The market for in-seat power distribution may be heating up but perennial titan Astronics does not appear to be fazed by the upstarts nipping at its heels. Despite talking points around patent expiry, growing integration and a need for multiple technologies, the market leader is comfortable in its role of providing solutions to partners of all kinds. And, as was evidenced in conversations with RGN recently, Astronics is not resting on its laurels; innovation and creativity continue to be part of the company’s focus.
The number of passengers looking to charge a device on board continues to grow but Dennis Markert, Astronics’ director of business development, believes there is a shift coming in the demand profile from those passengers. No longer are the majority of travelers bringing larger laptops with 90 Watt power supply demands. Rather, “people have migrated, probably about 50/50 now with tablets and laptops, and even the laptops that people are buying have solid state memory, no rotating media, less power draw than the bigger ones. So there is enough power within the existing [in-seat power] products to power a 15 Watt wireless charging station. In fact most of the [passenger] devices are only set to 5 Watts today. Now that could change.”
And getting away from the 90 Watt version of power is important for Astronics to maintain its role in some ways, mostly related to intellectual property scenarios. The company maintains a strong patent portfolio but some are approaching end of life, just in time for the new patents to kick in. “We still have a patent in Europe for the 110 [Volt offering]; it is still valid,” Markert explained this spring, when Astronics was also waiting on a few new USB patents to come through.
“I guess you could say there will always be concern [about patents]. I think that we innovate enough that anybody that is catching up to us we will be past them with something new,” he added.
One of Astronics’ most significant advantages comes from its linefit offerability status at both Airbus and Boeing. The firm sees USB Type C power distribution potentially starting to displace 110V solutions in the coming years, and as such, it is planning now to ensure its solution can be linefit when the time comes.
“We are designing now because as you know it takes quite a few years to design a system and get it line offerable and that is always the target. To make sure that airlines can order it when they order the aircraft. I think the barriers of entry on line offerablity are pretty high,” said Markert.
That barrier is, indeed, significant and will keep many of the smaller competitors at bay, unless a Mirus-like initial order arrives at such a size and scale that the airframers are forced to accommodate and quickly. Markert acknowledged that linefit is not a necessity for a viable product – there is still retrofit business to be had – but having that history does bolster his company’s position.
Astronics has also relied on its strong relationship with all inflight entertainment vendors to help support its dominant role in the industry. As the BYOD and BYOR streaming model expands, however, the embedded IFE vendors are not always as visible. In those cases airlines are able to go direct to a power vendor rather than bundle the solution with the screens at the seats. Astronics has products that address this need, of course, including the ability to hide the under-seat box in a side panel of the aircraft to further improve passenger experience. And the IFE providers are still involved in some of these implementations, bundling USB power with their content delivery system and access points. That is still a “full” IFE system in the eyes of Astronics – one in which the firm is playing a very important role. “It is really just a new evolution at where we are,” according to Markert.
Astronics’ position is a strong one but it is acutely aware of the competition working to take market share. Choosing which player to back in the crowded market can be a challenge for customers. Having nine or ten vendors in the market may be too many for the OEMs and airlines to effectively commit to at this point. Markert believes a shake-out – down to a handful of vendors – will be better for the market overall, though it is unclear if or when that might happen. In the mean time, however, Astronics is continuing along its course, developing USB Type C offerings while deploying and supporting 110V and legacy USB power points to the vast majority of the industry.