From ignorance to expertise

REMEMBER those airboards zipping around the Olympic arena during the opening ceremony? Like many of Australia’s great inventions, they were created in the industrial suburbs of Perth. Husband and wife team Kevin and Kristine Inkster, who were alternative lifestyle dropouts in the South West in the 1970s, have created a palace of engineering in Malaga.

Their company, Arbortech Industries, is at the cutting edge of technology. It designs and manufactures a range of 60 woodworking tools that have been sold in more than 30 countries. The first production run took place in a small tin shed in Nannup. Kevin tried his hand at being a surveyor and a policeman before opting for the country life, running a cafe with his wife and sculpting wood. He found he needed to invent his own rotary tools to make furniture. From there, he says. “it was a logical progression through ignorance to expertise and success”. And a move back to the city.

The core technology has since been developed into revolutionary high frequency percussion blades that slice through hard materials like brick, stone and masonry, but cannot hurt the user since they will not cut flesh. A lightweight home handyman version called the Allsaw 150 is being launched in March.

The Stockholm-based Atlas Copco multinational group has placed an order for 5000 units to be marketed in Europe.

What most visitors want to see at the factory are the airboards (pictured left) – they cannot be called hoverboards because the rights to that name belong to the Michael Fox movie Back to the Future. The leisure craft floats on a cushion of air and can travel at speeds of up to 25km/h, manoeuvring into turns employing a combination of weight transfer and throttle control. It uses a four-stroke petrol engine. Riding one can best be described as a combination of flying and skiing. Theme parks are among the target markets.

Airboards currently come off the assembly line at one a day and 60 have been exported. The machines sell at $18,000 in Australia, but wear some fancy price tags overseas – Harrods put one in the window in London for 17,000 pounds.

A new lightweight electric-powered model is on the way. But airboards are presently taking a back seat to the new power tools, which are expected to be a big winner.

Arbortech is a public unlisted company. Kevin and Kristine own 60 per cent of the shares, which are presently changing hands privately at around $2.50, valuing the concern at a notional $30 million.

Wesfarmers holds 10 per cent of the stock, with the option to raise that to 20 per cent, and one of their business development managers, Peter Tazewell, is on the board. Wesfarmers generally backs winners.

Farm produce on a roll across the board

THOSE scientists at the Imperial College in London, bleating that people have a bigger risk of getting mad cow disease from eating sheep than beef, would be better employed seeking cures for agricultural scourges than frightening consumers.

Australian farmers are enjoying an unexpected roll of near-record prices for key commodities. Wool has been a standout, fetching a 10-year high of $10 a kilogram last week. Foot and mouth disease in the UK, and dwindling flocks everywhere, have created a global shortage of wool, with demand still running at 1.3 million tonnes a year. Graziers who hung in there as Australian sheep numbers fell from 173 million to under 115 million are finally having their day in the sun.

Wheat too is a success story, in spite of atrocious weather, with the national wheat harvest the third best ever at more than 23 million tonnes, worth $5.5 billion. WA fared better than any dared hope.

The drought broke in August, helping produce a harvest approaching 10 million tonnes, although the rain came too late for some unfortunate growers.

The farmers can help underwrite Australian exports by chipping in over $33 billion in overseas sales this year – provided the dollar continues to droop.

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