Britain-based Heber Ltd. began 25 years ago after two electronics engineers, Tony Reynolds and Bob Powell, had a chance conversation on a train. During that conversation, the two decided to establish a firm that would design and manufacture affordable, real-time electronic control systems and technology for the gaming industry. Starting from a single room in a 17th century mill that straddles the River Frome in the picturesque Gloucestershire town of Chalford near Stroud, Heber soon grew to be a recognized and trusted leader in real-time control systems across a range of markets. The company now occupies the entire mill property and employs 30 people.
Heber’s first innovation was one of the world’s earliest dedicated electronic control boards for gaming, Pluto 1. This innovation soon became hugely popular as the industry moved away from its own costly and inferior control systems in favor of Pluto-based solutions. “Pluto 1 stood out from everything else on the market because it was electronic and very reliable—and something that gaming manufacturers could, literally, buy off of the shelf,” said Les Ashton-Smith, managing director for Heber.
Pluto 1 featured an embedded system that sat discretely inside a cabinet running anything from penny pushers and slot machines to video and multi-player electronic roulette tables. The technology was so popular that manufacturers, including giants such as JPM, Casino Technology and JVH, became some of Heber’s earliest clients.
Ashton-Smith also attributes Pluto’s early (and continued) success to the company’s commitment to the security of its technology, which has always been strong. “Any user that purchases a Heber product gets a personalized controller,” he explained. “Every one of our control boards has an electronic signature, which is unique to the customer. Therefore, two manufacturers can buy our boards, but these will not work in the others’ machines. This is very important in terms of the investment that gaming manufacturers put into the games they are running using our technology.”
Since Pluto 1, Heber’s control system technology has evolved through various incarnations and is today offered as Pluto 8, which features high-powered dual video support standard along with advanced encryption-based security and flexible input/output options.
“Technology and customer-driven feedback always plays the major part in all our gaming control systems development,” Ashton-Smith noted. “Without the challenges from our customers and those that the marketplace demands, we would not have had so many remarkably successful products.” For example, faster graphics has been one of the technologies driving the evolution of the Pluto range, along with the introduction of LED lighting, which demanded a completely different driver and hardware package.
Along with its market-leading range of embedded and PC-based control systems and gaming peripherals, Heber also offers clients free customer support from specialist engineers alongside dedicated after-sales care.
“You are investing in the total package with Heber,” Ashton-Smith said. “We are specialists in real-time inputs/outputs and security, and we have been for 25 years. We have always offered, right from the first day, technical support on all of our products, investing in people to be at the other end of the telephone or e-mail so that we’re not a ‘sell and forget’ company.”
“We have never treated the technology as a commodity and have always recognized that the implementation is as important as the technology,” he added. “We recognize that sometimes it is a leap of faith for manufacturers to invest in us by developing a product on our technology, and I take that quite seriously. Support is one of the ways in which we show that we are serious, and we are still supporting and repairing products that we sold 20 years ago.”
Over the years, Heber has also transformed itself into a truly global firm, with product ranges to suit gaming manufacturers around the world. In addition to the Pluto range, Heber offers a range of USB gaming peripherals under the XLine brand, along with its Nucleus series of integrated PC boards. XLine is a range of real-time, USB-driven controllers that allow manufacturers to choose their own PC, while Nucleus is a self-contained controller based on Intel’s X-86 platform, with the Xline technology already integrated to facilitate an easy upgrade. Heber also handles a large amount of bespoke design and manufacturing for larger clients that have specific and unique requirements.
Although the current economic downturn is negatively affecting some manufacturers in the gaming industry, Ashton-Smith believes that Heber’s status as an international supplier will help the company weather the storm. “We are fortunate enough to have clients all over the world, and their success is our success,” he said. “Also, we are very privileged to know a lot about the industry and are aware of the people who are on the up and those who may be struggling. It will get better again. Some will not survive, but at the same time, there are plenty of signs of progress and market developments. Many manufacturers are using this time to showcase product innovations that can only be good for the industry, with people being more daring and showing new ideas.”
Ashton-Smith also noted the recent Comma 6A legislation in Italy, through which the government authorized a greater number of gaming machines than it had originally planned after realizing the tax revenue potential. “The Italians recognized that it was an opportunity to raise money, so additional licenses were allowed on the market,” he said. “It would not be surprising if other markets took this same approach.”
Heber now manufactures, tests and sells a new control board every 47 seconds and has racked up over 2.5 million units since 1984, winning a Queen’s Award for Enterprise along the way.
“Quite simply, our passion is video gaming control systems, from design innovation to development, prototyping and manufacture,” Ashton-Smith said. “Our extensive product range has something for every design requirement, and our team of experienced engineers is committed to developing the most innovative and exciting gaming control systems on the market, leaving you more time to get creative for your customers.”