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Invention gives company strength

19 October 2006

Invention gives company strength

An illuminated hand rail bracket is the latest invention from a small New Zealand hardware manufacturer, intent on developing new products to stave off threats to its business from cheaper imports and create export potential.

Combining a step lighting system into a staircase handrail bracket provides one product to do the work of two in private homes and commercial buildings such as rest homes. For Auckland-based Miles Nelson Manufacturing, the invention is part of a new and necessary approach to innovation.

“We have to develop different products to protect us from the plethora of low cost Chinese imports in a competitive, oversupplied market,” says Managing Director Brenton Lee, whose grandfather started the business in 1928. Miles Nelson has concentrated on manufacturing metal hardware since 1945 and is one of the few New Zealand owned hardware manufacturers still in business.

“Developing something different is the only way a New Zealand manufacturer has any chance of survival. Anyone can go to China, source a product and put it on their shelf back in New Zealand – we need to be developing and establishing our own products.”

The new ‘Lumos’ bracket is novel and trendy and about to make its export debut on the Australian market where it is being designed into the building for a new bar on Sydney’s Circular Quay.

Mr Lee says the company had positive feedback from architects and designers during market research but it will take some months for the new staircase system to take hold because it needs to be included in early stage design rather than being added as a finishing touch.

Extensive research of appropriate casting and coating methods and production systems has gone into the product development, supported by research and development investment of almost $150,000 from the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology through its Technology for Business Growth (TBG) scheme.

“Such innovation and technology shift is vital for Miles Nelson to survive market challenges. It is companies like this taking a step up to create their own intellectual property (IP) and patented products that protects New Zealand’s manufacturing base,” says Foundation Business Manager, Tom McLeod.

“The handrail system is unique, it provides the company with good IP (intellectual property) and opens up new opportunities and export potential,” he says.

The illuminated handrail has LED (narrow spectrum light-emitting diode) lighting concealed in the bracket of the stair railing. It is a 12 volt system, making it economical and environmentally friendly. The bulbs do not warm up like normal stair lights, reducing chances of heat injury. Combining the light into the railing removes the need for low level stairwell lights, which heat up when left on and become a risk to youngsters. The system doubles as emergency lighting as it can be wired to activate a battery supply during power failure.

The Light Metals Research Centre at the University of Auckland worked with Miles Nelson to develop a suitable casting and coating and electroplating finish suitable to cope with outdoor conditions. Miles Nelson has recently employed an engineer designer in a newly created position to help build on the company’s product development focus.

The company, which has 30 staff, says it probably couldn’t have afforded the technology shift without the Foundation investment.

“It wasn’t just financial. The investment also helped improve the staff’s skill base and knowledge, which is needed if we’re to continue developing new products with export potential.

“It’s important the Government recognises the contribution from a company this size. It might not seem huge but is important to the economy of New Zealand because it provides workers with skills, creates new jobs and safeguards the jobs of existing workers,” says Mr Lee.

About the Foundation

The Foundation for Research, Science and Technology invests over $460 million a year on behalf of the New Zealand Government, in research, science and technology. These investments are made to enhance the wealth and well being of New Zealanders. Through its Technology New Zealand suite of schemes, the Foundation assists companies to undertake research and development projects that result in new, export-focussed products, processes or services. Investment from the Foundation is directed at supporting technical risk and the building of technical skills and expertise in companies.

The Technology for Business Growth scheme (TBG) can provide substantial investment (from $50,000 to over $2,000,000) for leading edge, applied research and experimental development that stretches businesses beyond their existing technical capability.

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