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Intersema a pro at handling pressure

Intersema rides the digital wave swissinfo.ch

Most of us still think of pressure sensors as bulky, mechanical things, but over the past decade, they've miniaturized and gone digital, in the same way that music, photography, and radios have gone digital.

This content was published on March 29, 2005 - 13:40

One Swiss firm, Intersema Sensoric SA, is riding the digital wave and finding a quick growing market for its pressure sensors in a surprisingly wide range of markets.

Located in the country's watchmaking region, in the tiny village of Bevaix, Intersema reports a continuation of its early success in the market, with annual sales last year of SFr 24 million, almost double its 2002 annual sales of SFr 12.5 million.

The seven year old company has grown to employ 70, double what it employed in 2002. With forecast growth of 20 percent this year, it is looking to hire more.

Its digital low pressure and high pressure sensor are finding their way into watches, flight instruments, automobiles, home appliances, air conditioners, and medical devices, such as asthma inhalers and blood pressure measuring watches.

When Daimler Chrysler sent out a request for offers to supply reliable digital pressure sensors to monitor air quality inside the motor of its new truck line, it found only two companies that could meet its specifications, Intersema was one of them, and it managed to win the deal.

Winning a contract like that is a bit of a coup for a seven year old firm but dealing with industry giants requires a lot of patience. "It took more than a year to just get past the project phase," said the firm's co-founder Manfred Knuetel.

Today, more than 70 percent of Intersema's products are sold beyond the Swiss border. It wins in the international market-place due to its competitive pricing and its quality, says Knuetel.

Other big name customers, such as a well-known Swiss watchmaker, are also customers but Knuetel requested the firm's name not be disclosed for this report.

By exploiting semiconductor volume manufacturing techniques it can sell sensor that cost far below traditionally manufactured devices. It also uses quality and testing techniques exploited in much larger organizations and adapted from the chip industry.

Early adoption, and in some cases invention, of new micro-electro mechanical manufacturing (MEMS) techniques, helps Intersema to keep up chipping at the price of digital sensor devices.

This same know-how also enables it to miniaturize components to the point where they can fit unobtruisively inside a designer watch, for example.

Double digit growth rates, healthy exports, new job creation, and big name customers, could make the firm's founders the German engineer, Manfred Knuetel, and Swiss Hans Peter Savlisberg, giddy with dreams of expansion and public market floatations, but for the time being the two are staying focused on growing the business organically.

"We are not looking at raising expansion capital, although we are expanding our manufacturing capacity," said Knuetel. The new plant will be funded internally, a tactic that goes back to the origins of the company: Knuetel and Savlisberg acquired the company in a management buyout of a unit of Micronas, a publicly-traded semiconductor manufacturer based in Zurich, back in 1998, with their own money.

As for innovation, its engineers often work with researchers at the Institute of Microtechnology at the University of Neuchatel, which has been building a reputation for its MEMS know-how, supplying technology to the likes of Logitech, the computer mouse manufacturer, and Siemens AG.

by Valerie Thompson

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