Built to communicate

  Definium CEO Mike Cruse Photo by Josh Lamont

Definium CEO Mike Cruse
Photo by Josh Lamont

Definium Technologies is putting Tasmania on the world stage, collaborating with technology companies and universities to create smart sensors that connect devices cheaply over vast distances, and control systems that monitor fuel and energy efficiency.

Article by Maryanne Blacker for Australia Unlimited

Mike Cruse likes making “stuff”, specifically technology that interacts with the world.

That could be anything from a biosensor that gauges the health of an oyster to a theme park ride, from an automotive fuel control system that cuts fuel costs to an energy efficient street light for a mining company. 

Cruse is founder and CEO of Definium Technologies, a Tasmanian-based company that designs and manufactures intelligent sensors and control systems for a wide range of applications.  

Only two years ago Cruse was working on “stuff” in his basement in Launceston. Today he operates out of a 700-square-metre facility, with $2 million worth of equipment and a staff of 10.

Cruse says it’s all about “having a go.” By all means, take advice, he says, “but don’t let anyone else tell you that something won’t work. Find out for yourself.”

Definium Technologies had its genesis in the USA several years ago when Cruse was part of a team that came up with a cost-saving idea for a client running a fleet of taxis in Los Angeles. He created a control system that enabled his client to convert his cars to propane power and save $15 million a year on fuel.

“As far as we know it’s the only dedicated conversion system that meets California emissions standards,” says Cruse. “We have to update it every year as car companies don’t reveal the changes in their car systems. So, we have to ‘talk’ to the on-board computer and work out what’s needed.”

Creating a market

Cruse returned home to Tasmania from the USA 10 years ago with his family and company, determined to bring something back.

He admits that at that time “not many people were doing what I was doing” – designing software and then building the hardware to run it. 

“There was no advanced electronics manufacturing capability in Tasmania,” he says.

“I decided we needed some capacity here. I wanted to do everything in-house – design, engineer and develop. Basically to develop a market within our market, to build an ecosystem.”

Cruse’s passion for building things has found expression in myriad ways, including building an irrigation gateway to monitor the power and water usage of Tasmania’s agricultural industry, and designing very small, very smart devices for the rapidly escalating Internet of Things. 

Using LoRa, long-range, low-power wireless technology developed by American semiconductor supplier Semtech Corporation, Definium is producing long-life sensors that can measure river levels and water temperatures on farms, vehicle acceleration and humidity in mines, even room occupancy – all the while allowing data to be monitored, controlled and collected remotely. 

Cruse is also working on a sensor that supports elderly people to remain independent and in their own homes for as long as possible. The ‘lone worker’ device monitors movement and triggers an alarm if there are any abnormal shifts in behaviour. Cruse believes it has great potential for dementia sufferers, citing the importance of the dignity of risk and keeping people safe. 

“In everything we build, as much as we can, we use it as a platform to other things, to build or inform something else. It’s like a buffet of features,” he says. A device developed for building automation (controlling heating and ventilation), for example, is adapted to monitor the fuel level of an armoured vehicle in the UK, then further adapted to measure levels in a hot tub.

Real-world application

Definium regularly works internationally with companies such as Innovative Fuels Systems, Brunstedt and Lambert Systems and American Precision Assemblers in the United States, but it is the collaboration with the University of Tasmania (UTAS) of which Cruse is especially proud. 

The partnership has paved the way for an advanced manufacturing facility in Launceston producing state-of-the-art digital sensors, which would previously have come from overseas tech giants. 

For Cruse, it’s as much about knowledge transfer as it is about creating jobs. 

“In my mind the ultimate result is to closely align industry with education to build a company, and educate students with real-world possibility,” he says.

“Students get to work on real-world projects. They might go on to establish a company that uses Definium or one that’s in competition to us, that also designs and engineers locally. That’s good for us.”

Cruse is all about supporting and growing the community, or as he puts it “investing in new ideas.” 

A simple contract manufacturing relationship with Sydney-based Farmbot, for example, has evolved into a collaboration in which Definium is designing Farmbot’s new product range, as well as providing them with standard Definium products. Wrapping design, engineering and manufacturing into one facility provides customers with a significant time to market advantage, explains Cruse.

It’s thanks to another collaboration between Definium, Enterprize Tasmania, UTAS’s Sense-T, and CSIRO’s Data61, that Launceston has Australia's first city-wide Internet of Things (IoT) network – LoRaTAS.

In addition to building its own products, Definium provides bespoke solutions to third parties to design and/or manufacture electronic devices, including in-line surface-mount assembly and vapour-phase vacuum reflow, x-ray inspection and analysis of devices, and firmware installation and device testing.

Definium currently undertakes significant contract manufacturing in the US, including a 1000-board production run for a Tennessee-based company, and three new projects in Arizona.

“Getting groups together increases the chance of conversation and a single conversation, just one comment, can be pivotal. It has been with me,” Cruse insists.

“The most enjoyable time I have is trying to understand someone else’s knowledge domain.”

Cruse thinks Australians, and Tasmanians in particular, bring something a little different to the innovation table.

“It’s the island thing,” he says. “We have to be a bit more self-sufficient. You get an idea and you try it. You fail. You learn. You try again. Some part of what we do acts as a catalyst for that fervour.”

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