Regular readers of Strata-gee know that we have recently covered news of layoffs and distribution changes by Velodyne – a long-time specialty industry player. Although we had made many attempts to get the company to comment prior to our posting of these stories, we were told that no company executives were available at that time.
However, the day after our second story appeared, we heard from Velodyne’s press representative who said the company’s President was now available to speak with us about what is going on at Velodyne.
See what Velodyne’s President told us about these recent events…
Velodyne Acoustics, Inc. first gained a lot of traction in our industry years ago with a line of higher-end, technologically sophisticated subwoofers created by engineer and founder David Hall. The company had grown and expanded over the years – adding a soon-to-be renamed marine division, and a division developing LIDAR, the technology that helps self-driving cars “see” their way around.
In our reports, we had noted this “split personality” of the company…saying that the company “had developed technologies in multiple, unrelated businesses.” We repeated assertions from various sources that the company was in the process of re-jiggering their business – eliminating or pushing audio to the back burner…with LIDAR taking central focus.
Art and economics…
Velodyne’s President since 2011 is Marta Thoma Hall. (Ms. Hall is also David Hall’s spouse.) Ms. Hall brings an interesting background to this role. Most notably, she is an accomplished artist who, according to her company biography, has sculptures that “can be viewed in cities and towns across the country.” Hall’s bio also notes that she learned a lot about economics from a professor of economics at the University of Tehran, who also was her father.
As our call started, Ms. Hall apologized for not responding sooner, saying there had been a family emergency that pulled her away from business for a day or so. With that said, she started off trying to correct what she saw as our misunderstanding of the Velodyne business.
“First of all, I sort of want to let you know about the technology that’s involved,” Ms. Hall told us. “Because I could tell from the [Strata-gee] article you thought they were unrelated businesses.”
It’s all about servo mechanisms…
Hall went on to explain to us that the company’s basic research in its early days was on servo technology. According to Wikipedia – a servo mechanism is “an automatic device that uses error-sensing negative feedback to correct the performance of a mechanism and is defined by its function.”
Hall told us that servo technology is the foundation of every product they are developing – including LIDAR and their marine products. So as far as Velodyne is concerned, all of the business segments they address are directly related.
Same technology, completely different industries…While we don’t dispute that each of their product lines have a technological connection – really just different applications of the same core engineering concept – they are very different products in completely different industries. This is really what we were referring to when we discussed the multiple personalities of the company.
But Hall, not quite appearing to agree with us, seemed to suggest that we were misguided in the view that their company was made up of separate, disconnected businesses. She also suggested that the connection was even deeper than just the core technology…telling us that there was another important factor.
“All three divisions are driven by one person,” Hall persisted. “That’s David Hall…David Hall is the inventor. And the companies grow up around him and his invention. And the invention for the autonomous car came out of his ability to develop the 3D viewing system of LIDAR.”
Moving on, we asked Hall how the company’s marine division fit into the whole picture. Hall surprised us with a bit of breaking news, saying that they are just about to rename the Marine Division as Velodyne Robotics.
Like the other divisions, Velodyne Robotics’ technology is based on servo mechanical engineering technologies. The first application was on boats or ships – where David Hall invented an active suspension servo system for boats that “counters the motion of waves, like in the ocean.” This could be great news for those with motion sensitivity and their battle with seasickness.
And in another piece of breaking news that Ms. Hall says Strata-gee readers are the first to know – beyond boats, Mr. Hall is also working on a system to be applied to trucks as well. In this case, the active suspension would counter the effects of the road on the driver and the cargo.
“He wants it so smooth that you would glide over the freeway,” Ms. Hall told us.
Velodyne Robotics products, including those mentioned above, are still in development and won’t be announced until some time in the future. But nonetheless, Hall sees quite a few bright spots on the horizon for the company.
But what about the layoffs?…But Ms. Hall had another message for us – audio is here to stay at Velodyne. Noting that Velodyne will contribute headphones for use in a fashion show to take place at CE Week, she wants to emphasize that the company is moving forward and remains firmly entrenched with audio. “We are going gung-ho forward with audio,” Hall said with gusto.
But wait a minute, we asked Hall, what about your recent layoffs in the audio division? Doesn’t this signify a reduced commitment to audio?
“It may be a hard to believe, but what happened was we promoted this guy – his name is George Ross – in the production and manufacturing area,” Hall explained. “And he said by consolidating some of the LIDAR and audio resources, we can be more efficient.”
All about efficiency, not cutbacks…
This added efficiency, Hall went on to explain, is the real motivation for the layoffs – not because they were cutting back on audio.
“We actually laid off a couple of LIDAR people, so it was not one-sided,” Hall maintained. “It was kind of an across-the-board reorganizing and efficiency step.”
Hall also wanted us to know that it was not 15 people laid off, as we had reported. “I think it was more like 10,” she told us, adding, “And that included 3 from LIDAR.”
Audio is growing, nationally and internationally…
Velodyne’s audio business, we were told, is growing. Hall said that she had just returned from the high-end audio show in Munich, Germany, and the company is in the process of adding four more international importers/distributors. “Because our international business is nearly doubling this year,” Hall told us.
Another example of Velodyne’s growing audio commitment domestically is their decision to authorize the Powerhouse Alliance, a national group of regional distributors. That deal, Hall tells us, was almost a year in the making and they are really pleased to bring it to fruition. Audio, she emphasized, is an expanding part of their business.
Audio assortment will expand as well…To further drive that point home, Hall tells us that their audio selection will expand further. The company says it has received a lot of requests for additional products. The company may, she told us, address some of these requests via partnerships with other manufacturers. Just what exactly that means was not explained.
However, what was explained is that Velodyne has received a lot of requests for things like full-range speakers and personal audio products, such as soundbars. Hall believes that the personal audio items in particular (i.e. soundbars), fits in well with headphones. The company will have some interesting new products as soon as this fall.
But LIDAR is growing too…
This picture presented to us by the Velodyne President contrasted substantially with what our other sources told us was going on at the company. As we probed further, we also learned that something is indeed afoot at Velodyne relative LIDAR.
Remember, LIDAR is a key technology in self-driving or autonomous vehicles, such as the Google self-driving car. Recently, there has been a lot of activity in this space as Google has made it clear that they plan to go to production on a consumer form of this vehicle. Reports have said that the company is talking to automobile manufacturers now, seeking a partner for the project.
Google’s activities have spurred development by other companies who don’t want to get left behind if autonomous vehicles take off. In fact, Hall told us that Velodyne is selling its LIDAR products to seven different companies who are developing and/or testing such vehicles.
Preparing for potentially explosive growth…
So, in fact, LIDAR production is increasing at Velodyne – so much so that the company is expanding the LIDAR production capabilities at its Morgan Hill facility. To make space, the company will no longer warehouse and ship subwoofers from this facility – instead transferring them to a public warehouse for storage and shipping. This, by the way, is not an uncommon method – using public warehouse to store and ship products – in our industry.
“So I think some confused people might have thought, ‘Oh they’re changing this all over the LIDAR, – it must be because the subwoofer business is going away,’ or something like that,” Hall speculated.
But Hall insists that they remain committed to audio. “I love audio,” she declared. “It’s my passion.”
To learn more about Velodyne, visit: www.velodyne.com.