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Q & A Interview with Robert Drake

For over 100 years Hochiki have been at the forefront of life safety technology, with over 2000 employees working across six manufacturing plants, 38 sales offices and 14 subsidiaries. As part of a series of blogs in 2023 we are going to introduce you to some of the team behind our life safety technology. First up is Robert Drake, Director of Research and Development at Hochiki Europe.

What does a typical day in research and development look like for you and the team?

I live about 30 minutes from the dedicated Hochiki Europe R&D centre in Rochester, which is a few miles from the Head Office in Gillingham. I usually arrive about an hour before the rest of the team, so this is a chance for me to get a quiet hour of clearing the decks and setting up for the day. Working at Hochiki, my day is varied. As part of the R&D management team I not only guide the development activities I also act as a filter to protect the manager and team of engineers, who are a mix of hardware, software, and mechanical experts as well as test teams, from interruptions – something which is key to keep our new product designs on target, while providing our technical expertise in support of the rest of the business.


We hold daily stand ups, which are short meetings to discuss progress and identify blockers. The reason we call it a “stand-up” is because we hold the meeting standing, which helps to keep the meeting short and focused. For development teams, it’s a bit like a sports team's huddle. 50% of our team are remote workers, much like most technology teams these days. It helps keep them fully focused and not distracted by people outside the team standing at their desks asking questions. However, we ensure there is still opportunity for collaboration, it’s a great culture here at Hochiki Europe.


The rest of my day is a mixture of sustaining, recruitment and product planning and building a strong product development funnel for the next 3-5 years.

What do you mean by sustaining?

This is the work needed by the research and development departments to support their products through their lifecycle. This has become increasingly important thanks to the pandemic and the global shortage of components.  Sustaining work helps resolve any issues relating to component shortages and component obsolescence (at the circuit board level). Hochiki Europe are committed to ensuring a good service to our customers, this vital work helps us do this.

What is your background in research and development and what attracted you to the life safety industry?

I started my career as a development engineer in fire and security and over the last 30 years I have worked across various markets including the military, security, video and TV software, a tech start-up, the gaming industry and then coming full circle back to the fire industry here with Hochiki.

Despite the variety, the roles I’ve held have always been in product design and manufacturing and mostly in industries that are heavily regulated. I enjoy the complexity and challenge of solving a problem – the fire industry feels, to me, as an industry that has real world value. With the products we design, although we never wish them to be triggered by the thing they are supposed to be triggered by, it's a nice feeling knowing that should the worst happen, our products are there to save lives and businesses.


What would you say are the fundamentals to a successful research and development team as well as output?

I think, and I’m sure the team here would agree, that the fundamentals to a successful R&D team output is clear goals, excellent communication and limited interruptions.  The processes we have in place here at Hochiki allow for this.  For example, our team is separate to production, but we have ensured that the link is still well maintained.  We work with support tickets and priority levels and ensure an engineer is available in the factory each week to help with improvements – all these things help with output and with improving the customer experience.

Which other departments do the R&D team work with at Hochiki to achieve the best results for customers?

I’ve talked a lot about limited interruptions, this is important, but equally as important is the opportunity to work collaboratively. Hochiki Europe encourage this, we work closely with product management, the commercial teams and technical support to ensure we output the best results for our customers.

How important is customer insight and legislation to R&D at Hochiki?

Customer insight is critical to the success of our products, the voice of the customer alongside legislation drives everything from our department, through to customer support, sales, marketing, manufacturing, even the administrational side of the business. I’d say we are a customer first company.


As I've mentioned in my career I’ve mostly worked with heavily regulated industries, and the fire industry is possibly one of the most heavily regulated there is. Legislation can make things slow moving, rightly so because it’s important, but I enjoy that challenge and Hochiki are committed to making sure the products they design, develop, manufacture, and put to market are 100% safe. We can only do this though through customer insight and having those experts in house to ensure we work closely with the governing bodies.

What trends, would you say are starting to emerge in life safety that customers need to be aware of?

Cloud technology is something that is going to enhance life safety projects, just as it has our everyday lives. So, for example, if you are the responsible person for your building, and you want to minimise the threat of failure of a product, it may be wise to investigate the benefits of cloud-based technology which reports faults automatically to any online device. The additional benefits that cloud tech can offer our industry are really exciting.   

Can you tell us about what customers can expect to see from Hochiki over the next 12 months?

We know a strong supply chain is important to our customers, and this is what we are working hard to ensure. There is no denying that the pandemic hit multiple businesses across the board, but at Hochiki we are working with our colleagues here in the UK, Europe, Middle East – all the way to Japan and back to ensure our supply chain is back to pre-pandemic levels. We’ve got the right technology and people in place to help us do this.


We’ve got some exciting research underway with Japan and with the BRE, plus some new products coming out this year, one being our newest intelligent emergency lighting product. The Middle East team were able to share a preview demo of this new system with the visitors to Intersec in Dubai. I can’t go into too much detail, but I’m excited to see how this is received by customers, new and old. We’ve had initial feedback from a test group and our sales teams and it’s all very positive. I’ll just say watch this space because it’s an exciting road map year ahead for Hochiki Europe customers.