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The Warsaw Voice » Special Sections » August 29, 2012
Bumar Żołnierz
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Selling Know-how
August 29, 2012   
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Ryszard Kardasz, chairman of the board and general manager of the Bumar Żołnierz S.A. company, talks to Andrzej Jonas and Witold Żygulski.

How would you describe your business?
We are an engineering company whose main value added is technical know-how. What we sell our customers is our own production almost from beginning to end. Nearly 100 percent of our products are proprietary technology invented by our engineers. We can repair, service, and finally modernize our equipment. Our specialists regularly take part in international trade meetings and conferences, at which they obtain information about the latest technologies, as well as about development trends on the global market.

In terms of profitability we lead the way in the Bumar group. This year, our sales should reach zl.240-250 million; last year they amounted to zl.200 million. When I came to the company eight years ago, its sales stood at zl.27 million.

Who are the main customers of Bumar Żołnierz?
Our main customer is, of course, the Polish army, but our order book also includes other major customers such as the police, the Border Guard, the treasury police, the counterintelligence service, the National Security Agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation, and the Central Anticorruption Bureau. Actually, this means that almost all Polish uniformed services are our customers.

When it comes to foreign customers, we have sold our night vision sights to Saudi Arabia, night vision goggles to the Czech Republic; in Hungary, we carried out a project for the modernization of Soviet optoelectronic systems for combat vehicles.

This kind of modernization is our second export specialty. We can modernize all optoelectronic devices which were once produced in the Eastern bloc. A large of number of these are still in operation around the world. We have developed our own modernization systems for them. At the moment, we are carrying out a large project for the modernization of systems in anti-aircraft guns, several hundred of which are used by the armed forces of Algeria. In the fall, we will show a modernized unit to our customer and hope to secure a big contract.

The market is big, but unfortunately it’s poor, because it mainly covers Third World countries, and therefore in terms of revenue, modernization work does not bring us an impressive amount of earnings.

Who are the main partners of Bumar Żołnierz at home and abroad?

At home, we work with the Military University of Technology (WAT), which is in a way our natural partner in most R&D and business projects. This is a university with a huge potential of knowledge and experience. WAT researchers are known for the fact that many of them, after retiring, go into business and set up their own companies, which often work with us in developing technologies for the military. In Poland, officers aged between 45 and 50 are entitled to retirement even though they are still full of creative energy then. One such company produces excellent, modern laser radiation detectors, which it exports throughout the world with success. They are based on unique technologies, which the company produces in its own laboratories.

We also cooperate with many foreign partners. We purchase finished products from them or develop these together. For example, together with French company Photonis, which produces light amplifiers, we are carrying out a project for combining thermal imaging and night vision technology. Our partners are now working on a digital light amplifier, which should revolutionize this technology.

Other important partners for us are two Israeli companies—Elbit, with which we once developed a fire control system for the PT-91 tank together, and Raphael, together with which we are developing optoelectronic units for combat helicopters manufactured in the factory in ¦widnik.

Among the Italian firms in the Mecanica group, I can mention the Select Galileo company, which deals with optoelectronics. It provides us with components on the basis of which we produce our sighting system for the Rosomak (Wolverine) wheeled armored personnel carrier used by the Polish Army.

Recently we began working with an optoelectronic company from Armenia. In the communist era, this former Soviet republic specialized in this field; local specialists have extensive expertise and experience in this area. For example, they know how to produce laser heads with a wavelength safe to the human eye, which means devices that can be ordered by military customers for whom the safety of their soldiers is a priority.

What product would you say is your company’s best product?
We recently compared the night-vision goggles we have developed with the U.S. equivalent used by Poland’s most famous special unit, GROM. It turned out that our device is much better. The Modular Night Vision goggles produced by Bumar Żołnierz are sold in a kit that enables various configurations for this equipment. The goggles can be attached to the helmet or to one eye; they can be placed on the rifle so that they serve as a sight, or they can be used as binoculars with several-fold magnification. So the soldier gets everything in one module.

We also offer a very modern device called the Stopfire, which is used to extinguish fires in military vehicles. It can be used in the engine compartment or in the assault and landing compartment. It is based on technology for immediately sucking out oxygen. Previously, the Polish army bought German technology, which in our opinion is not perfect. Due to excessive sensitivity, it has not passed the test in Afghanistan, for example, where there are very high temperatures.

It often happens there that soldiers actually switch off the sensors to prevent the device from becoming activated every now and then.

We also offer a state-of-the-art thermal imaging camera that can be used as an alternative to the Italian technology used in the Wolverine-type combat vehicles today.

Thermal imaging technology is now one of the fastest growing areas in our industry. It can be said that a device that is one year old may already be obsolete. Equipment is becoming increasingly miniaturized, which is of great importance on the modern battlefield. This explains why it’s all the more important that the army uses state-of-the-art Polish technology, without relying on licensed products.

Tell us about the Tytan project being carried out by Bumar Żołnierz to create a system for the soldiers of the 21st century.
Tytan consists of three main components. The first component is an observation and reconnaissance system. The soldier will be equipped with sensors, not only visual, for observation and reconnaissance. These will include a friend-or-foe sensor, a sensor showing if they have been targeted by enemy laser, as well as thermal imaging and night vision devices, including an thermal sight.

The second component of Tytan is the armament system. As in the case of night vision goggles, we offer modular weapons, a set that a soldier will be able to configure according to their needs on the battlefield. So the soldier will be able to have a rifle with the butt, without the butt, as well as a pistol. A project for developing such a modular shooting weapon of the future is being carried out by Fabryka Broni Łucznik Radom, which is a member of our group, in association with the Military University of Technology. Next year we plan to begin producing this weapon.

The third component is the protection system. In this area, our group is led by the PSO Maskpol S.A. company based near the city of Częstochowa. This company specializes in the manufacture of bulletproof vests, helmets, protective uniforms and other products for the personal protection of soldiers. These are very complex technologies. We expect, for example, that such a bulletproof vest will be fitted with a built-in antenna, and various sensors will also be mounted on the helmet. The uniform will be sewn in such a way that there are enough pockets for all the accessories, including batteries powering all these devices. Not all the technologies can be wireless.

Maskpol will also be carrying out another related project, financed by the National Center for Research and Development. It concerns the so-called Exoskeleton—an electro-hydraulic system to support the soldier’s movements and increasing the strength of his muscles, so that for example, they can lift an object weighing 100 kilograms if the need arises. This system can also be used for civilian purposes, such as effective post-trauma rehabilitation treatment.

The last—but equally important—component of Tytan is an IT system that ensures connectivity in terms of image and voice. Such a battlefield imaging system passes the test perfectly not only in times of armed conflict, but also when training soldiers. Everything can be observed in real time and can also be recorded and analyzed. Each soldier has a thermovision sight/camera; the image from this device can be fed to the control room. The commanding officer can therefore see at what the soldier is aiming. The soldier can also shoot from a hiding place, thanks to the sight in front of his eye. At the same time he is invisible to the enemy and safe.

The communication system must work with the battlefield management system. At the lowest level—that of the individual soldier— Tytan must obviously communicate with a system of a higher order.

The consortium implementing the Tytan program now comprises 17 members. In addition to companies from our industry, it includes the Institute of Military Medicine, whose specialists design sensors indicating the soldier’s health status.

We were commissioned to handle the Tytan project in the spring of 2010 when we were awarded the tender. In October, we defined all the implementation projects and handed them over to the military. The military undertook to check these and formulate the final project requirements. The second stage of the project can start in the fall. Then our consortium will unveil a prototype that will undergo tests. I hope we will be able to provide the army with the first device in the Tytan system within the next two years.

Bumar Żołnierz, once known as Przemysłowe Centrum Optyki (PCO), is a company with great traditions, but in your business sector modernity and innovation are key. Is your long-standing experience an advantage or is it sometimes an obstacle for you as well?
Unfortunately, some of the expertise of Bumar Żołnierz and PCO was squandered during the process of transforming Poland’s economy after the reforms of the early 1990s. At that time sales would go down a few dozen times overnight, and companies focused on surviving from one day to the next, and were struggling with a debt albatross around their necks. No innovative projects were pursued at all. There was no policy for supporting innovation. The state stopped protecting and shielding innovators. All were thrown into the deep end of the market.

There were also enormous losses in human resources—talented engineers fled abroad or stopped dealing with innovation, focusing on business instead. So they used simpler technology that they could quickly turn into a market success.

The situation did not improve until around 2000. Companies were restructured, got out of their debts and significantly reduced employment. Those companies that had good managers and succeeded in keeping the best professionals could refocus on innovation. In my opinion, out of every hundred engineers no more than a dozen or so can actually come up with modern technological solutions. All the others will be dealing with simple, already tested technologies, throughout their professional life.

Since the beginning of the market reforms, cooperation between industry and the military, which is the main customer in our business sector, has been far from satisfactory. At one point, I hoped that detailed plans for changes in army equipment would emerge within a few years. Unfortunately, that did not happen. It is true that a few years ago, 14 programs were unveiled for developing the army, but they only show that there is an interest in certain groups of products, without precisely defined details.

Despite these negative trends, in the best companies teams of professionals were tasked with developing modern, innovative technologies. My experience shows that the best of these groups combine the expertise of specialists from the older generation and the abilities of young professionals—those who have been educated in the period after the transition. These people have no barriers in communication or in obtaining information, or any inferiority complexes with regard to their colleagues abroad. Young people know how to surf the internet and obtain information, for example at trade fairs abroad.

In my opinion, young professionals are particularly well trained by the Warsaw University of Technology, especially its departments of mechatronics and electronics, and of course by the Military University of Technology.

Together with the increase in professionalism and educational standards of professionals in our industry, a similar thing has taken place in terms of the education and expertise of our customers, especially our main customer, the Ministry of Defense. The generals of today have little in common with their counterparts 20 years ago. Usually they have had experience in at least two combat missions, in Iraq or Afghanistan. They regularly go on NATO maneuvers and take part in numerous conferences, and so on and so forth. Of course, there is no communication or language barrier. Such an officer can tell us much more about their needs and expectations as a customer.

Our customers today no longer buy technologies only because they like them or because they are interesting—the main factor is the specific needs in combat conditions. Generally, the military is no longer interested in single devices; it strongly prefers whole systems of interrelated technologies.

Of course, we are doing our best trying to shape the expectations of our customers, by telling them what we can offer to resolve their problems and meet their needs. At the defense industry trade fair in Kielce, together with the Military University of Technology, we organized a conference on the use of thermal imaging cameras in the military. The conference was designed to provide our potential customers with detailed information in order to stimulate discussion and demand.
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