Stephen T. “Steve” Sargeant was appointed CEO of Marvin Test Solutions (MTS) and vice president for strategic development for The Marvin Group in June 2012 after retiring from the U.S. Air Force with the rank of Major General. In the summer of 2013 he met with me to talk about his vision for Marvin Test Solutions, which evolved from The Marvin Group’s acquisition of Geotest, and its sister companies.1 In a recent phone interview, he elaborated on the company’s mission with a focus on topics including PXI, software, and smart weapons.
When we spoke back in 2013 you said that a goal of Marvin Test Solutions was “…to make test easy.” It seems that’s still a succinct way of defining the company’s strategy—is that correct?
That’s a great question and you’re right. We talk about “making test easy” as our motto.
The slogan was the result of talking to the three founders who are still with the company today. I asked, “Why did you start this company back in 1988?” They said, “Well, we founded the company to make test easy. The first product was ATEasy,2 which made automated test easy.”
I said, “I think that is a bumper-sticker slogan that will resonate with our customers in the military, aerospace, and manufacturing arenas that we serve. So we ought to start putting that in print.” It’s now part of our mission statement—we want to be the preferred provider of test-system solutions in the primary markets that we serve by 2024. That’s where we are headed, all based around our early vision for the company of making test easy.
You mentioned 2024—is that the conclusion of a 10-year plan, and what else does it involve?
That’s correct. We work to improve customer satisfaction, and as you know, one of the ways to help improve your customer satisfaction is to improve your employee satisfaction as well. Those two things linked together should help us achieve our goal to increase market share by 2024.
Also back in 2013, you commented on the armament test gap related to smart (MIL-STD 1553 and 1760) weapons technology. MTS has been addressing this with products like the SmartCan. Does this gap still exist, and what other solutions will be required to address it?
As you know, we are pretty passionate about closing that gap. The type of weapons that are fielded today we call smart weapons, which rely on the 1553 and the 1760 MIL-STD buses for communication—getting target information to a weapon from an airplane. The systems that are there in place today in most countries and in most militaries are still the equipment that was designed 30 years ago when continuity and stray-voltage tests really were the only technologies that you could get in a handheld system on the flightline or out in the field. And what we’ve done is taken the capabilities that were typically resident in a large box and put them into a small handheld system.
But moving customers from what they’ve always done—to what they can do—is a slow, laborious process, and large organizations have a lot of different priorities. But I am happy to announce that since we talked about that armament test gap in 2013 we’ve actually closed that gap for quite a few countries with their aircraft, and today our systems that help to close that gap can be found on F-16s, on F-5s, on Hawks, and on FA- and TA-50s. And the system is actually being used off airplanes in some environments where it is used to simulate a smart weapon. So we are making progress, and those systems that were fielded decades ago are reaching end-of-life where they need to be replaced, and there is a good chance when they’re replaced, customers won’t just be saying, “We are getting rid of A and we need A again.” They could be saying, “We’re getting rid of A, and now we have the opportunity to grab something that does A, B, and C.”
What is the competitive situation regarding closing the armament test gap?
We really have the leading technology in a handheld test solution for smart weapons. The environment is such that in many ways, the competition is overcoming the inertia: “This is how we have always done it, and we’re not sure we are ready to step up to a new way of doing things.”
The other part of that involves the major users of the different airframes. For the F-16, the largest user is the U.S. Air Force or for the F-18 it’s the U.S. Navy. Countries around the world look to those services to follow their lead in what they use. So part of our competition is just the time and the funding. We are very confident that when a competition is held, you’re going to find that those with vision look to not just replace A with A, but to grab the extra capabilities. We didn’t envision these types of smart weapons 30 years ago, and there will be new weapons out in the future that you and I aren’t envisioning today. And if you just bring on what we had 30 years ago, you’re going to have woefully inadequate test equipment.
Marvin Test Solutions through The Marvin Group’s acquisition of Geotest has been a pioneer in PXI, an open architecture in which many companies participate. What unique advantages does MTS bring to the PXI market?
We never let the grass grow under our feet and wrap around our ankles. We are actually out there pioneering new ways ahead with PXI Express to meet our customers’ needs for even a smaller footprint with more power and more capabilities. We design PXI Express chassis to pack more test capability into a smaller, modular, scalable test-system solution for our customers. Our association with the PXI Systems Alliance dates back to 1999. Our leadership in that arena provides our customers with systems that have better thermal control, lower energy consumption, and a smaller footprint, and we’ve proved that PXI is a very powerful system compared to other systems that have been widely deployed, like VXI, for instance.
MTS through Geotest also has always had a significant software product in ATEasy. Some traditional instrument companies seem to be trying to reposition themselves as software companies. What’s your opinion of the importance of hardware and software in serving your customers?
From a hardware perspective we try to deliver solutions that our customer wants. So we start with their requirements and we build to those, and quite frankly, our hardware is agnostic to the software. We can run the competitor software on some of the systems we’ve delivered and are continuing to deliver. But when companies get to the point of recapitalizing, we have been impressed with the way they do a cost-benefit analysis. We’ve seen them take engineers working on one set of software and have them learn ATEasy, and those who knew ATEasy had to go learn the competitor’s software. And when they get done they have to come back and report to their superiors which one they want. When that type of competition is run, it’s amazing how many come back and say they prefer ATEasy.
In the medium-to-complex test programing arena, ATEasy has much easier traceability, and it’s both a test executive and a development software package all in the same container. Engineers often find out there are one, two, or three other third-party softwares they would have to add with some of the competition to have the same capabilities that we package with ATEasy. So yes, there are companies out there positioning themselves as software suppliers, but what we are finding is that industry is paying close attention to the software packages that are provided, and we are very heartened in how we do in competitive environments when the leadership steps back and says, “OK, inside my own company, you guys and gals give me an independent assessment of what you think.” We do very well there.
The other thing is I can tell you is that there are companies out there that use us exclusively, and we are getting more people coming around asking about those types of opportunities as well. And so the hardware needs to remain flexible and the software needs to remain agile. We are just about to roll out ATEasy 10.0 and as you recall, every file ever created under ATEasy 1.0—our first product in 1991—is compatible with every version of ATEasy ever produced.
Editor’s Note: Visit the online version of this article for links to more on the MTS approach to PXI, international procurement trends, and synergies within The Marvin Group. For more on the MTS approach to semiconductor test, see the online version, as well as the article “Inspection, physical failure analysis complement electrical test”.
- Nelson, Rick, “Marvin Test Solutions looks to make test easy,” EE-Evaluation Engineering, October 2013, p. 40.
- Nelson, Rick, “Customers weigh in on 25th anniversary of ATEasy commercial availability,” Rick’s Blog, EE-Evaluation Engineering, Aug. 29, 2016.