Collaboration key to a successful start-up

RoboHelix’s flight from garage to global has been driven by a symbiotic partnership. Manufacturers’ Monthly explains.

The journey of a start-up, from basement to IPO, has become the corporate myth of the 21st century. The break-neck trajectory is one that many seek to emulate, but few fully understand the trials and tribulations involved. Indeed, the hidden combination of luck, skill, and cunning needed to get such an enterprise off the ground in Australia can make any start-up success story seem apocryphal.

Before meeting the founder of flight-forming start-up RoboHelix, the company’s growth from garage to global company, appeared to have the same mythic qualities. The company had been able to automate the process of flight forming, discovering an eight- axis robotic solution to a dangerous and manual task. However, walking into the RoboHelix head office and prototyping facility in Macquarie Park, the path from the initial idea to finished product became very firm.

Arriving during the midst of the creation of a new model, and with a previous one on display, it became clear that the development of a product that had upended established methods of flight forming came down to a logical and considered process. “Initially, when we did the minimum viable product (MVP), we wanted something within the allocated budget to demonstrate the technology,” recalled Hayel Smair, founder and CEO of RoboHelix.

“An unbranded company that had servomotors and electronics enabled us to demonstrate the technology. It was good, but it wasn’t optimal for what we wanted in the future. We always wanted to move to a well-known supplier, but obviously we were still starting off, so we implemented our own machine using technology at hand.”

The technology that RoboHelix required not only comprised the physical equipment to make the flights, but the software and human machine interface (HMI), which would simplify the flight-forming process. With an aim to reduce batch flight- forming time from hours to minutes, both the software and the hardware had to be able to quickly process the complex algorithms developed by RoboHelix and produce a final product that was accurate.

To achieve this, Smair, along with COO, David Gardner and senior engineer Budhaditya (Budha) Majumdar, defined what they needed from their primary supplier.

“There were three factors that we were interested in,” said Smair. “Performance to meet our expectations, pricing, and service. To begin with, Budha and I listed what the machine has to do and we gave it to a number of suppliers that were very eager to take it on board. Some of them had to do tests and rigs to see what was achievable, some of them could do it, and some of them couldn’t.”

With these findings, there were two approaches open to the team at this critical juncture of turning their proven product into a commercially viable venture. One was to have servomotors imported from a company overseas and then have a different local integrator put together the system – the other was to find a single global and reliable supplier to support the entire electronic and control process.

Ultimately, Smair’s initial idea when developing the business pushed the company towards the second option.

“My vision was to have a single supplier who we could trust and work with,” said Smair.

This supplier was industrial automation manufacturer Beckhoff Automation. By choosing to work with one company, RoboHelix were able to gain much more than simply a product, said Majumdar.

“We started from servomotor AM8072 and then got an approximate list of products that would help us. Then Beckhoff suggested that if we get a complete solution from them, we would have much better support, which we did.”

In taking that pivotal step from nascent start up with a tested product to a fully commercial enterprise, having one supplier simplified the company at this critical juncture, according to Gardner.

“It’s to our advantage, we have one system and when you put an order in everything comes in together. If there’s any problems we can contact Beckhoff directly.”

If the premise of RoboHelix’s technology was significant, its implementation would be nothing short of revolutionary for its field. As Smair highlighted, “we removed the technical element of flight forming and provided a solution that enables anyone to form superior flights without any experience”.

This is a major shift from the current method and requirements for flight forming. According to Gardner, manufacturers currently require operators with 10 to 20 years of experience to effectively and efficiently use traditional flight-forming machines. With an integrated product combining software and hardware, RoboHelix has been able to extend the original system, rendering all traditional machines obsolete and added further job functionality to the manufacturing work flow.

“We’ve extended the HMI. We’ve gone another step further and said we want to provide
our clients the useability of the operator being able to see both left-hand and right-hand flights, or being able to have quick to access buttons that reduce the production rates down even further,” said Gardner.

Left to right, David Gardner, Hans Beckhoff (managing director of Beckhoff), Hayel Smair, Nick Psahoulias.

Working closely with a single supplier, in this case Beckhoff, has allowed RoboHelix to adopt technologies as soon as they are ready to come onto market. These kinds of advancements go beyond a focus on functionality. As Gardner pointed out, as a company that is self-consciously pushing the potential of its technology forward, having an advanced support system that they can point to is key.

“When you’re leading the way in your field, you want to see players that are also pushing their boundaries in technology. You see this in the whole Internet of Things (IoT) expansion, you see this in the boom of the Apple iPhone – every time there’s a push in the industry it’s because someone’s taken a risk, or because someone’s tried to do something that’s not necessarily been done before,” said Gardner. For RoboHelix to do that, “you need to immerse yourself around companies and technology that will help drive innovation”.

When speaking with potential clients and customers, the innovation that RoboHelix champions cannot only exist in the idea and the product, but has to be integrated into the system as a whole.

As Gardner highlights, the choice to work with a single supplier who aligns with their vision has translated into ensuring that RoboHelix is able to integrate the latest technology into their designs, something that clients appreciate and value.

“A lot of international customers that we deal with, when we introduce them to our systems, and tell them that we’ve got a Beckhoff system, they trust us because they know that Beckhoff are at the top of their game,” said Smair.

For Beckhoff the relationship that has developed between the two companies is more than a simple transaction. As Nick Psahoulias, managing director of Beckhoff Automation Australia, describes, having a start-up that was committed to developing a product in partnership with Beckhoff was particularly unique and led to unexpected synergies.

“Dealing with RoboHelix, it was refreshing because we had a lot of customers coming to us traditionally, saying, ‘Here’s a system we’ve already designed, how can you fit into our design?’ as opposed to when RoboHelix came to us, they said, ‘Here’s our idea, how can you help us bring this to fruition?’ It was a completely different mindset. They entrusted our experience to make their ideas come to life.

“The ethos of Beckhoff isn’t, ‘Here’s our products just go and use them’, it’s more of a case of working with customers, asking, ‘What are you trying to achieve, and how can we best fill that need of yours?’”

With the finished product now finalised, and with RoboHelix fielding orders from Germany, the US, and the Netherlands, the business has grown from not only producing a machine but providing a service.

“At the end of the day we’re not selling customers a machine or a software, we’re selling the users a business,” said Smair. “We provide the tools for any person to start producing these flights, whether it be the end user or part of a system or subsystem on their machinery.”

With Beckhoff as a partner, RoboHelix has grown from its origins in Smair’s garage, to a successful global business. All in all, in demystifying the start-up journey, it is partnerships, rather than individuals, that have enabled this to happen.

“We’re not talking about just the flight-forming machine,” said Smair. “We’re talking about the array of products we’re soon going to be implementing with Beckhoff as a supply partner.”