Finding the right type of product design engineer is about as easy as finding hen's teeth for Hamilton-based animal pharmaceutical delivery company, Simcro.
The developer and manufacturer of drench guns and injectors has won a swag of awards for its innovations - including an 'Optiline' drench gun that instead of being a pistol grip delivers the anthelmintic through the base of a completely new type of hand-operated pump.
The privately owned company has a mostly business-to-business model, with animal health companies adding Simcro designed delivery products as part of the package.
Simcro's business development manager and head of R&D, Rod Walker, says the company's always on the lookout for engineers to add to its 12 strong product development team.
"The classic engineering training gives a lot of basic skills within basic problem solving concepts," says Walker, who has an electrical and electronics engineering degree.
And while the majority of the product development team are also professional engineers from Christchurch or Auckland Universities, and some through an NZCE route with a plastics orientation, "it is extremely hard to find good people," says Walker.
"We have an open invitation for any engineer to come and have a look at us."
He says the company's open to the type of engineering degree, though a mechanical specialisation is good.
"The way New Zealand engineers are trained means the good ones are very adaptable; be it chemical, civil, electrical, mechanical or whatever," Walker says. "But there's no particular qualification that exactly suits what we do."
"What we do need though is someone who is commercially smart, marketing smart and engineering very sharp."
One reason for such an extended range of skills is that Simcro's product engineers are constantly talking to other professionals such as consultants, scientists, marketers, patent attorneys and a range of its clients' people.
Its product developers are also usually involved right from start, in preliminary discussions about potential solutions, and immediately take on quite a responsible role he says.
"It isn't like a lot of classical engineering, where as well as a peer review type situation and a time charge basis, you're straight into projects with a heavy capital spend," Walker says.
"With a product development, you have to get it right at launch. The first order potentially pays for all the product development. Get that wrong and you have to do a recall; that's very hard to recover from."
Walker says there have been cases where graduate engineers in particular come and have a look at the company and are fascinated by what Simcro does and the product engineer role.
But some are also quite intimidated by the responsibility and not prepared to take the step into the position.
Under Simcro's engineering design model, "you can't get a product to the finish line unless it can be sold," he says.
"It has to be made to a price and the challenge is engineering with commercial constraints. We have a certain amount of time and money to get the product to a point, we can't keep on engineering and engineering."
For some engineers, this is a difficult thing to learn he says.
The company has a step-staged process for managing its projects, where out of about 70 currently on its books; around a 12-20 will be being intensively worked on at any one time.
Simcro is able to manage this because animal health companies typically have their own review process for projects and products. The stop/go procedure allows multiple projects to be managed at any one time, where one product may be worked on for two or three months, and then lie dormant for six months before getting the next green light to continue.
The majority of Simcro's products are made from plastics, whereas traditionally the delivery systems were produced from metal, glass and stainless steel.
Hi-tech resins are just as good says Walker when they have high temperature and chemical resistance, and have the added advantage of being easy to shape, light and easy to make in more ergonomic shapes.
The company uses sophisticated 3D CAD modeling in designs, with the added criteria "that there is no reason for our products to be ugly," he says. "We want them to be aesthetically pleasing, they have to look good."
One reason for this design criteria is a new generation of farmers, who as well as both domestically and internationally, are somewhat fussier says Walker.
"This is particularly so for women, who along with Hispanic farm workers in the Americas, have smaller hands, and therefore need devices that are more suitable," he says.
"Their hands also have less strength that that of a traditional farmer, and taking that into consideration has worked very well for us."
Walker says the company's particularly keen on engineers with a farming background, as this provides even more credibility when talking to drug scientists, head vets, marketing experts and the like.
Animal health delivery systems have been an overlooked section of the market for decades he says, compared to human health where the user experience is generally well catered for.
The animal health section of major pharmaceutical companies also often only makes up about 10% of the business, which while relatively small from the pharma's point of view, represents major opportunities for Simcro.
Considering that the time between the discovery of a drug that is efficacious and its introduction to the market may be five to seven years, Simcro has to have a close relationship with their clients.
"We're able to offer a matching of engineering to the science, compared to, here is the science, what can you guys come up with," says Walker.
Given that among the means of administering animal health products are drenching, injecting, tablets, implants, nasal and bolus methods, all of which may be a better or worse means of delivering the active ingredient, Simcro's involvement at an early stage can be extremely helpful for the pharma company.
Sometimes scientists can come up with a brilliant new product, but it is Simcro's engineering expertise and delivery knowledge that best allows that chemical formulation to do its work Walker says.
The company spends 12-13% of its tens of millions of dollars a year turnover on R&D, and having demonstrated its abilities in the large animal delivery field, is beginning to deliver vet-administered products for companion animals such as urban cats and dogs.
And because the pharma companies have animal health divisions, and given the internal movement of people within these companies as well as Simcro's demonstrated success, it is in the early stages of some human health product discussions.
Again however, the product development on these projects takes several years and a lot of money, and it is only possible because of very patient shareholders who are totally committed to the company's very long pipeline.
"Every project is carefully analysed," says Walker.
"We look at their interrelated returns, cost payback and a valuation of the commercial risks to compare projects. We're now in the situation where we'll sometimes say no to a project, partly because we're running a very lean operation.
There's no shortage of opportunities out there, it is a case of selecting the right ones."
"In a sense, business development is the easiest job in the company. We did the hard yards in the early days, where we'd get one or two opportunities a year that were worth investigating. Now, though they come in fits and starts, we get one or two a week."
Walker says the company has an ambitious growth plan, and it will continue to need the right type of engineer to maintain its design-oriented pipeline.
Any commercially minded engineer, especially with a farm background is welcome to give him a call he says.