If Henry Ford were alive today, he would, one imagines, be both proud and more than a littleastonished at the evolution of moving assembly lines. They've become longer and vastly more complex than the ones built to churn out his Model Ts back in the early years of the last century. The production line at BMW's factory in Cowley, near Oxford, for instance, coughs out different kinds of Mini one after another. Every car boasts custom fittings, so one with black leather seats might be followed by one with an interior upholstered in black and brown cloth and leather.
These options need to be carefully managed to make sure things run smoothly. Different parts must be tracked, as do the different tools needed to fix the parts to skeletons rolling down the line. This is where Ubisense, the Cambridge-based company which said last week that it intended to float on the Alternative Investment Market, steps in with what it calls its "real-time location system".
Ubisense offers manufacturers something akin to an indoor radar. Up at Cowley, sensors keep track of the various moving parts and send signals to a central system that allows managers to see what's going on up and down the production line as it happens. Sensors asses production metrics, track tools, people and vehicles, and the central system boasts the ability to display the data in two and three dimensions.
The result is lower costs and less risk, as Ubisense makes it easier to zero in on bottlenecks, or spy small problems before they become bigger and threaten to derail the whole process. But the technology isn't just for indoor use. Ubisense kept tabs on the production of the Airbus A380, tracking the parts as they were built and brought together from different countries.
Tracking moving parts is one division of the business. The other keeps tabs on fixed assets for utilities, phone companies and the like, mapping and making sense of their vast networks. Such "geospatial solutions" have also lured some big customers, including General Electric and Deutsche Telekom.
Ubisense is relatively young – it was spun out of Cambridge University less than 10 years ago – and is hoping to list on Aim, with the associated institutional fund-raising expected to bring in about £6m. It already appears to have momentum behind it. Last November, for instance, it successfully raised £5m by way of a shares placing. The process was led by Canaccord Genuity, which is also leading the institutional fund-raising under way now.
And beyond the numbers, investors will recall two other Cambridge-based technology firms that came to the market with new ideas: Autonomy and ARM Holdings, both of whom went on to secure FTSE 100 berths. It is far too early to tell whether Ubisense will find the same kind of favour – but it certainly looks like one to watch.
Volex returns to the dividend list
Last week was important for investors in Volex, the maker of power cords and specialist cables that supplies brands such as Apple, Sony and Samsung. Its full-year figures showed forecast-beating sales of £316m, up 38 per cent, and better-than-expected profits. But the really big news was an earlier-than-expected return to the dividend list, with the board recommending a payout of 2p per share.
The results suggest Volex is recovering as management's turnaround strategy takes root. Beyond the divi, another key point to note was the successful renegotiation and refinancing of a four-year committed facility, which gives the business ample financial flexibility, analysts say. So, what next? Analysts quickly highlighted the possibility of acquisitions – not least because the outlook statement said the board was looking at "all opportunities, both organic and otherwise, to further accelerate the business". What sort of buys could we expect? If Charles Stanley is to be believed, Volex, which has four main divisions – consumer, telecoms and data, healthcare and industrial – may seek to limit its consumer exposure. But the company may not be in any hurry, according to Royal Bank of Scotland, whose analysts reckon management are likely to take a "stringent" and "conservative" stance.