-shelf range of products, which are well-suited to online sales. An advantage is that this is a strong growth area in countries where Vega’s reputation and client base is already well-established.
“Vega is in a niche market where they are regarded as a leader. So customers will very happily buy their equipment online,” says Gardiner.