|Illustration: Sam Griffin|
For the most part, we Australians huddle in and around our eastern seaboard cities, with healthy respect for the harsh realities inland. But there’s more to Australia’s tech sector than MBA-educated entrepreneurs and wealthy investors in Sydney and Melbourne. As globalisation levels the international playing field, so the performance gap between urban elites and regional innovators narrows. Catherine Kerstjens looks at five regionally-based Australian tech companies kicking goals from long distance.
FLY ME TO THE MOON
|Illustration: Sam Griffin|
Maffra, a rural town in eastern Victoria, might seem an unlikely launching pad for a technology company specialising in 3D simulations, but DM3D Studios is establishing itself as a global leader. And with key contracts bringing them into the sphere of space travel, their reputation is sure to quickly spread beyond the stratosphere.
“As the United States and the world prepares for a new era of space exploration that will take human beings beyond the Earth’s orbit, back to the Moon and on to Mars, DM3D Studios is delivering tools to visualise concepts for these new missions,” says Merryn Neilson, co-founder and director of DM3D Studios.
So, how does a company based some 220 kilometres out of Melbourne become an important player in preparing missions into space?
Distance has never been an issue for co-founders and directors Dave Rasmussen and Merryn Neilson. The pair actually met online in a 3D virtual world in 1996, when Dave was still based in the US and Merryn was on the other side of the world, here in Australia.
“We were both struck with the technology that made up these online environments and discovered we shared the same passion – to learn how to make 3D worlds,” says Neilson.
Collaborating online, the pair taught themselves how to create models and artwork and learnt the necessary programming skills to make virtual environments. When they decided to pursue their dream, Rasmussen made the move to Australia.
DM3D Studios has since grown from their lounge room to a studio, and the company now employs a pool of talented young people from the Gippsland area to deliver to their clients.
Unsurprisingly, their driving force and motto is a clever spin on the term virtual reality – ‘Virtual is Reality’ – which is exemplified through both the company’s background and its position as a global player based in a rural Australian town.
DM3D Studios has spent six years creating real-time 3D simulations for California-based DigitalSpace, a company that has contracts with NASA, Raytheon, Boeing and several American universities involved in space exploration.
“Through this partnership, DM3D Studios has built a world class simulation platform from open source components and delivered 3D simulations of next generation human and robotic landers for both the Moon and Mars, astronaut procedures for the Space Shuttle and International Space Station, and advanced scenarios for mining the Moon,” says Neilson.
“NASA program managers, astronauts and mission planners use DM3D Studios’ environments to ‘virtually drive’ vehicles in Cyberspace. They use analogs of a Lunar crater or a Mars hilltop to check performance, safety and mission plans prior to the ‘bending of metal’ to build real spacecraft prototypes or actual flight hardware”.
DM3D Studios work is at the cutting edge of whole-vehicle and whole-mission design simulation and having proved itself in outer space, it is now finding applications for its technologies back here on Earth. Australia’s Centre for New Manufacturing is using their skills to simulate factory floors and workplace training procedures.
The future looks very bright for DM3D Studios – a company that knows no bounds.
|Illustration: Sam Griffin|
The Australian Biodiesel Group (ABG), operating production out of Berkeley Vale on the New South Wales central coast, is paving the way for alternative fuel to become a mainstream reality.
“Biodiesel is a fully ‘renewable’ or ‘green’ energy source,” says Brian Stewart, ABG Corporate Affairs Manager. “The two primary environmental benefits of biodiesel use are a reduction in carbon monoxide emissions by up to 40 percent and total hydrocarbons by up to 45 percent when compared to fossil fuel.”
The constant rise in petrol prices coupled with a drop in actual oil reserves available makes the time right for an environmentally sound alternative to petroleum products to be adopted by the world community.
Founded in 2001, ABG developed and tested its technology for processing a variety of vegetable and animal fats and oils into quality fuel. This reliable and cost-effective technology, known as Modular Continuous Transesterification Process (MCTP), has been used in ABG’s production of biodiesel since 2002.
Alongside the environmental benefits the technology offers, its production of biodiesel has been shown to enhance engine life through its lubricating qualities and cleaning properties. It is non-toxic and highly biodegradable, turning to sugars and starches within three weeks of an accidental spill.
Listed on the Australian Stock Exchange and recently licensing their technology to Canada’s Calgary Biodiesel Centre, their first such contract in North America, ABG is growing at a considerable rate.
Their Berkeley Vale plant is currently operating at 75 percent capacity, with operations expected to be at full capacity (40 million litres per annum) by July. A second production facility (with a 160 million litre per annum capacity) is due to open in the second half of 2006 in Narangba, thirty minutes north of Brisbane.
ABG currently supplies its fuel to wholesale distributors, vehicle and marine fleet operators, farmers and industrial users. But as demand for biodiesel continues to rise, so too will its cost competitiveness for applications in wider everyday use.
Petroleum products are so often associated with spills and spoils, but ABG’s biodiesel production is fuelling sustainability and greener machines.
|Illustration: Sam Griffin|
The Australian Turntable Company has built its reputation as a quality manufacturer of displays and promotional stands that utilise turntable and rotational movement systems. But the company – based in Kangaroo Flats, just outside of Bendigo in Victoria – now finds itself centre stage, with its established expertise opening up a world of new opportunities.
“Three years ago, in the process of having The Australian Turntable Company quality assured, our technology’s export potential was identified and we established systems and procedures to export our unique expertise and products,” says Paul Chapman, Managing Director of The Australian Turntable Company.
And now, from humble beginnings, The Australian Turntable Company finds itself competing against international companies for major jobs worldwide. It has recently won separate contracts to design a revolving restaurant in Qatar and a revolving bar in Dubai.
But it wasn’t an overnight success story. The applications for the technology have steadily grown since the company began operations in 1987.
Then a small family-owned business, the manufacture of small exhibition displays as well as showroom and retail store installations were its bread and butter. From there, the company moved into the design and manufacture of revolving tables for motor shows, dealership premises, loading docks and garaging facilities.
A number of unique projects then came The Australian Turntable Company’s way. First was the creation of the now famous suspended rotating clock at the Queen Victoria Building shopping complex in Sydney, regarded as the world’s largest installation of its type. As a consequence, they were employed to design and install a large rotating theatre stage at the National Museum in Canberra.
Currently, the company employs eight people at its Kangaroo Flats base and exports are said to represent 30 percent of its turnover.
“When we were starting our business, a marketing person came in to offer us some advice. Seeing our letterhead template he said, ‘You’re not going to put Kangaroo Flats on there are you? At least put Bendigo,’ recalls Chapman.
But, listing Kangaroo Flats proved to be a very wise business decision.
“When international companies look to do business with us, as soon as they see Kangaroo Flats they know exactly where we’re from. And they always ask us about the kangaroos!’ says Chapman, laughing.
Not one to rest on its laurels, the company is turning its revolving technologies towards a housing revolution.
“Our newly formed division, Revolving Rooms Worldwide, has been established to design and build special rooms in high rise towers and penthouse apartments, which combine state of the art kinetic architecture with electronic remote control for rotating lounge, living, bedroom or home theatre rooms with a view,” says Chapman.
Jetsons, eat your heart out!
WASTE NOT, WANT NOT
|Illustration: Sam Griffin|
Inventor Dean Cameron looked to nature for inspiration when considering ways of recycling wastewater, and he found the answers he was looking for.
“I was examining the way that creatures broke down cowpats and dead cows in the paddock and studying the rapid decomposition of organic waste on river edges,” says Cameron, Managing Director of Biolytix Technologies.
“While other scientists were trying to solve the wastewater treatment riddle by analysing oxygen diffusion in water from within their laboratories, I believed that nature had the answer”.
While it wasn’t quite stopping to smell the roses, Cameron’s research – spanning more than a decade – has signalled a significant breakthrough in the area of wastewater recycling.
“The Biolytix Waste Treatment System uses worms and other organisms to quickly recycle sewage, wastewater, sanitary items and food scraps into safe irrigation water,” says Cameron.
“Our system essentially mimics nature to provide a low energy, robust wastewater treatment solution that provides a reliable and high quality effluent without any odours”.
Biolytix Technologies launched in 2004 and in just two years its workforce has grown from five people to over 160 employees, sales representatives and installers.
Given their environmentally friendly focus, it is no surprise to find that Biolytix Technologies is based in the picturesque surroundings of Maleny, in the Sunshine Coast hinterland of Queensland.
But being located around 100 kilometres north of Brisbane hasn’t hampered the company’s impact. Their energy efficient, compact and cost-effective technology is winning fans at an incredible rate.
In 2005 they won a global award at the World Expo in Japan and the Queensland Premier’s Smart Awards ‘Rising Star’ award.
They have recently been named one of the top five eco-technologies by the Federal Government and Cameron was honoured with a prestigious Clunies Ross award in April this year.
As for the future, Cameron hopes to create a low-cost version of the company’s awarding winning system for the 2.5 billion people around the world who lack proper sanitation.
Clearly, this is a technology that is not only getting back to nature, but rewarding it as well.
WIND POWER WINS
By Jodie O’Keeffe
|Illustration: Sam Griffin
There’s a certain aptness to a company that builds and manages power stations having a ‘light bulb’ moment. That’s what happened in Darwin when Powercorp founder and Managing Director Alan Langworthy realised why the wind farm projects he had been working on were failing.
“We realised that the problem of successfully achieving high penetration wind-diesel systems is not one of energy storage, but one of stability,” says Langworthy.
In 1998, while developing Australia’s first large variable speed wind turbine at Denham in Western Australia, Powercorp engineers detected enormous momentary fluctuation in power from the wind turbine.
“Up to 80 percent of the machine’s power was lost and returned over a two to three second window. Instead of a smooth or slowly varying power supply from the wind generator to the power station, it was peppered with high spikes and low troughs of real energy. It’s as though the wind had holes in it,” says Langworthy.
To solve this problem of power instability, Langworthy and his team developed PowerStore, a flywheel inverter system that compensates for the fluctuations.
“The flywheel is able to absorb and deliver real energy very, very fast. But, our claim to fame is that we’ve written the software to make our inverters very, very fast. Now we can actually inject or absorb a megawatt in 0.005 seconds.”
And the Denham power station saves around 150,000 litres of diesel per year by harnessing and ‘smoothing out’ the wind.
Originally established in Darwin in 1988 to develop Intelligent Power Systems for remote diesel power in the Northern Territory, Powercorp now specialises in power station management, development, rehabilitation and automation.
Being relatively close to the remote stations is handy, but Langworthy sees Powercorp as an international company.
“We are as comfortable working in Quebec, the far north Atlantic, London, or Alaska as we are anywhere.”
Powercorp’s 44 employees also enjoy the other benefits of working in Darwin – no rush hour; easy parking; and quicker flights to Asia and Europe.