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Peter White: Manufacturing the IABM future

George Jarrett talked with IABM chief executive Peter White about where the industry stands in a constantly moving landscape.

The IABM is the only international association that represents the broadcast and media technology supply industry. George Jarrett talked with IABM chief executive Peter White about where the industry stands in a constantly moving landscape.

Fronted by a famous industry face that comes from a trade association past, the IABM (International Association of Broadcast Manufacturers) has an annual membership churn of just under 10%. About 75% of IABM members come from Europe and the USA, and being an IBC partner has boosted its reputation hugely.

IABM chief executive Peter White started with the IBC link. “Without it, our growth and development certainly would have been slower. It has enabled us to develop into areas which frankly we would have taken longer to develop, notably the training academy,” he said.

Looking back at a recent IABM industry trend survey he focused on the financial health of the manufacturing sector.

“There is a lot of confusion and uncertainty. Many companies struggled towards the back end of 2013, although orders were on the increase,” said White. “But there is quite a split between the companies that are doing well and those doing badly.”

Sadly things have polarised and we have a two-tier situation probably created by banks refusing to lend seed money.

“Absolutely. A lot of small to medium enterprises are still not doing very well (24% down on profits), but if you look at the top tier companies that have been in the black for two years, they are actually showing a profit growth of 8%,” said White.

Does this suggest that R&D commitments have taken a hit?

“No. They have been maintained at very high levels – 15-16% of revenues for years now – and it seems that needs to be the case to bring products to market,” said White. “Profits overall have not been growing, but our industry just keeps on re-investing.

“There is a question whether we are over-engineering in some cases, and are delivering products that are over-specified for the marketplace,” he added. “With IT convergence and the price of cameras coming down to almost prosumer levels, the question is can we afford to sustain this investment.”

Do not let our guard down

This software driven era has seen prices dive (just consider the cost path of an Avid Media Composer, for example). Has the IABM membership reflected the changes?

“Our last three years of influx has been very much software and IP driven, and frankly if we did not address the needs of those companies we would become irrelevant in the long term,” said White.

In all the talk about IT, IP, 4K, Cloud, big data, file-based delivery, etc he is clear on one aspect: “When you look at the whole supply line in broadcasting you have still got to have quality image capture and expertise in editing and delivery, and those things will never change.

“But if we ever let our guard down and we just start transferring files in the way we do in an office – it will be a disaster,” he added.

Is he a fan of 4K (UHD TV)? “I think so. Unlike 3D it is not a false dawn. It really is the next stage up from HD, even if it takes a while to transmit it widely.

“As part of an infrastructure and certainly from our end user survey it is definitely in the strategy now,” he added. “There are a lot of things ahead of it however in terms of what people are going to spend their money on – namely HD roll out, multi platform delivery, and MAM.”

Down the pecking order

The IABM training academy has done wonderful work, and four new courses reflect the interest in IP, data and file-based workflows. But it would surely need to be much bigger to satisfy national engineering requirements.

“We have spoken to government bodies (like Skillset) and there is a lot of prioritisation around IT rather than broadcast, and there are a few universities that have technical media courses,” said White. “Our courses are designed for two things – to re-train broadcast engineers and acquaint them with the latest new media technology, and prepare IT graduates who do not know much about broadcasting.

“In terms of what the government is doing – frankly precious little. We are on the board of the ICT KTN, which is the knowledge transfer network, and we are well down the pecking list. The top players are telcos and IT bodies, and that is where the big money goes,” he added. “We do not get enough recognition. That is quite a contentious statement, but I believe it to be true.”

The IABM does get grants for bursaries for its courses, but White says this is not really sufficient given the demand for new engineering talent.

“We have put a lot of broadcasters through our academy, as well as our own members and suppliers. And it is definitely fulfilling a need,” he said. “Now we have got certification we want employers to recognise what a certified broadcaster means in terms of skills, attainment and knowledge. This is not going to be done by government funding.”

The IABM has a number of links to the standards setting bodies, particularly SMPTE and the EBU. Are standardisation processes too slow to remove the huge proprietary element that bars interoperability around the industry?

“I don’t think it takes too long necessarily, but it’s probably too slow if you are a broadcaster,” said White. “I can fully understand it from the supply chain point of view though; you do need some distinctive advantage, meaning a proprietary equipment. But there is a new dawn and we do understand as suppliers that we have to work together more. Let’s design things that work together and the standards for interoperability will come.”

He had one warning: “Suppliers need a certain amount of time for product life cycles. These are shorter and R&D is at an all time high, but if we keep changing standards so quickly it will put more suppliers out of business.”