Phillip Smart | Adelaide
“The farm kills more technology than defence ever does,” Begbie said. “You’d wonder why, but the grief in getting equipment to work on a farm is huge.”
Hence the intentional application of cow dung and pressure hose, conducted as part of an on-site product acceptance test for a dairy company.
Over three decades, APC Technology has built a reputation for displays and control systems designed to survive extremes of temperature, shock and humidity on land, naval and airborne platforms. Its products are part of the Collins class submarine, Air Warfare Destroyer, armoured vehicles and AP3-C Orion fleet. In Singapore, APC is providing elements of UAV ground stations for partner ST Aerospace, and Australia’s Border Protection Command civil maritime surveillance aircraft mount its radar and sensor operator consoles.
In 2014 APC celebrated 30 years of operation, landed a contract to build generator equipment for an overseas customer and welcomed former South Australian Governor, The Honourable Rear Admiral Kevin Scarce, to the board.
Large primes such as 3M and Raytheon see the 25-strong team as providing innovation with a solid background of quality control and experience, solving problems rather than just filling a specification. But like many defence SMEs, APC has other fingers in civil pies; its top five customers are in five separate industries and its solutions are just as likely to be found in abattoirs, mining trucks, railway systems and on offshore oil platforms, all of which present unique issues of survivability.
On the day of ADM’s visit, electronic components destined for the Air Warfare Destroyer shared a bench with a working prototype of Australia’s first commercial self-serve fish and chip kiosk. For Begbie, that diversity invariably generates more and better ideas for solving any given engineering problem.
“We solved an AWD challenge with a solution we designed to put in a truck,” he said. “A key component of the fish and chip kiosk is something we manufactured to put into a submarine. So they’re all so different, but at the end of the day engineering is engineering and you’re just applying the same methods.”
Begbie began with APC in 2000, initially as a project engineer. The education in the agility required of an SME began on day one.
“I walked in in the morning and in the afternoon an order landed where we had eight weeks to design, certify and deliver the message handling system to the Collins submarine,” Begbie said. “And we did it.”
Appointed managing director in 2009, he clearly relishes the challenges and diversity of an SME, an environment where it is easier to stay close to customers, product and employees.
“I spend as much time innovating with our engineering department as I spend sitting in here with a spreadsheet,” he said. “There’s only 25 people here but everyone can do multiple things, so the CAD guy could build it if need be, the computer engineering guys could work testing products if need be.
“We’ve pulled all-nighters, we’ve done all the usual stuff. I’ve been out there screwing this part to that part to get it out the door. That’s what little companies do. It’s great, it’s fun and we do lots of different things every day.”
The reputation for being innovators and problem solvers can sometimes be a double-edged sword, particularly when customer bid systems and specifications are designed to compare apples with apples and leave little room for the creativity sometimes needed to offer a truly effective solution. APC is quite used to submitting one compliant bid to meet the specification, and another to explain what they might be able to do, given the chance.
“You do the compliant bid and say that will cost X. But if you’ve thought about this it can be done differently. It’s hard to explain when there’s a quite regimented bid submission approval system.”
And his advice for SMEs seeking to get in to defence is that it’s not enough to have a different product, unless you can deliver it consistently, reliably and predictably.
“You need to be risk averse,” he said. “You need to be reliable, you need to show that you can make the same thing day after day to the same standard. It goes without saying that your quality systems and processes have to be there; you have to have that box ticked.
“You can be new to it and still manage to pull it off, but a track record helps, because no one wants to go to you first.”