Today we publish another profile of a nominee for our Australia’s 50 Most Innovative Manufacturers list. Brent Balinski speaks to Lachie Smart about how a small Sunshine Coast-based manufacturer found a niche it could lead the world in.
For many successful Australian manufacturers, the source to their success could be described as excelling globally within a well-defined niche.
The path into this is not always linear. It certainly wasn’t for Smartline Medical, which began its life in 1996 as a maker of farming and food industry machinery. Today it pioneers technology for drying and sterilising endoscopes.
“Our process in innovation has always to have a very close touch to the market,” Lachie Smart, General Manager at the Yandina, Queensland-headquartered business, tells @AuManufacturing.
“And we’d been told by one of our partners who is a thought leader in endoscopy that there’s a new focus on being able to store and dry these endoscopes quickly… We started with a very basic plastic box with a little fan and a hepa filter.”
Smartline began with endoscopes about a decade ago, Smart tells us, and in a couple of years began narrowing its range – which included everything from theatre trolleys to height-adjustable sinks and tables, to fixed-height benches and sinks – into standards-backed products for the medical industry.
“We found that it’s hard to do a lot of things well,” he explains.
A challenge is sterilising scopes, which are “thermolabile” (destroyed by heat), so cannot be exposed to high temperatures. Scopes are chemically sterilised and dried after use, though if this isn’t done properly there is the risk of bugs breeding on a moist instrument and causing problems later.
Smart’s company worked with world-recognised experts to develop their iQ series drying cabinets, which he says are the first in the world to offer real-time monitoring of parameters such as humidity, airflow and temperature for each endoscope channel in storage.
Then it is considered in terms of whether it matches the company’s profile. Would it lend itself a high-value, low-volume solution? If not, then it’s a job for somebody else.
“We shouldn’t design a scalpel because we can’t meet that sort of production capacity,” explains Smart.
“Does it fit our distribution partners? And then we confirm that it is a real problem that we need to solve in the market. And if it ticks all of those boxes then we’ll move to an investigation stage.”
The small team comes up with a collection of separate ideas, each evaluated for how well they might solve the problem, the best ones identified, and feedback is sought from distribution partners and end users in hospitals.
“The goal is by the time we actually get to [the] prototyping and design stage — which is the fun part of research and development — we’ve now got a product that we’re pretty sure should be adopted by the market,” he adds.
“Rather than designing something, spending lots of money and time and then going to the market and going ‘what do you think of this?’ So for us it has been really critical to have great partners that can help us test our concepts before we start designing them.”
The “4 Is” method – ideate, investigate, innovate, implement – then moves on to the innovate stage. Only then is there a real investment made in time and money, first on CAD iterations and then physical prototypes.
Smartline’s R&D investment compared to revenue is high compared to most companies we speak to. However, as a small firm of only 19 employees it has been important to be as frugal as possible, says Smart.
As for an overall definition of innovation, he describes it as follows:
“I’d say it’s solving problems in new and unique ways, with the key focus being on the problem not on the product. And I think it’s very easy – especially as we’ve got a pretty decent research and development team, most of them are engineers, and so it is obviously the first thought to focus on the product. But recently we’ve discovered that it’s a lot more efficient if we focus on the problem. We’ve got a personal method that we follow through. But for us it’s starting at the beginning, not starting halfway through the process, which is when we’re designing things.”
In this episode of @AuManufacturing Conversations with Brent Balinski, Smart expands on the approach to R&D described above, his company’s sharpened focus in the last decade, and why a company should try and move a purple chair when they see one.
1:16 – An introduction to Lachie Smart and Smartline, which originally made farming equipment.
3:30 – Wings Around The World, and learning the importance of resilience and of knowing why you’re doing something – both lessons that have translated to business.
6:32 – A small business of just 19, though with customers around the world. Recent launch in South Africa.
7:30 – How they found a niche in endoscopy sterilisation. “We ended up there quite organically.”
10:20 – On innovation
12:06 – An explanation of endoscopy – “one of the fast-growing areas of health” – and the problem they’re addressing.
15:08 – The process. Identifying a problem, generating solutions, and validating these. An approach driven by needing the most efficiency from their R&D. Validating that an idea is worth pursuing before any time is spent on prototyping.
17:26 – “Applying innovation to innovation.” What they are measuring in determining R&D efficiency.
19:02 – Why it’s very expensive to fall off the innovation curve.
21:02 – Difficulties in attracting and retaining talent, and why engineers and tradespeople don’t have to look to big cities for fulfilling careers.
21:52 – The results of a recent supply chain review focussed on risk mitigation.
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Australia’s 50 Most Innovative Manufacturers is a new campaign by @AuManufacturing. It has been made possible by the generous support of MYOB, SMC Corporation Australia, and Bosch Australia Manufacturing Solutions. Be sure to check back at this website for regular updates including profiles of nominees and other information.