Technology company moves beyond remote range

June 1, 2012

Australian mining technology companies are increasingly staking out international territories with a view to engaging miners and contractors at a corporate level on delivery of ‘solutions’ around traditional product lines – software, communications, automation, and so on – and in this regard a 40-year old Perth company has jumped out of the blocks.

Remote Control Technologies, which boasts a thick catalogue of mobile equipment safety, guidance and control products, is best known at home for remote and teleremote control technologies. In more recent years it has been closely involved with Rio Tinto and others in advanced equipment control and guidance projects.

The company has large manufacturing, engineering and R&D teams working in Perth’s eastern suburbs and now employs more than 150 people all up.

Founded by Kalgoorlie electrical fitter Bob Muirhead back in 1972, RCT is looking to gain more traction at the corporate level given its technologies are well known by mining site managers and are increasingly being talked about by industry CEOs. As in, automation, (long-distance) remote mining, and proactive mining fleet maintenance are at the forefront of industry-wide discussions about technology.

Muirhead has been a witness to the industry’s long (some would say unnecessarily laboured) walk to the technology table, particularly in relation to the interaction between people and machines in their mines.

Muirhead’s philosophy has always been uncomplicated: “If a task is inherently unsafe it should be remote controlled. If it is repetitive it should be automated.”

So in a nutshell, having waited for many years for the technology penny to drop, RCT is now positioning itself to be a technology partner to mining companies and contractors, as well as a supplier, and this is happening not only in Australia but also Africa, where the company is growing its recently opened office.

Opportunities are also being assessed in other parts of the world where, in many cases, RCT representatives have in the past sold products and overseen their installation, and client staff training, to ensure everything goes smoothly.

The company has nearly doubled its annual turnover in the past four years and is targeting 20% growth in FY13, with international growth and the work of RCT’s expanding project assessment and delivery team expected to come increasingly to the fore.

“What we’re doing is engaging more vigorously in the market at a level that we haven’t done before,” Muirhead said.

“We’ve tended, because we’re production orientated people, to deal with the production orientated mining operations people at mines, but we need to engage more at a corporate level.

“You’ve now got a lot of companies searching for technology, and technology partners. And we are seeing that with some of the discussions we are having at the moment.

“But the trick’s certainly in the execution of these projects, because at the end of the day I’ve seen some failures there and the issue you have in the minds of people who have used technology in the past is, it can be great, the initial buzz and the initial management decision to use it, but you’ve still got to get a sustainable beneficial outcome, longer term, as measured against not having deployed it.”

Commercial executive Noel Northcott, who has been with the company for more than a year and came to RCT with previous company management experience, is working with Muirhead on the corporate engagements.

“A key benefit [for clients] would be partnering in the development of certain systems,” Northcott said.

“One of the key aspects of our mining product offering is that, with the ControlMaster® suite of products – the remote, tele-remote and the guidance systems – we are in a position to provide the industry with the different levels of mobile equipment automation it is currently seeking. Some mines are opting for higher levels of automation than others and there is a small market where full automation makes a lot of sense. But full automation is not for everybody.

“We are working with a number of customers to implement equipment semi-automation projects. At the same time have a roadmap for implementing full automation as well.

“The really important thing with this type of technology is that the support is the number one concern of customers, and I think that’s where we are recognised as having an edge in the market.”
RCT regional sales and marketing manager (Australia-Asia) Craig Buchanan said the company was now actively studying entry paths into markets in which it had historically had sales success. That currently equates to a fairly broad brush.

“We’ve sold to 60 countries but this is now more about where we can build sustainable business,” he said.

“Africa is definitely an area we’re going to be focusing on. There is enormous potential there. We have just completed our first project in Mongolia. We are seeing a new surge of activity in Indonesia.

“But we are having a close look at a number of regions and, generally speaking, we’ve got much more focus offshore now.”

Muirhead said RCT had effectively debottlenecked its production capacity through a “scorecard approach to strategic planning” over the past 12 months – this coming on top of recent impressive annual growth rates which had hyper-extended just about everyone in the organisation.

“When you’re scaling up and the market is actually yielding, which it has done, you can get smarter about everything you do,” he said.

“I had this uncertainty about our capacity to deliver into it [market], now I think we all have this feeling of being unleashed. We’ve improved the intellectual capability of RCT from executive level right through to the R&D department, where we’ve got some of the smartest guys you could ask for.”

Beyond mining, RCT is building exposure in other industrial sectors, logistics, and in transport.

“Macquarie [bank] said very early in the piece for manufacturers in Australia to be effective long term they have to operate in niche areas. It was one of those statements that resonated with me,” Muirhead said.

“We’re a manufacturer that operates largely in the mining space. In the last four years we’ve probably got smarter with our product design as a result of where the industry is going … and I would say that any of our products that are proven in this market are proven for virtually every other applicable market.

“Why would you have an eye for other markets? I think you should have, but mining is still open to us.

“The huge opportunity for us to grow is still there.”