Business Monday

ACR Electronics makes tracking devices that save lives

Gerry Angeli, head of ACR Electronics, with a marine emergency beacon (EPIRB) that survived a fire but still is working.
Gerry Angeli, head of ACR Electronics, with a marine emergency beacon (EPIRB) that survived a fire but still is working. SPECIAL TO THE MIAMI HERALD

When Gerry Angeli, president and general manager of Fort Lauderdale-based ACR Electronics, joined the company in 2011 as vice president of operations, he was impressed by what the company did and how seriously its employees viewed their responsibilities as they produced a range of emergency locator beacons and other specialized equipment used to find and rescue people lost on land or at sea.

“I was struck by how the employees here take their work so seriously,” said Angeli, an engineer and veteran international business executive who was named to ACR’s top job in 2012. Most companies have a mission statement or vision, he noted, but at ACR, the statement is really means something: “We build quality products knowing that they are used to save lives,” he said.

And in fact, their products do save lives. ACR has nearly six decades of experience making devices with names like EPIRBs, or emergency position indicating radio beacons that alert search crews to the location of a boat that is sinking or otherwise in trouble.

A bright yellow EPIRB, which is attached to the interior of vessel, is automatically released from its housing when immersed in water and begins sending a powerful emergency signal to a satellite. These devices, designed not to go off until they are under water, can also be activated manually.

An unused EPIRB lithium battery can last five to six years, while an activated EPIRB will send out emergency signals for 48 to 65 hours.

Selling products under the ACR and ARTEX brands, the company’s ACR devices are for marine and land use, while ARTEX products are for the aviation sector.

Aside from EPIRBS, which are popular among fishermen and yacht owners, the company also supplies private pilots and airplane manufacturers with emergency locator transmitters. These ELT’s come in models that can be activated by a pilot after an accident or are automatically activated when g-forces reach a certain level, indicating a crash. ELT’s are not connected to a plane’s “black boxes” on commercial flights but act as a supplementary emergency beacon.

In addition, hunters, hikers and others traveling far outside urban areas can buy small personal locator beacons (PLBs) that emit a signal after the owner pushes a button.

Buyers can choose from different devices designed for small or large boats, private planes, commercial aircraft and civilian hikers and outdoorspeople. The company also sells products to the U.S. military and foreign governments.

“We receive calls all the time from customers who were fished out of the sea or were saved on land by one of our devices,” said Angeli, who has a bachelor’s degree in engineering physics from Lehigh University and an MBA from Boston University.

ACR even has a page called the “406 Survivor Club” on its Website, where customers from all over the world send in photos and tell stories of how, in many cases, their lives were saved thanks to ACR equipment. 406 refers to 406 MHz (megahertz), the radio frequency band beacons use to transmit emergency signals that are monitored by a special satellite system.

Product prices vary. A land radio beacon, for example, can cost between $250 and $1,000 retail, depending on its features. ARC devices are sold at chains like West Marine and Crook & Crook, or at stores like El Capitan Sports Center in Miami and L.L. Bean.

Owned by New Jersey-based Drew Marine, ACR designs, manufactures, assembles, tests and sells a wide variety of emergency devices that send radio signals or use GPS.

To produce its different devices, ACR buys about 8,000 individual components from 400 manufacturers and suppliers in the U.S., Europe, Asia and New Zealand, said Angeli, originally from Scranton, Pennsylvania.

The company has 193 employees, and most of them work at the company’s headquarters (offices and production facility) in Fort Lauderdale. “The average length of service for our employees is about 15 years,” Angeli said, “and some have been here for up to 45 years.” ACR’s work force includes engineers, technicians, manufacturing workers, and employees in customer support, marketing, sales and finance. Employees drive to work at ACR every day from as far away as Homestead and Martin County, he said.

Using sophisticated computerized equipment, as well as skilled hand-welding, employees at ACR’s Fort Lauderdale plant, produce and test complex circuit boards. They also assemble equipment, put finished products through tough quality-control tests and pack shipments for customers. Since ACR has contracts with the U.S. military, no outside photographs of production lines are allowed.

Aside from emergency beacons, ACR makes emergency strobe and location lights, lights for life vests (one of its highest volume items) and other accessories.

“We are a mixed manufacturing and testing facility,” Angeli said, “with multiple production lines. There are a lot of seasonal changes in demand, and we can quickly adjust our assembly cells to meet changes in product demand.”

Angeli stressed that because people’s lives rely on ACR’s products, the company has “extremely rigorous testing procedures,” not only to ensure that ACR and ARTEX devices are exceptionally sturdy, but also to guarantee the strength and precision of the signals they produce. Solder joints smaller than a pinhead are x-rayed to make sure they meet specifications.

As an example, he proudly showed off two blackened (formerly bright yellow) EPIRBs that were installed on boats. One was struck by lighting and the other was badly burned in a fire. “They both continued to work,” he said.

While ACR produces a wide range of products for marine, aviation, land and military use, devices like EPIRBS, ELTs an PLBs work in roughly the same fashion.

Once activated, the device sends out a radio or GPS signal to satellites. The 406 MHz radio signal is picked up by an international satellite system — called Cospas-Sarsat — that was set up by Canada, France the U.S. and the former Soviet Union. It monitors distress calls and transmits them to ground stations, which then relay the information to search and rescue teams near the signal’s origination point.

Owners of ACR devices must register with government authorities in their home countres, for example NOAA in the U.S. In that way, rescuers will be aware of the identity of a person with a personal locator beacon, the registration number of a boat or the tail number of a plane.

The Cospas-Sarsat satellite organization reports that it helped rescue about 28,000 people worldwide by the end of 2013. Distress calls come from a variety of sources, including ACR equipment and devices made by other manufacturers.

With the advance of GPS and related technologies, search and rescue operations have become much more precise.

In the past, an ACR signal — activated by a fisherman whose boat lost power miles from shore — could be located by search and rescue teams within a diameter of 10-12 nautical miles, Angeli said. After the 406 MHz satellite system was implemented, the diameter was reduced to two to three nautical miles. And now, with GPS, an ACR device can be pinpointed within about 100 meters.

ACR, which started out producing emergency signal devices and lights for marine and land use, later acquired ARTEX and moved into the aviation market.

While privately held ACR will not release any figures on sales or financial results, Angeli said that the company has continued to grow as the U.S. economy has improved, and as the boating and aviation industries grow. “Demand for personal beacons is related to the number of people who travel to places where there is no cell phone coverage, or where they face potential danger,” he said. Growth in ecotourism, for example, should generate new demand for ACR products.

“Over the course of the last several years the company has come through a period of restructuring, with emphasis placed on customer focus, up-skilling the workforce, quality systems improvement, expanded product lines and new products, Angeli said.

“As a result ACR has shown significant double digit growth in sales in 2014, and is poised to continue in the coming years.”

ACR faces competition in different sectors and in different geographical areas, such as DeLorme for land beacons and Ocean Signal for marine devices in the United Kingdom.

The company is seeking to grow its footprint in the domestic and international markets.

“We continue to develop new products, like the new Firefly distress light, Angeli said, “and we have an edge. Our brands are very well known and the people who work in this building are experienced and dedicated to the mission of saving lives.”

One of ACR’s satisfied customers is Omar Guillen, who was fishing with a friend in the Everglades National Park when their 16-foot boat struck a hidden obstacle and overturned. “Luckily, we were not seriously hurt,” said Guillen in an account on ACR’s Survivor Club site. Since the boat was upside down, the ACR GlobalFix EPIRB on board was under water and sent out a distress signal.

Before they could right the boat, a Coast Guard helicopter flew overhead. But once the boat was upright, the engine would not start.

“But we felt safe knowing the Coast Guard knew our location, and two ranger boats came to get us.”

Another ACR customer, Autumn Foushee, from Casper, Wyoming, was weathering Hurricane Odile alone in her sailboat last November in the Sea of Cortez near Baja California. When the anchor chain broke, her boat was blown across a harbor and onto a shore covered with mangroves.

Subsequently swept off the deck, Foushee tired to swim back to the boat but had to take shelter from the wind and rain in nearby mangroves.

“It was totally dark, I couldn’t see anything because of the blinding rain and I had no idea where I was,” Foushee wrote on the ACR Survivors site.

Then she activated the small, ACR personal locator beacon she stored in her life jacket.

“My location and information were sent to the Mexican search and rescue authorities, and after a long night of hurricane-force winds battering me in the the mangroves, a boat made it out and rescued me.”

The writer can be reached at josephmannjr@gmail.com

ACR Electronics Inc.

Business: Designs, manufactures, assembles and sells a range of emergency locator beacons and related survival products. ACR’s core products emit a distress signal that is transmitted to satellites and then sent to search and rescue teams. Sold internationally under the ACR and ARTEX brands, the company’s devices are used by civilians, boat and plane manufacturers and the military for marine, outdoor and aviation applications. A pioneer in this sector, the company is a leading producer of emergency position indicating radio beacons (EPIRBs), emergency locator transmitters (ELTs), personal locator beacons (PLBs), search and rescue transponders (SARTs), emergency strobe and marker lights, life jacket lights and other accessories.

Headquarters: 5757 Ravenswood Rd., Fort Lauderdale

Management: Gerry Angeli, president and general manager

Founded: 1956

Employees: 193

Customers: Sells to distributors and retail chains for boaters, hikers, hunters and pilots. Also sells to the U.S. and foreign military, the U.S. Coast Guard, NASA, boat builders and aircraft manufacturers.

Ownership: Privately held, ACR is a wholly owned subsidiary of New Jersey-based Drew Marine. Drew Marine is owned by The Jordan Co., a private equity firm.

Revenues: The company does not release any financial data.

Website: www.arcartex.com

Source: ACR Electronics

  Comments