Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Okay, so we took a liberty with that acronym, PTEK actually stands for Petersen Technologies, but as far as we’re concerned, ‘If the cap fits…’. And boy oh boy, does it fit.

A New Zealand based tech company born from Hauraki Plains soil in the rural Waikato. Can you think of anything more unlikely? The fact is, if you’re serious about chasing your dreams, and you need an inspirational moment, look no further than the irrepressible Gene and Angela Petersen.

Gene is the son of well-known Thames Valley log-truck operator and industry character, the late Clarrie Petersen. He was a truck-mad kid from the getgo and carted his fair share of logs and timber product around the central North Island, but deep down it was volts and amps rather than power and torque that did it for him.

“It actually started with my train-set controller when I was eight,” says Gene in the deep, dry, laconic, drawl he inherited from his dad. “The batteries went flat too often, so I cut the socket end off an extension lead, stripped the end wires, wound them into the controller, plugged it into the wall socket, and flicked the switch. I tell you, I nearly ‘electrofied’ my arse, and Mum hit the roof when I told her.

“From there, it all just fascinated me, what you could do. I found a limitswitch and someone told me what it was and how it worked. So I wired up my bedroom door so that when my sisters opened it, alarms went off. My bike had sirens and lights; it just never stopped. Mum and Dad kept buying me stuff, and I just kept going.”

“I was driving for Trevor Masters in 2000, heading for Auckland with a load of timber. I was rounding a local corner that has an infamous reputation. I remember thinking, ‘Could you rig up a Mercury switch and accelerometer in the trailer that gave you lateral force and warned you when things were about to get hairy?’ This was all before ESP, SRT, and all that.

“I found a tech company in Hamilton for the components and got in touch with John De Pont and Peter Baas at TERNZ. They’re bloody great guys. We fitted a rudimentary set-up on one of the old man’s trailers and collected some data. It was pretty dirty, and it couldn’t tell us much, but that was really the start of PTEK, I guess.”

The original Mercury switch experiment demonstrated the inadequacy of trailer wiring in terms of robustness and ability to support additional functionalities and therein lay opportunity. Gene went about reinventing the loom and introduced the 15-pin plug and seven core wire on his creations.

Suddenly, trailers could be ‘talked’ to, and just as importantly, they could talk back.

“‘It’s overkill,’ I was told,” he says with a laugh. The loom and plug allowed Gene to make immediate improvements to the trucker’s daily life, a life he knew well.

“The looms were tougher and more resistant to moisture. Things like the check button on the rear of the trailer ran all the lights, indicators, and brakes through a check sequence making the prestart check as simple as.”

In 2004, Gene pitched the looms to Fonterra in Hamilton and was subsequently sent to its Clandeboye site in South Canterbury for further evaluation. If you’re a disciple of fate and synchronicity, then what happened next is completely unsurprising. While on-site, Gene met Paul Domett, who liked what he saw.

“Domett is still our biggest customer today. Paul and Andy have been fantastic the whole way. The PTEK looms impacted their warranty work almost from the get-go.”

Following the chance Clandeboye meeting and what followed, Gene and Angela decided that was the ‘go’ moment and incorporated PTEK. That was 2004. The family home, a rental property, anything that wasn’t nailed down was sold to support the fledgeling enterprise.

“Bloody hell,” says Gene. “Within two months, the seed money was spent on kit and development. The first looms were made in a shed with a dirt floor on a table in a rented house in Paeroa.”

Sitting chatting with them both now, looking at their faces, you can see yet again how diamonds are the result of immense pressure. Their memory of that pressure is still front of mind as the stories are recounted.

Then eldest daughter Morgan laughs and says, “I remember us all on the floor searching for a single grommet that had fallen off the table. It had to be found.”

The original fit-outs were to the rear lightbars only, but as the reliability proved itself, the looms grew to include sidelights and other functions.

“Man it was tough going,” says Gene. “I took work despatching log trucks; then I bought a truck with myself and an employed driver on it. That didn’t work, but it was always about putting food on the table and keeping PTEK ticking over. Those first looms weren’t worth that much; cashflow was hopeless.”

“I remember the first month we cracked $2000 from PTEK sales,” said Angela. “That’s when we thought that it might have legs.”

The business was at last making headway and things ticked along nicely for a few years, with the product’s reputation for reliability in arduous conditions serving as a self-fulling sales strategy.

Then came the obligatory SME learning experience. “We got too far ahead of ourselves in terms of value-add, R&D, and new functionality, and produced a line of looms that were compromised, especially in terms of moisture resilience, one of our core competencies.

That was a $50,000 lesson in terms of servicing warranties, and it put us back almost to square one,” said Gene. “It was character-building stuff. But man, we really did become the water-proofing masters as a result. We introduced new military-grade plugs, wound back the sophistication a notch or three, and introduced robust, no-compromise manufacturing and installation protocols.” That was about nine years ago, and the rest, they say, is history. Those post-crisis looms and protocols form the basis of PTEK’s manufacture and installation today.

Operating from a site in the small Hauraki Plains village of Kerepehi, PTEK employs a team of nine. The company builds, supplies and installs wiring looms, telematics systems, refurbishes load cells and runs a drive-in electrical service bay.

The customer base is also impressive and encompasses not just trailer builders, but civil engineering suppliers and GPS/telematics companies.

“There have been so many good people help and believe in us along the way. Paul and Andy at Domett; John and Pete Baas at TERNZ, I could go on and on,” says Gene.

“It’s never been about money – ever. Money’s like oxygen, you’re buggered without it. It’s about making your hobby your job. My dream is just to be the guy in the white coat in the backroom inventing new stuff, blowing up shit!” he says with a laugh. “Product development is my passion.” And that brings us too….

Could Kiwitrans fleet No2 be the truck that pioneered a paradigm shift in the way we connect truck to trailer?

Wireless trailers

Well, the wireless idea has actually been around a long time. There are just too many plugs in trailers. All we’ve done is add, and add. Nowadays you can have five plugs, the air ‘trio’, hydraulics, lights, EBS, scales – six if you’re central greasing! Over the next couple of decades, most if not all will go.

Knowing Kiwitrans’ David Malanaphy well, Gene decided the time was right to connect something wirelessly.

“Wireless is way more accepted in mainstream now, and there’s plenty of good kit available. It’s not the culture shock it would have been even a couple of years ago.

“Lights are the easiest to start with. There’s no ADR standard for lighting plugs. Yes, there are accepted rules around wire colours, but the only requirement as such is that the lights work as required. If you could make them function with a three-pin house plug, you could use one.”

Having said that, PTEK configures the wireless box to European ISO standards, future-proofing it now in preparation for deployment deeper into the trailer functions, things like EBS control.

“It’s that acceptance thing; the capability is easily there already.”

The boxes are located at the rear of the truck and on the trailer dolly. The first evolution of the prototype will be moving the trailer box to the rear, eliminating the need to run seven-core wire to the rear of the trailer. “We’ll just need two-core from the box to the lights. Much less expensive.

“The boxes can talk for 100m in clear line of sight, and 50m with obstructions so there’s no issue there.”

Because the system software is configurable and doesn’t rely purely on resistance as the communication medium, dealing with the minute current draw associated with LED lights is no issue, and the driver knows the moment an LED is not working on the trailer. In the MkII, they’ll know where on the trailer it is.

The trailer box sources its power from the trailer’s charge board. PTEK also uses this source to run an automated night light. Fitted with a lux-sensor, the light will illuminate on a stand-alone trailer for nine nights before losing power.

“It’s a great system. We did a bit of fine-tuning at the start, but it has run without issue for the first 42,000km. Our next step is ‘one-man’ pairing, meaning one person can pair the truck with whatever trailer it’s hooking up to. On the first Kiwitrans unit, pairing still takes two people, so a simple software upgrade will fix it. The plan is now to retrofit the other two units with wireless lights connection.”

So where does it all end?

“It won’t,” says Gene. “The next big change in trailers will likely be the elimination of the air-based systems for electric – things like electric solenoid-operated brakes. It’s a no-brainer, really. They’re infinitely more reliable and in terms of the environment, it also ‘bins’ the compressor; essentially a little engine attached to a big one. The electrification of the prime-mover also, be it EV or hydrogen, will speed all that up. There’s no need to produce compressed air at all.

“Given the above, that’s the air ‘trio’ gone. Then, with the electric-powered trailer-axle technology looming, the sky’s the limit, isn’t it? If the trailer generates its own power, you can do absolutely anything; EBS, ESP, hydraulics potentially. In the end, there might only be a coupler. We’ll have to wait and see.”

Leave your comment