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Adding Automation

With its recent acquisition of the popular iSno platform for controlling and monitoring snowmaking systems, HKD Snowmakers is broadening its inventory of snowmaking solutions
HKD snowmaker blowing snow

HKD Snowmakers, North America’s leading supplier of energy-efficient snowmaking equipment, offers an innovative product line that includes the HKD Impulse tower and ground guns, the HKD fan gun and HKD KLIK hydrants. The company, which also offers a full range of engineering and system planning packages, recently added snowmaking system controls and automation to its arsenal of snowmaking solutions.

In September 2018, HKD Snowmakers purchased the controls, monitoring and automation business of Sno.matic, a company founded by Scott Barthold in 1994 that’s grown to become a “go-to” resource for resorts to monitor snowmaking and automatically control pump stations and air plants using its proprietary iSno platform.

HKD Snowmaker’s newly formed division called iSno Controls and Automation is based in Lyme, N.H. Headquartered in Natick, Mass., HKD also has offices in Vermont, Virginia, Utah, Colorado and Nevada. The company’s snowmaking and automation products are manufactured at its own production facility just outside Quebec City, Quebec.

Charles Santry, president and one of the owners of HKD Snowmakers, says the iSno platform acquisition is reflective of a strong commitment to innovation that’s the lifeblood of his company. Santry spoke about the deal in a recent interview with SnowOps.

Why did HKD Snowmakers strike this deal with Sno.matic?

Charles Santry: Scott Barthold and I have worked together since 1995. Over that time, we’ve done a fair amount of controls work in our various projects and we’ve done a lot of automation work together. There has been a tremendous interest in automation in the industry the last four or five years. Working together with Snow.matic more closely will allow us to better serve our customers in the marketplace. That was the main driver behind the deal.

How will the acquisition of iSno software improve HKD’s position in the snowmaking industry?

CS: We have a group of 12 sales people who are out in the field, working directly with our customers. By working more closely with the iSno team, we hope to be even more responsive in taking care of those customers’ controls and automation needs. We have a direct link to our customers, know what they need and now we’ll be able to directly convey these needs back to the team designing software. The ultimate goal is to help our customers more fully utilise their snowmaking systems.

How does the iSno platform work?

CS: The iSno platform is a control software package that provides a visual representation of the mountain and a user interface for the controller of a snowmaking system to start, stop and monitor the various pieces of equipment – pumps, compressors, snowguns – that are running to support the snowmaking system. Being able to have all this operational information consolidated in one platform for the controller to monitor throughout the day or night, and make changes when necessary, is critical.

We feel innovation is critical because the industry is constantly changing and we need to be able to evolve with that.

The iSno software facilitates better utilisation of the snowmaking system. Our platform is server-based and can be accessed over the internet or on a smartphone. iSno software is compatible with most mobile devices.

What makes iSno unique?

CS: There are several choices out there. Many of the control packages on the market are manufacturer-specific. In other words, they relate very specifically to a particular type or brand of snowmaking technology. What’s unique and beneficial about iSno, and what Scott Barthold and his team at iSno have done well, is they’ve been able to incorporate the technologies of various different suppliers and put them all under one package which is the iSno platform. It really has a very broad reach in terms of the types of technologies that it can control.

Additionally, by collaborating with the various suppliers of snow depth technology, we have recently developed the ability to incorporate live trail snow depths into the iSno mapping feature.

How popular is the iSno system?

CS: There’s a broad spectrum of resorts that are using the technology right now, from top corporate owners in the North American ski industry to smaller entrepreneurial owner-operated ski areas. It’s widely used.

Why is automation important in the snowmaking industry?

CS: What we’re seeing in the industry, both here in North America and overseas, is that it’s becoming more difficult to find labor to come in and operate snowmaking systems day and night, so you have to be as efficient as you can with the crew that you currently have at your ski area.

Many resorts have a very competent team in place, but they are under pressure to do more with their snowmaking systems than they ever have had to do in the past due to a number of factors. There’s more pressure to get open earlier, there’s more pressure to be able to resurface after Mother Nature throws a few curveballs in there with rain and warm weather and so on, and there’s an incredible amount of pressure on snowmaking systems to make use of absolutely every single hour that’s available. In order to do all of that, with the existing teams that are in place at the resorts, automation becomes something that management has to consider very closely.

We have a direct link to our customers, know what they need and now we’ll be able to directly convey these needs back to the team designing software.

You need to have a way to visually understand and share with others what is happening with every component of your snowmaking system; all the pump and compressor motors and all the snowmaking equipment on the hill. Consolidating all of that in one place makes things run a lot more efficiently than if you’re just running blind at night watching pressure gauges in the pump house and not having any real control over what’s going on, which is the way things used to run years ago.

Why is innovation important to HKD Snowmakers?

CS: Research and development is the passion and lifeblood of HKD Snowmakers. We feel innovation is critical because the industry is constantly changing and we need to be able to evolve with that. That’s why we’re continually investing in R&D each year. If we weren’t doing that, we’d be standing still and as soon as you’re standing still, you’re just going to get passed by everyone in the industry. So we’re very focused on that.

Besides a strong commitment to innovation, what’s another unique aspect of your company?

CS: We are a fully-integrated company, both backwards and forwards. We’ve got a wide host of skillsets within HKD that allows us to continue to develop products, to install them, to work with our customers to make sure they work and finally, to make corrections out in the field if something isn’t working well. Our team is a diverse, talented and fully integrated group, and we can address anything that needs to be repaired or modified to meet our customers’ needs.

We’ve been in business since 1990, so it’s quite a stretch of time working in the industry. I’m proud of our team that has rallied around our technology. We have just a super group of people working together and I think everyone in the company enjoys working in the ski industry because it’s just a wonderful industry. In this day and age of passive entertainment and social media, we all love being physically active in the out-of-doors, with good friends. It’s life affirming!

What are HKD Snowmakers’ most popular product offerings?

CS: Our air/water tower snow guns. They’re relatively inexpensive, provide tremendous energy savings and they’re easy to install and very intuitive for the snowmakers to operate. So those are probably the biggest bang for the buck for our customers. Once those are in place, the next thing to look at is fan technology and then automated control systems are the last consideration. When a resort has solidified the energy efficiency of their snowmaking system and they have [the] equipment they need in place, the next thing they can do to really improve their efficiency is to then move on to the complexity of automation.

How can snow operations personnel purchase your products or systems?

CS: We have sales and service coverage all over North America and we know the resorts and the operators. If a resort isn’t using any of our technology and have an interest in it, we will do a demonstration for them. We’ll lend them a piece of equipment for the season so their crew can operate it and understand how it works. We’ll also spend some time training them so they understand the technology and if the resort is interested, we’ll go further with trying to figure out what kind of purchase would make the most sense for them.