Data Highway

KLA Laboratories is moving into the digital world of autonomous and connected vehicles.

Matt O’Bryan, president and CEO of KLA Laboratories in Dearborn, recently completed Cisco upgrades at 50 sites for Ford Motor Co., including its world headquarters in Dearborn and several large assembly plants.

KLA Laboratories in Dearborn is used to innovation. When the Pontiac Silverdome was nearing completion in 1975, the company used a hot-air balloon to lower the speakers because there wasn’t a ladder tall enough to reach the dome ceiling.

“As it turned out, the roof of the Silverdome was 5 feet higher than they thought, and the speakers were 200 feet from the ground,” says Matt O’Bryan, president and CEO of KLA Laboratories. “The sound was bouncing off the rafters, and the only thing we could think of to get our crew up there was a hot-air balloon. It worked out great.”

The company was founded in 1929 by three friends, and O’Bryan’s late father, Pat, started working there in 1947, after returning home from a tour in the U.S. Army. He began buying stock in the company in 1956, and acquired a controlling interest in 1964.

Today, KLA still offers what it was founded upon — namely, the creation, installation, certification, and commissioning of communication systems. The Big Three automakers have been longtime clients, and the enterprise has designed, installed, and managed sound and communication systems for stadiums (including Comerica Park, Ford Field, and Little Caesars Arena), racetracks, factories, schools, public offices, churches, and commercial buildings.

In recent months, the company has been testing a 5G communication platform that will offer greater network speed and limit latency; it completed a new Wi-Fi system at Ford Field (it installed the first Wi-Fi system in the National Football League at the same venue in 2012); and it’s starting to test cellular and Wi-Fi systems placed inside street bollards to bring about “smart” cities.

“Wayfinding is one the emerging offerings now, where your smartphone will tell you where you’re going for a 7:30 a.m. meeting, where your reserved parking space is, and where the conference room is,” O’Bryan says. “Such a system also alerts you to coupons available at a store as you walk by it.”

KLA Labs, which has 200 employees, also is working with automakers and several suppliers on testing and operating connected and autonomous vehicles. In addition to operating from Dearborn (it recently opened a Technical Engineering Center near Rotunda and Greenfield roads), the company has offices in Columbus, Ohio, and Las Vegas, and plans to expand into Raleigh, N.C., and Phoenix.

“We not only design a communication system, but we install it, maintain it, and we can operate it,” O’Bryan says. “We’re a one-stop electronics shop. For an auto plant, we install miles and miles of fiber inside tubes that may have 19 cables inside of them, so it’s like a 19-lane data highway. And we have a blower system that can blow fiber up to 11,000 feet (inside a tube). Plus, we’re family-owned, which means our clients get our full attention.”

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