Keeping its cool
Continuing a legacy of air conditioning innovation, Advantage Air’s latest energy-efficient system enables people to control their home’s temperature via their mobile phone.
Perth-based manufacturer Advantage Air began around 20 years ago in the garage of company founders David and Margaret Devoy. From that humble beginning the company has become a leader in creating air conditioning systems that are easy to both install and use. While the business has expanded and evolved, general manager Darren Bee says innovation has always been its driving force.
“In the early stages, proving we had a strong commitment to customer service was one of the big drivers,” he says. “In the mid-1990s, the company committed strongly to product innovation and the business really started expanding from there on. Throughout the past 15 years, we’ve continued to focus on those two commitments. Trying to find other avenues through which to provide value to our customers – that’s been the source of our growth.”
Easy does it
Finding new ways of providing value is the task allotted to Advantage Air’s skilled research and development (R&D) team. Working from the company’s Perth R&D centre, Bee says these six engineers strive to produce products that are “easy to use and install, but also have real benefits for the consumer”.
Advantage Air ensures its products’ ease of use by putting them through field tests before releasing them to market. The company does this by offering pre-release models to a selection of people – either randomly selected ones or members of staff – in exchange for feedback. “We get a wide range of people to try the products, to ensure we’re getting market-representative feedback,” says Bee.
“I think some companies – not specifically in air conditioning – create products designed by engineers for engineers; whereas our products are designed by engineers but for you, the consumer.”
The R&D team also places great emphasis on making the installation of air conditioning systems – which can take up to a day to complete – quicker and easier. This is a particularly important advantage in Australia, Bee remarks, due to the heat inside a roof during summer. “It’s not easy installing air conditioning when it’s really hot, so the less time you can spend in the roof the better – we want to do whatever we can to make people’s lives easier,” he explains.
The company made significant headway in this area in 1999 with the development of the Weather Guard dropper, for use on evaporative air conditioning systems. This innovative product cut installation time by an hour and enabled it to be done by just one person. Another significant innovation in this field was the Exact Air Regulator, which shaved 30 per cent off the time required to install a reverse cycle system.
“Because of the way the Exact Air Regulator is designed, you end up with fewer fittings in a system and less things for the installer to put in,” says Bee. “The parts in the roof snap together like a jigsaw puzzle. You can’t do that with other products, for which you’ll climb into the roof and then spend an hour or two crawling around, taping the ducts onto the fittings.” Advantage Air’s innovation is evidenced further in its six patents, 24 registered design marks, four trademarks and two design marks.
Since joining Advantage Air in 2001, Bee has seen the company’s R&D team place greater and greater emphasis on energy efficiency. He sees this as not only a means of advancing technology, but also a form of corporate responsibility. “We believe business shouldn’t just be about corporate profits and things like that; we like to make sure we’re doing the right thing, by the environment and by the people,” Bee says.
“We know that air conditioning is a very big consumer of electricity in the home, so if we can do things to help offset its impact that’s a good thing for us. One of the biggest parts of that is how people use their air conditioning systems; they’ll forget they’ve got it turned on in certain rooms. Controlling usage is where the biggest energy savings can be made.”
Advantage Air’s latest product, the MyAir system, was designed with control and energy efficiency at the forefront. It was one of the first air conditioning systems in the world to be controllable via mobile phone.
“It’s very easy to use, it’s stylish, it has a big touch screen on the wall and it can be controlled from your iPhone, using an app you can download from the Apple Store,” Bee says. “It’s recently become available for Android as well.”
The MyAir system launched last year used a household’s Wi-Fi to transfer commands from a phone to the air conditioning system. This year, however, there’ll be the option to control the system remotely. “What we’re bringing out this year will allow you to log in to your home computer while you’re away from the house and control your air conditioning from there,” Bee explains. “It’ll be like having a remote control in your pocket, wherever you are.”
People as priority
Almost all Advantage Air’s product components are manufactured at its plastic factory in Perth, located just down the road from its distribution offices. Bee says this proximity enables the production line to respond quickly to customer demand, while allowing the company great control over product quality. Keeping its manufacturing process in Australia is important not only for these reasons, he adds, but also for “keeping Australians employed”. As this indicates, Advantage Air has a warm and inclusive attitude when it comes to its workforce.
“Traditional companies have a corporate structure, in which there’ll be parking spaces out the front with manager’s names on them and so on,” Bee says. “We’re not like that. You could walk into our offices and, from about 60 people working on site, you wouldn’t be able to tell who were the owners of the company because we all dress the same, sit at the same desks and don’t have offices with our names on the doors.
We call it a flat hierarchy. The people who work here know who runs the company and makes the decisions, but we don’t wave it in people’s faces – we would much prefer to have our performance tell our story.”
He adds that everyone gets equal respect and that the word ‘authority’ isn’t used much. “It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been at the company – it matters what kind of attitude you have and how well you do your job.”
Advantage Air is big on corporate responsibility and likes to give back to the community where it can. The company has three offices in South Africa – the founders’ home country – and it is here that Advantage Air found the greatest need for philanthropy. Its main project is funding a home for orphaned babies in Port Elizabeth. “A lot of the babies have HIV and other diseases, so there’s a lot of care needed until they’re adopted out,” reveals Bee.
The company will continue giving to this cause and others leading into 2013 and beyond. Within the business, likewise, Advantage Air seeks to continue doing what it does best. “Improving energy efficiency is still the great driver of our innovation, which in turn is what drives the company,” Bee says. “In 2013 we just want to keep on bringing out newer and better products; improving everything that we do; and providing more and more value to customers – that’s the main thing.”