PCH’s Liam Casey: ‘we’re looking for the next big thing in Irish hardware’

8 Sep 2014

Liam Casey, CEO, PCH International

Turning Irish entrepreneurs’ ideas into viable products will nurture economic recovery, PCH International CEO Liam Casey said ahead of the forthcoming Hardware Hackathon at Dublin City University (DCU).

“Having an idea is great, but getting to market is key,” he said.

Casey, who is known in the tech industry as ‘Mr China’ because of his knowledge and contacts among the Asian manufacturing community, is something of a kingmaker in the burgeoning hardware space worldwide and manages the worldwide delivery of products for tech giants, such as Apple.

Two years ago, Enterprise Ireland named Casey as ‘International Start-up Ambassador’ in China.

Working across the entire technology spectrum, PCH International completes the design and delivery of products from Beats’ Dr Dre headphones to cutting-edge smartphones arising out of emerging Chinese phone maker Xiaomi.

PCH International has revenues of US$400m a year and masterminds the design, manufacture and distribution of hardware, from the initial online order to the delivery at the customer’s door, anywhere in the world. The company employs 1,200 people worldwide, including 80 people in Cork, where PCH International is headquartered.

Casey has been a key player in the emerging hardware start-up space, acquiring a design studio called Lime Labs in San Francisco, California, and establishing his own Highway 1 incubator programme. The company, as well as forging deals with retailers such as RadioShack in the US, has established its own e-commerce site to sell hardware called The Blueprint.

Hardware hackathon

In partnership with DCU and to take advantage of the nexus of hardware and the internet of things, Ireland’s first Ireland’s first Hardware Hackathon is being held 12-14 September at DCU. The hackathon is already sold out.

Modelled on the successful Startup Weekend – the largest of which recently took place in Ireland – hardware innovators will form teams to devise hardware that will make an impact on people’s lives. They will then pitch their idea before a panel of judges.

To make it happen, an extensive list of developer kits will be available, including Arduino kits, Raspberry Pis, Intel Galileo boards, 3D printers and even a CNC machine for people to make prototypes of their ideas. 

Judges from AIB, Tyndall Institute, Design Partners and Frontline Ventures will decide on the best hardware and ideas from pitches by the various teams.

Enabled by easy to access design tools and 3D printers, Casey sees no reason why Irish companies that combine design know-how, communications technology, sensors and software could not one day soon achieve the same level of acclaim as device makers, such as Pebble.

“There’s real progress being made in terms of the tech, digital and the maker community here in Ireland. We’re seeing the vitality with events like the Hackathon,” he said.

“In terms of economic development, Ireland already has a reputation as a technology hub, particularly for leading technology companies, and I know there is a commitment at the highest level – across Government and industry – to support the tech sector. In terms of start-ups, there is a lot of creativity.

“The key is to help convert these ideas into viable consumer products. We’re doing it in PCH with our Highway 1 incubator programme that provides start-ups with insight, knowledge, experience and access to our own channels, distribution networks and marketing expertise.

“We also have a division, PCH Access, that helps start-ups like Drop scale their business. There is a real appetite to support the sector and to support SMEs in general, which I think is really important to nurture as part of Ireland’s economic recovery.”

The future of manufacturing – it’s all in the design

With much of the US and Europe’s manufacturing shifted to Asia, there are many who would argue that manufacturing is dead. However, when you see companies such as PCH International, which manages the supply chain flourish, Apple’s longtime commitment to Cork and Intel’s recent US$10bn investment at its manufacturing in Leixlip, Co Kildare, there is a bigger picture to consider.

Casey urged potential hardware makers and designers in Ireland to see the bigger picture. “Manufacturing is definitely changing. It’s getting more efficient, and you see how the supply chain can get shorter and shorter as a result of more information. We can track from anywhere in the world a product in real-time, from the production line to consumer, and get the product into the hands of consumers within days. That supply chain process will get more efficient as access to data becomes the norm.

“The manufacturing processes in Asia are excellent and you do see companies in Europe and the States looking to emulate that with lean processes and so on, which is encouraging. There are some instances of manufacturing emerging outside of China, and this will continue as some products are best made closer to the consumer, where shipping costs are minimised. Ireland and Silicon Valley are the kinds of places to innovate, design, and prototype, while China remains a unique place to manufacturer electronics because of the proximity to the components, factories and labour.”

Growth hacking – Ireland’s opportunity

As DCU’s president Brian MacCraith pointed out, there is a revolution happening in terms of wireless technologies, the internet of things and access to rapid prototyping technologies, such as 3D printers and CNC machines.

Casey pointed out that with crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter, the hardware space is now a much more open space and passionate entrepreneurs aren’t dependent on funding from banks as they had been before.

“There are several avenues open for financing now. What’s more, with the global reach of the internet, hardware start-ups have the advantage of ready access to a global customer base.

“It’s fantastic when you see how entrepreneurs and makers can innovate. Established companies should take advantage of this creativity, and work with start-ups. The question is how can entrepreneurs can be helped? There’s a big opportunity for Ireland.”

Casey believes Ireland has phenomenal talent with world-class research institutes and universities working in technology, electronics, and design.

“I think partnerships between the business and the research community are really important to make the most of the opportunity to commercialise ideas.

“Despite crowdfunding, etc, it can be hard for entrepreneurs to access the market when they don’t have the history, and order volume, or connections. I think incubator programmes, like our Highway1 programme, can help get entrepreneurs through those stumbling blocks. Having an idea is great, but getting to market is key.

“The support of industry and policy-makers is therefore important. Events like the Hackathon are also good to showcase talent, helping to fuel the hardware revolution and helping entrepreneurs, designers and makers work together,” Casey said.

“This will possibly lead to teams and companies being formed, and new products coming to market. This is all good for Ireland.

The hackathon this weekend, Casey said, should be seen as a celebration of the tech and maker communities in Ireland.

“We were delighted to partner with DCU, because the Innovation Campus supports start-ups and provides them with the tools they need. We’re looking forward to an exciting weekend, with lots of ideas and energy,” Casey said.

“Hopefully we’ll see the next big thing in Irish hardware!”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years