So many innovations, so little time

Interview with Norman Ballard – Founder, Hummingbird Electronics

For Norman Ballard, innovating new products is a daily undertaking. His company Hummingbird Electronics has been responsible for using electronics to develop bespoke life saving products and solve problems for businesses small and large. Hummingbird Electronics has enjoyed significant growth and in 2014 won Business of the Year in the Hunter Region Business Excellence Awards. Norman explains the importance of understanding customers problems and how he has broken the
mould of a typical engineer.

Your innovation

We have so many innovations. We design and manufacture new electronic products that solve problems for the Australian transport industry. As one example, we’ve used sensors from wireless game controllers to detect accidents in vehicles – saving lives and reducing the cost of vehicle ownership. We’ve also used GPS to measure the distance trailers travel and turn industrial lighting on and off. Developing products here to meet harsh Australian conditions means we are able to export with
confidence all over the world.

Your story

I’ve always been interested in technology and electronics, disassembling old radios to understand how they worked as a boy. I grew up in South Africa and after graduating in Electrical Engineering, I worked for GE, and then Motorola, where I learned to sell; not something that comes naturally to most engineers. I was exposed to thousands of small electronics businesses and developed an ability to judge their likely success very quickly. After moving my family to Australia, I established Hummingbird Electronics in the Hunter region in 2008. In 2015, Hummingbird Electronics was acquired by REDARC electronics, bringing world class
manufacturing and quality systems that allowed us to grow much faster. I remain with Hummingbird Electronics with the unusual title of “Innovation and Founder” – managing the business and growing it by innovating exciting new products.

Your business and /team

REDARC Electronics group employs over 200 people across 2 locations in Australia of which 40 are full time engineers. In July 2017 Hummingbird relocated to a new purpose-built facility at the Williamtown Aerospace Centre in Newcastle. This allows us to grow our product development team and branch
out into new markets – engaging with our military neighbours.

Innovation support

When Hummingbird was first established, we received a small business grant with RDA Hunter to setup our first factory in Port Stephens. I will always remember the positive psychological impact that had on the team, knowing that the government had faith in us. We also accessed the business evaluation grant through the Australian Government, which was particularly useful as it provides businesses with access to experienced, independent Business Advisers with recommended strategies for growth. Networking events held around Newcastle have been massively useful for business development.

Why Newcastle

Newcastle offers a great lifestyle for our family and access to mining and transport markets with an airport, exposing the rest of Australia. It’s also a transport hub with lots of vehicles and different applications – this drives lots of new product ideas that can be sold all over Australia and the world. The University of Newcastle produces world class graduates without whom our business could not grow. Our teams are very good at designing electronics, but we can’t be experts in everything Engaging Universities allows us to undertake even more ambitious, innovative designs; fuelling future growth.

Your biggest challenges

The mining downturn after the global financial meltdown was the most challenging time for Hummingbird Electronics. It was a stress test and luckily one that we came through stronger than we went in. Markets disappeared overnight and we were forced to diversify and look more carefully at available markets before designing a product. The lesson I learnt is that just because it is fun to design a new product, doesn’t always make it good business sense. If you don’t understand how to get a product to market; don’t do it. More collaboration between engineers and marketing/business people would help provide direction for tech startups, allowing them a greater chance of success.

The future

We will continue to develop innovative new products. The next few years will see massive changes in our industry with electric vehicles, robotics and AI. All manufacturers need to be ready to face these changes. Hummingbird Electronics is in a very good position to be at the forefront, we see a bright future for technology companies in Australia and look forward to the wave of opportunities that new technologies will bring.

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