When asked what is important to iXBlue, CEO Philippe Debaillon-Vesque’s preferred reply is “Our aim is to work in France and remain independent.” Known as iXSea until 2010, iXBlue is a family-owned holding specialising in solutions and services for navigation, positioning and imaging. Starting with ten people in the early 2000s, the group now has more than 600 employees located throughout France serving clients around the world. “Our strategy to date has been to integrate innovative SMEs with know-how that fits in well with our core business. This strategy keeps us focussed squarely on advanced-technology equipment for navigation, oceanographic measurement and imaging.”
The group includes companies specialising in fibre optics, acoustics, photonics, mechatronics, inertial navigation systems, naval shipyards and specialist defence mapping. All business units also complement each other nicely. “We have an enormous reservoir of talent and well-trained engineers and scientists. Indeed, we believe that their knowledge and skills help us to stay one step ahead of the competition,” says Debaillon-Vesque.
To maintain its lead, iXBlue has adopted a strategy of vertical integration. “Complementary in-house skills mean we don’t have to outsource or depend on outside suppliers. This brings clarity of vision to our industrial strategy. And because we manufacture our own components, we can test them, put them through their paces and push them to their limits —which would not be possible if we had to purchase them from outside suppliers.” All subsidiaries produce for the group and others in the industry. “We encourage this type of flexibility because it means we can adapt to whatever our clients and the market require.”
For all its advanced technology, iXBlue remains as a family-owned company that maintains a relatively low profile. Like its majority shareholder CEO, it shies away from the limelight. Reticence aside, however, the group is forging ahead, investing 20% of its turnover in R&D (€100 million in FY 2015) and selling to some of the most discerning customers in the world. iXBlue products have a proven track record for high reliability in offshore and naval applications. The Royal Navy, for one, has chosen iXBlue inertial navigation and positioning systems for its nuclear-powered submarines. “Right from the outset, we made reliability our top priority. Cutting-edge technology and ultra-low maintenance are what military procurement teams look for. Today, this sector accounts for 20% of our sales.”
Bright prospects in space and subsea
The group changed its name to iXBlue to reflect new, broader horizons. “Marine resources will be explored more and more thoroughly. Our very future is likely to hinge on the sustainable exploitation of seabed resources. This is where our know-how will come to the fore.” Given that few land-based methods work in deep water, acoustic and inertial technologies are essential for seabed work. “When we combine acoustic and inertial navigation systems, we achieve remarkable results. At a depth of 6,000 metres, our instruments can position an object to within a few centimetres.”
The future looks bright for iXBlue in a world where, increasingly, innovation will be the deciding factor. With 80% of its turnover coming from the maritime sector, the group has begun marketing to the space industry, where there is demand for the kind of positioning, mapping and other equipment that can operate under extreme conditions. “There is enormous potential, and we are constantly aiming to go further than ever before.”
Written by Caroline Britz, translated by Steve Dyson