20/01/2004 - 21:00

From Bassendean to the world

20/01/2004 - 21:00


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STRUCTURAL Monitoring Systems provides a classic example of a backyard inventor devising a breakthrough technology that is now being marketed around the world.

From Bassendean to the world

STRUCTURAL Monitoring Systems provides a classic example of a backyard inventor devising a breakthrough technology that is now being marketed around the world.

The company has developed an innovative system for testing the structural integrity of aircraft.

Its system could largely replace the time consuming and expensive manual testing that aircraft operators are now required to complete.

SMS’s clients are some of the biggest names in global aviation – Boeing, Airbus and the US military – and the company is about to commence one of its most exciting developments.

Northwest Airlines will be conducting in-flight testing of SMS sensors, following 18 months of laboratory testing by Boeing.

All going well, that will lead to certification by the US aviation regulators.

It’s a long way from Bassendean inventor Ken Davey’s backyard, where the original concept was developed.

Mr Davey had been a pilot with regional airline MMA and happened to be on a plane the day before its wing tore off at 13,000 feet, leading to the death of all on board. The cause of the crash was a fatigue crack inside the main structure.

That was in 1968 and Mr Davey subsequently moved into the television repair business.

Remarkably, he established a link between the two.

He observed the impact of microscopic cracks in television tubes, which are essentially a large vacuum.

Based on that simple concept, Mr Davey developed a vacuum-based sensor system to detect cracks in metal, such as on aircraft fuselage.

In the mid 1990s he obtained seed capital from a range of investors, including Peter Snow’s Evandale House Group, Paul Kristensen’s Capital Technologies and Len Brajkovich, the State’s largest chicken farmer.

Things cranked up in early 2000 when Robin Dean, formerly of BankWest and St Barbara Mines, joined the company, bringing with him 40 investors and about $3.5 million.

Mr Dean said one of the initial challenges was finding people with appropriate skills.

“It was incredibly difficult to recruit staff,” he said. “So we ended up recruiting direct out of the universities.”

The US military held the first in-field trials of the SMS system two years ago.

Mr Dean said the company’s biggest customer was Airbus, which uses the system to test new materials and new fabrication techniques.

“Airbus picked up on the potential of the technology almost immediately,” he said.

“They were very keen.

“With Airbus we are looking to the future of aircraft design, whereas Boeing is focused on retro fitting to existing [aircraft] fleets.”

Mr Dean said the international airline industry was showing a lot of interest in the technology.

SMS had been contacted by about 20 international airlines, even though the company and its 29 staff have been focused on R&D rather than marketing.

That is about to change, with the company planning to recruit business development staff in Europe and later in the US.

The company’s need for money has grown as its development has accelerated, and with help from advisory firm Poynton and Partners, it has evidently had little trouble luring investors.

Capital Growth Corp, an investment company put together by mining entrepreneur Tony Brennan, invested $3.6 million last year and UK investors put in a further £1 million ($2.2 million).

The next stage in its corporate development will be a listing on the Alternative Investment Market of the London Stock Exchange.

Mr Brennan said the company would raise between £5 million and £10 million when it listed on AIM, in about March or April.

That will be followed by a shifting of its corporate headquarters to London, to be closer to its main markets in Europe and the US.

Mr Dean said research and development would continue to be based in Australia.

“We’ve developed an R&D skills base in Perth that didn’t exist before,” he said. “We had to develop those skills ourselves.”

He also expects manufacturing of the portable monitors and other equipment could occur locally, potentially generating substantial employment.


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