Berntsen International: Small company, big innovation

The benefits of innovation are not lost on Berntsen International CEO Rhonda Rushing or President Mike Klonsinski, especially after receiving the Geospatial World Excellence Award for technology innovation in Hyderabad, India this past January. For more than four decades, the Madison-based manufacturer of traditional boundary marking products has demonstrated why it’s as important for small, family-owned businesses to stress innovation as it is for corporate giants.

Berntsen’s award-winning innovation is the patented InfraMarker system, and like many breakthroughs it came about after tinkering with the idea of merging new technology with existing products. A few years ago the company realized the potential of creating a smart marker that could communicate from below the earth’s surface, and now it’s smart-marking products are part of the emerging internet of things economy.

Berntsen, which employs 24 people, started fielding requests from customers about the possibility of transforming its survey monuments into smart monuments. Specifically, “could they be electronic or connected in some way?” Rushing notes. “It was maybe seven or eight years ago when we became more aware of the possibility of using RFID (radio frequency identification) technology with our products.”

Rhonda Rushing

Mike Klonsinski

For various utilities, the monuments can’t be smart enough. Every year in the United States there are more than 300,000 accidental hits of underground utilities such as gas, electric, telecommunications, and water pipelines. These accidents cause service disruptions, damage communities, and cost public and private institutions billions of dollars. Worse still, they have caused injuries and loss of life.

Old practices of locating underground infrastructure were time-consuming and prone to errors because of nonexistent or inaccurate records. The InfraMarker uses sensors, a mobile app, and a cloud data system to locate, monitor, and manage underground infrastructure, and it can relay data, photos, videos, and other documentation in real time via the cloud.

Internet connection

The ability to connect underground assets is part of the internet of things economy, which is projected to grow to $1.7 trillion by 2020. Berntsen not only has a geospatial software platform that allows it to be part of the internet of things, it is a member of the Internet of Things System Research Center at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and the Auburn University Geospatial Research and Applications Center.

“It’s an internet of things world and we intend to be part of that,” Klonsinski states.

Berntsen’s history of innovation has taken several turns. In the 1980s, the company was focused on quality improvements and team training. It was an early adopter of LEAN manufacturing and process improvements and e-commerce. In its conference room is a 1975 photograph of the company founder receiving the governor’s innovation award for its early surveying markers.

In 1990, Rushing and her husband attended the four-day Deming Institute seminar in Kansas City, and Berntsen was among the first in the nation to apply the quality principles of Dr. W. Edwards Deming. “A big part of the satisfaction of a family business and its owners is that we do want to be on the cutting edge of things, learning and growing as a business,” Rushing says.

Companies that don’t invest in innovation usually don’t hang around for 40 years. “We don’t know what would have happened if we hadn’t done it, but it’s been in our DNA from the very beginning,” Rushing notes. “It isn’t just in one area. It runs throughout our company. It’s not only in our developing technology, but also in how we use technology. It’s in our product-development thoughts and also in our management practices, from how we run our plant and our office.”

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Reaching in

The InfraMarker innovation has allowed Berntsen to reach deeper with its national and international clients. The company has a wide base of global clients, but it’s been primarily focused on supporting the operational side. “What InfraMarker has done is expanded our reach into the design and engineering areas of these different companies,” Klonsinski explains. “So we’re targeting those who scope the projects, as well as execute them. It allows us entry into the most strategic levels of the company.”

Berntsen primarily has sold in the surveying industry, but InfraMarker also opens broader opportunities in utilities, departments of transportation, and underground locating firms. It opens the door to sectors where it has had a small niche but now has an opportunity to have a bigger footprint. “We’re seeing it really enhance what we’re already doing and expanding that,” Rushing states, “so I think our market is definitely growing and our view of how we fit in this new world is definitely expanding.”

To accommodate projected growth, Berntsen has added business development staff, sales, marketing, and a product development engineer. From this point forward, their roadmap is to turn marking products into connected-marking products, whether it’s enabling posts with RFID tags or incorporating sensors into its marking products. Its next generation of products goes from RFID-enabled markers to sensor-enabled marking products. For example, a post can signal if the land shifts or if a vehicle crashes into it.

“Right now, we can RFID-enable all of our products, which means we can put RFID tags on our products and track those products from the yard to the location in the field,” Klonsinski explains. “We also have software enhanced with cloud technology to map and locate our markers in the field. We turn our markers from simple guidance or warning signs to conduits of information and communication.”

Stubborn path

In the process, Berntsen has discovered uses for the product that it did not originally envision. While the company designed InfraMarker with the intent of marking and finding key underground assets, it’s had a series of requests to mark things it couldn’t imagine — almond piles, cemeteries, vineyards, athletic fields, and tree inventories.

“We’ve had a lot of customers looking for some creative applications that we’ve either had to dabble in, laugh about, or just say, ‘Yeah, we can try that,’” Klonsinski notes.

“The big thing about this is it takes time to see results with all of this, and it’s not easy to incorporate this into the deal you work,” Rushing says. “I would say that I’m stubborn. It takes a certain stubbornness to stay with it and not get cold feet and to work through the inevitable things you have to when you’re working on these kinds of things. It’s not always an easy path.”

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