17/02/2011 - 00:00

Engineering the work environment

17/02/2011 - 00:00

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OUTSIDE those who work in the highly technical 3D gaming industry, there are not too many people who spend their working hours navigating a three dimensional computerised world.

OUTSIDE those who work in the highly technical 3D gaming industry, there are not too many people who spend their working hours navigating a three dimensional computerised world.

Fewer still can say they remotely control process equipment for mining sites in what looks like a game-loving engineer’s delight.

Thanks to Balcatta-based Sentient, however, that is changing.

The company started in the late 1990s when Doug Bester and some business partners developed their process control software known as MacroView.

When it reached a level of development that was attractive to buyers, the product was sold to another company and Sentient remained the exclusive licensee, establishing a significant client base that included the like of Rio Tinto and Coogee Chemicals.

During the next couple of years, however, Mr Bester watched the quality of the product slip, with the new owner discontinuing investment and development falling behind multinational competitors like Honeywell and Schneider.

“The company that bought MacroView stopped developing it ... it was (upsetting), but I think if you are small and you have a product you have to be innovative, you have to jump because if you just try to catch up you will always battle against the bigger guys,” Mr Bester said.

In 2005, he bought back MacroView and set about re-establishing its reputation.

There were two issues at the time – the product was no longer at the forefront of process control software and, while the company was strong in its existing client base, it was not attracting new clients.

“We realised to grow we had to sell new systems and competing with the global competitors ... was very difficult, so we decided we would try a radical innovation,” Mr Bester said.

That’s where the gaming comes in.

Mr Bester and his team came up with the idea to develop a product that would leapfrog Sentient’s competitors, offering buyers in the market an impressive way of viewing mine sites.

“We decided we would try to leverage 3D gaming technology and put them in a 3D world rather than a 2D world,” he said.

Sentient utilised a well-known game software and developed 3D software to create what it calls MVX, a product that can mirror any physical or yet-to-be-built space.

Mr Bester said the program wasn’t initially designed as process control software, and Sentient was merely introducing it to existing and prospective clients as a viewing option to make life on remote sites easier.

What he didn’t expect was for such a diverse group of new clients; he now works with Chubb Security, farmers, hospitals, and Fortescue Metals Group, which he said came on board after being attracted to the innovation.

And while some of Sentient’s new and existing clients are even starting to see the merits in using the software outside of just visual use, for remote control access, Mr Bester said convincing an older demographic of engineers of the software’s legitimacy could be difficult.

“It is challenging with people over 45; you show it to a young engineer and they get it instantly. Talking to younger people about this technology is so much easier than talking to the older ones. That is an issue, you have to be clear on the benefits,” he said.

This could cause a problem, considering the younger generations that are keen on this sort of technology are not necessarily the decision makers, though Mr Bester can see this changing.

“Luckily for us with the ageing workforce a lot of the younger guys are coming through and being given more and more responsibility,” Mr Bester said.

With this mind, two developers recently joined Sentient’s 15-strong workforce.

As much as he wanted to be at the forefront of software development as the owner of the company, Mr Bester recognises younger software developers coming through have more knowledge when it comes to new technologies.

It may have been a struggle but Mr Bester said Sentient was now introducing long-time clients like the Public Transport Authority, Iluka Resources, Bluescope Steel, Xstrata and Rio Tinto to the new MVX software.

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