Sydney simulator start-up readies for takeoff

SynFlyt is preparing to take its product to regulator CASA for approval this month. Brent Balinski spoke to founder Ross Maclennan about his flight simulator start-up.

Radio days

If he could just have gotten a loan at the time, life would be pretty different, believes Ross Maclennan.

It was shortly after starting an electronics manufacturing business. One of his first products – a citizens band radio, a novel thing in 1975 – would have great market potential as soon as they were legalised.

“We were near the completion of the design, because we had to do a bit of tweaking to meet the then-Spectrum Management Agency’s requirements for the CB radio,” he told Manufacturers’ Monthly.

He and an engineer had developed the radio, and Maclennan headed into the National Bank hoping to borrow $5,000 to finish the design.

“So I went to the bank in Rydalmere the next Monday and the manager said ‘I’m sorry, we can’t lend you the money.’ And I said ‘Why not? I’ve shown you the orders that I’ve already got; I’ve shown you the potential product.’

“And he said ‘Look, I spoke to my butcher on the weekend and my butcher said CB radio will never be legalised in Australia.’”

And that was that, with CB legalised here in 1977 and proving hugely popular among truckers and others. The missed opportunity to have a crack making and selling CB radios has stayed with him.

After all these years, the difficulty in securing finance for promising inventions remains.

Maclennan, now well into his 60s and most of the way through a highly varied career, is giving the fraught task of commercialising an invention one last shot.

The managing director and engineering director at Banksmeadow-based SynFlyt has come up with what he believes is a much-needed solution for flight schools: a low-cost, sphere-shaped, three degrees-of-freedom simulator in a fibreglass shell.

“Every flight simulator on the planet has to be indoors, except for one,” he added proudly.

The expected booming demand for pilots in coming years will mean more flight school spots available. Facilities at Glen Innes and Bega are expected to open up in coming years, for example.

A case study in clever 3D printing

To keep costs down, the company has become creative with its parts. Many of the components in the simulators are additively manufactured on uPrint machines. So impressed was Stratasys, the maker of these FDM printers, they have used SynFlyt as a case study and had Maclennan present at events such as Inside 3D Printing and the Avalon Airshow.

Vents, dashboards, and countless knobs, buttons and switches have been printed in-house, rather than ordered off-the-shelf.

“This is the undercarriage switch for a Cessna 210; It’s identical to the metal one in operation, except that we’ve used a standard, off-the-shelf rotary switch,” said Maclennan as he fossicked through a box of digitally manufactured odds and ends.

“But it’s our own mechanism that does exactly what the Cessna one does, and it’s all 3D printed. This is the knob off the mixture control for the Cessna – the knob for the pitch of the propeller on the Cessna,” he said of another part.

“A little bit of innovative design. They have a vernier control setup in Cessnas that’s used in half a dozen other aircrafts of similar design. If you push the button you can put your throttle in and out. If you let the button go when you turn the knob then you have a vernier control. All 3D printed.”

According to Maclennan, this has saved as much as 90 per cent on some parts.

The all-weather fibreglass body of the units was decided on early in the piece. The roll, pitch and yaw of the sphere are controlled by three wheels, with a setup that has similarities to a roto-caster. The provisional patent for the machine is attached to drive mechanism.

“When I started thinking about it I knew it had to be in a sphere to make it easy to drive, but it took me probably three years part-time to think about how to do it properly,” explained Maclennan, who came up with the idea while at a multimedia business he used to run.

Financing is still an issue

Following his enterprise creating multimedia-training materials, Maclennan has returned to manufacturing, which he pursued between 1975 and 1999 while based in Bathurst.

To visit clients at the time (the Bathurst business supplied to Wang, Honeywell, police and emergency services and others) MacLennan obtained a pilot’s licence in 1989.

Being exposed to flight schools, Maclennan has seen many tend to be small enterprises with few staff and scarce resources. Student pilots learn on light aircraft.

The SynFlyt product is an attempt to suit these needs, and though he wouldn’t give exact details on price, Maclennan said they would retail for under $100,000. They are also built to simulate light aircraft.

He sees the expected uptick in demand for flight education and what SynFlyt will produce at a price amenable to mum-and-dad-run flight schools as promising. The next step is achievement of CASA and international standards.

“If the world needs 1.3 million pilots, the ICAO [International Civil Aviation Organization] says we have to replace everybody in next 15 years – that’s 2.3 million,” he said, adding that this figure would be more like 7 million considering the high dropout rates at flight schools.

Success in serving this growing need to train and produce pilots, should he achieve it, would be vindication for large amounts of sweat equity taken out, putting his “life on mortgage”, and having the nerve to give commercialisation another go.

It can be done here, he insists, and bristles at any suggestion that Australian innovation has been held back by the lack of a strong design culture.

“We’ve been world leaders in so many things and because we didn’t invent Apple or Dyson doesn’t mean we can’t do that stuff,” he said.

“The biggest problem we have in this country is financing the ideas, because there’s a million of them out there.”