Interview with Alia Instruments’ Arjan Vriend: Overcoming the Challenges
Being relatively new to the market, Alia Instruments – based in Twente, the Netherlands – is a builder of production monitoring equipment for the maritime and mining industry.
During our first ever Dredging Today Conference, held last October in Amsterdam RAI, we took the opportunity to have a quick chat with Mr Arjan Vriend – Alia Instruments Manager Sales & Marketing, who provided us with invaluable insight into the company’s latest activities, the challenging market of 2017 and their most important goals and business plans for the upcoming period.
DT: As an introduction to some of our readers who are not familiar with your company, what can you tell us about your company, the beginnings and where is Alia today?
Arjan Vriend: The initial idea to design a non-nuclear meter, was inspired by the experiences in our sister company Imotec as automation provider and engineering consultant. On board of their clients’ dredgers they would invariably spot a nuclear density meter and often crews seem to have their reservations about working with them: the radiation made them feel uncomfortable and that was only the beginning of their concerns.
Amongst others shipping permits and importing nuclear sources into certain countries often caused problems. They would need RSO certified personnel and the meter needed to be installed and commissioned by trained specialists. Last but certainly not least the negative public opinion about using radioactive materials and thus producing nuclear waste, and the increasing social pressure to operate green and sustainable companies force companies to look for alternatives.
Clearly there was, and still is a place in the market for an alternative which addresses all the challenges brought up by the market. By combining the sound knowledge of the dredging market from Imotec, with the innovative power of its partners located close to and connected to the University of Twente, the successful Alia Density Meter (ADM) of today was developed.
Soon, we figured out the demand for such meters is not only coming from the dredging market, but has a much wider potential. They are indeed used in mining, as well as in tunneling, cement, power, oil & gas and many other industries.
Since Imotec is aiming primarily on the dredging market and acting as an automation provider and engineering consultant, not as a product manufacturer, the logical choice was made, with the help of a very serious investor, to start a new company, named Alia Instruments. Probably the name still does not ring a bell to a large group of your readers as we only recently brought it to the market, started to expose ourselves at exhibitions, tell our story in interviews, and do some advertising.
We already made quite a journey, and did a lot of homework before we decided we really were ready to go to the market.
DT: The development of new technologies doesn’t always come easy. Probably this was the case with the Alia Density Meter, would you be so kind to share some insights on the origins of the technology?
Arjan Vriend: Yes you are right. There is a variety of technologies brought to the market in the last couple of years, not all with the same level of success.
Frankly speaking, we suffer from that every day as we meet customers who had their share of bad experiences with alternative density meters, and switched back to nuclear meters. They are looking for alternatives for earlier mentioned reasons, but are very careful now in order to avoid new disappointments, and therefore not easy to convince. As we have confidence in our density meter, we are able to overcome these situations time by time by offering some kind of guarantee.
After the previous five years we understand very well what kind of difficulties companies have faced trying to develop alternatives to the nuclear meter. It is for several reasons not an easy task. We started our search for an alternative with an open mind, looking closely at all options and had our own ups and downs as well.
It resulted, however, in our broad knowledge of all available techniques and the corresponding pros and cons of the possible alternatives. In the end we made the choice to proceed with variant to a weighing principle. Although many had tried before us and none of them succeeded, we managed to overcome the challenges, by means of Newton’s 2nd law.
We found solutions for compensating the possible inclination of the meter and for every kind of vibration in the production environment. Today, this solution forms the hart of our patented metering principle.
From that point forward, we started a long period of testing the meter in the field. After the tests in a laboratory environment, we found one of Imotec’s customers prepared to be our long-term field testing partner.
We intensively tested two density meters during this three-year period on board of their trailing suction hopper dredger. During this period the two density meters performed very well and proved to be a reliable solution.
This final field test was important for us, as we wanted to avoid selling any “green banana’s” into the market, especially as gaining trust with our customers is our largest challenge.
DT: Your innovative non-nuclear density meter offers accurate real-time data, allowing clients to truly optimize their production. What are the main advantages of your “hardware” comparing it to other similar products in the industry?
Arjan Vriend: In all industries we are active, people like our robust design and the simple principle of the meter. Our meter is delivered being already calibrated, and it can be flanged in directly. Two wires need to be connected, and that’s all. Therefore we do not need to send commissioning engineers around the globe, do not need to train people, and no permits are necessary.
One of the other advantages is indeed the immediate available data. This advantage we often need to explain as the market is very used to the delay of the conventional density meters.
The fact that you can optimize your production from the first second, and not when the product is already 250 meters further in the pipe, provides an actual advantage.
DT: Alia Instruments recently took part at the first Dredging Today Conference (DTC) in Amsterdam, what are your impressions about our event and are you planning to visit similar events in the future?
Arjan Vriend: My impression of the DTC was quite good. Of course, we wanted to use the event as well to meet people in the dredging industry, and for that reason we chose not only to take part, but also to be one of the sponsors.
We succeeded in our intentions, and made some new contacts with the known business partners. Besides that, we enjoyed most of the presentations and interviews, which were often showing new insights in the dredging market.
This year’s topic, the changing climate and therewith sustainability, was perfectly highlighted from different perspectives. For us it was particularly interesting to see how other companies presented their “sustainability equals business” cases.
Of course, Alia Instruments has a large sustainability driver as well, and we actively promote this message in the market. Being sustainable doesn’t always automatically mean large investments without any economic benefit. Often, like with our density meter, you can create a more sustainable production process and gain profit for the company.
DT: The innovative Alia Density Meter (ADM) has received a lot of interest and attention all over the world lately. Will there be any expansion for the company, its services, the agent network etc?
Arjan Vriend: Currently we focus on strengthening our organization. We already learned we cannot do it all alone from Holland, and need a local sales force to support us in various markets. For that reason we are currently working on our global agent network.
We frequently speak to potential business partners all over the world in order to find out whether we can be real added values to each other. Furthermore, we are moving from a startup to a scale up, meaning in practice we are focusing on professionalizing different company processes, and yes, probably hiring more colleagues cannot be avoided too long anymore.
Looking at the amount of inquiries we expect the sales to pick up drastically after we have reached a certain installed base level, and we need to be prepared to handle that.
DT: Are there any new developments you are currently working on or are being planned for the future?
Arjan Vriend: We are not planning on any new products, or a larger part of the process. Alia Instruments is a so-called technology leader, focused on her density meter and has the target to become, and stay, the market leader in non-nuclear density meters.
This means we are in constant development to improve our meter, and to adapt it even better to the applicable processes. Our meter should be the best suiting solution offering sustainable production maximization to each and every one of our customers.
We believe, that as soon as we lose this focus, we will lose the chance on achieving our targets.