A South Australia-based company specialising in making lightweight X-ray machines for hospitals is now using the same technology to design bomb-detecting robots for counter-terrorism operations and the security forces.

Adelaide company Micro-X has recently won a contract with the Department of Defence to demonstrate the technology for stand-off imaging of improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The company also has a contract with the Department of Defence to demonstrate a mobile X-ray unit prototype to be used in portable army hospitals and by “shock trauma platoons” on the edge of battle zones.

Micro-X recently moved its headquarters from Victoria to South Australia in preparation for the production of its core product, mobile X-ray machines for the medical industry. Managing Director Peter Rowland said Micro-X had successfully produced an 80kg mobile X-ray machine – just a fraction of the size and weight of the 500kg-600kg machines that are traditionally used in hospitals. He said Micro-X had the rights to apply technology from a company in the US that was commercialising the carbon nanotubes as the electron emitter within the X-ray tube.

“In one of these 600kg monsters, the X-ray tube itself weighs about 26kg and if you think about holding that over a bed safely you need a vertical and horizontal support arm that’s quite strong and a cart that’s quite strong,” says Rowland. “By comparison, our tube is one kilogram and is about the size of a large grapefruit. Our task has been to reduce the size of the overall cart in the same ratio.”

The first units for the medical industry are expected to be in production for sale towards the end of the year, while the demonstration for the Department of Defence will be mid-year. The variant models would have a slightly higher-powered tube and a greater ground clearance to help cope with more rugged terrain. The IED detector unit is scheduled for demonstration early next year.

“We’re trying to accelerate it if we can but it’s a work in progress,” Rowland adds. “But the potential market for it is extensive.”

Out of harm’s way

“At the moment, when they come across an IED in a military environment such as Afghanistan, or in a civilian environment like a suspicious bag in an airport, they X-ray it,” Rowland explains. “Because they’ve got to find out what it is, how dangerous it is, where it came from, and how they are going to make it safe. So X-ray is their friend.

“The problem with what they are using is that to get the X-ray, you have to take the unit up to the device and put an imaging plate behind it. Sometimes you can’t get the plate behind it without disturbing it, and sometimes there’s a guy watching with a pair of binoculars and a mobile phone and he’s just waiting for the person to lean over the top before he detonates it. So they’re desperate to find what’s called stand-off technologies where they don’t have to put someone in harm’s way and they can still find out what’s inside the package.”

According to Rowland, the technology that Micro-X uses in its lightweight X-ray machines is ideally suited for backscatter imaging.

“It’s kind of just like what Superman used to do, where you can just look at something and you can see inside it,” he says. “You don’t need to get the imaging plate behind. We’ve concepted something for them that is small: you could put it on a little trolley or robot and you just drive it up and it shows you what’s inside without the need for anyone to go anywhere near it and that got them seriously excited.

“While the backscatter technology exists, because it uses a conventional X-ray tube and not a carbon nanotube source – the thing is giant. So the idea that we’ve got something that would fit on a 1m-long robot and go up and interrogate a small parcel is groundbreaking for them.”

An innovation hub

The company is located in the Tonsley precinct, the site of the former Mitsubishi car manufacturing plant in Adelaide’s southern suburbs. Tonsley has now been converted into a modern hub for high-value industries. Other tenants on the site include Siemens, Flinders University and the South Australia Drill Core Library.

Micro-X was given a one-year, $3m loan by the South Australian Government to help it relocate in Adelaide and expects to be building saleable units of its X-ray machines for the medical industry by the end of the year. The company is sizing its initial factory to be able to build at a maximum rate of four units a day, which would amount to an output of about 1,000 units a year.

“We’ve designed this unit to be built in Australia,” Rowland continues. “It’s cleverly designed so that the assembly operation is not labour intensive – if you can put them together in a very short time then the price of Australian labour doesn’t end up being a major determinant in the end cost of the product.”

As an engineer with many years working on innovation, particularly in defence and aerospace before moving into the medical devices industry about 15 years ago, Rowland believes that the Tonsley concept has been thought out very well.

“It’s going to end up like a trade show,” he says. “If you look at the kind of industry interaction when people bump into each other at a trade show walking between the booths, then that type of thing at Tonsley has the potential to be electric. Every one of my staff is going to find real value with the collaboration available there.

“Everyone bangs on about Silicon Valley being the cradle of innovation, and the only difference I see is scale and geography. It would be lovely to think that Tonsley could create an atmosphere where what everybody is doing at Tonsley is the new normal because it just changes everyone’s perspective. I mean, you help each other but suddenly you don’t feel so lonely, there’s people you can talk it over with who are in a similar business and understand your problems.

“If we all can do that under one roof at Tonsley it could be amazing.”

A new road for auto workers

Micro-X has recruited four workers from the Holden car manufacturing plant in Elizabeth, which is slated for closure in 2017, including its Production Manager Adam Williams.

“The idea of sourcing talent from the car industry has proven to be an absolute breakthrough because it’s a mindset that nobody – at least in my knowledge – has ever thought of applying to medical devices,” Rowland says. “What I love about the car industry is the rigour and discipline because you cannot achieve the quality and cost and reliability that the car industry achieves without a lot of discipline and a lot of hard work. Just bringing that thinking from Holden into our plant has been brilliant.

“Adam said ‘At Holden, there’s no variable speed on the production line. When you press go on a new model every operation has to take 100 seconds. It can’t be 105 because that stops the line so we put months and months of planning and checking and testing and training to make sure it happens in the number of seconds they budgeted every single time.’ The management out at Elizabeth is very enlightened. Their people (at Holden) are trained with a breadth of skills, a culture and a way of working that is spectacular.”

Rowland believes it offers hope for many other Holden workers that there are job opportunities waiting for them in industries they never imagined they would work in.

“It sends a message that the skills they have been taught at Holden are actually transferrable in industries they would not imagine,” he continues. “In fact they are more than just transferrable, they are world-leading, because no one’s put that quality and sophistication of manufacturing management into medical devices before.”

“Our manufacturing strategy is a final assembly strategy and that makes sense for a start-up, it’s the car assembly concept. We’ll get fairly quickly to a dozen people or so.”