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XCOM History - The story so far....

It seems like a hundred years ago that we first came up with the idea of building our very own aircraft radio designed for sport aviation.

In the late 90’s and early 2000’s (last century!) our small aviation business was very happily selling lots of Microair radios to the ultralight market but I could see a number of shortcomings in the Microair design and feature set and after thoroughly evaluating the overseas offerings from Becker, Walter Dittel and Filser before again going back to Microair pleading with them to implement new features into their design to make it more competitive we eventually decided to "build our own radio".

It's much easier said in a quick sentence than what it takes in practice and in reality it took about three years of engineering to get the project from the set of specifications I had written down on a piece of paper with my wish list of features through to actually having something I could hold in my hand and send away for all of the appropriate statutory testing and approvals.

Looking back if I knew what work was ahead of us I would've quite happily continued just selling Microair radios rather than becoming an electronics manufacturer myself. That however, is now all history and water under the bridge as we continue to develop and certify our product into what many consider the leading offering in this market.

From 2003 the XCOM VHF transceiver was completely and solely built in Australia. In the early years I really thought it was important to have our product completely Australian made and I was actually proud of the fact that we had a completely 100% Australian designed and manufactured product for export to the world.

The first few years for XCOM went really well, but then complacency crept into our component manufacturers as they struggled in a more competitive market and eventually parts substitution or grey market parts as they're called in electronics started to creep into our design. This immediately gave us a spike in reliability issues and at one stage a whopping 10% failure rate of all new radios in the first 12 months.

Once the parts substitution was discovered as the cause for the failures our XCOM engineering team went back to sourcing and supplying all the parts for our local manufacturers and our reliability rate went back to normal. Unfortunately, not having learned from that lesson in late 2008 we then again decided to let our manufacturers source the parts for our radios [because they advised with their purchasing power they could buy them cheaper] and we again fell into a spike of reliability problems even though we had contracted for them to only use our approved parts list.

Enough was enough and in aviation you really don't get too many second chances and XCOM Avionics was not prepared to send out radios that were anything less than 100% of what we could manufacture. Several months of no production and searching Australia for a new manufacturer were fruitless with everybody having a close enough is good enough attitude which is really sad for Australian electronics manufacture.

It just so happened that our radio design engineer was talking to some of his counterparts at Narco Avionics at Oshkosh a couple of years ago when they started talking about all the problems and challenges of avionics manufacture. At the time Narco were going through a slow period as GARMIN had really exploded into the marketplace for light aircraft. As it happened there was an opportunity for XCOM Avionics to join forces with Narco Avionics and utilize their market experience as being the oldest manufacturer of avionics in the world.

Since entering into this agreement both companies have not looked back with a failure rate of less than 0.2% in the first 12 months of anything that has been produced [the industry-standard failure rate in the first 12 months is said to be around 5%] and the resulting technology swapping between the two companies has meant that XCOM are well on the way to completing their first transponder offering and Narco are also well on the way to producing their first VHF avionics product in about six years.

I feel somewhat disappointed that XCOM is not 100% made in Australia anymore but unfortunately it is simply a fact of life that avionics or even electronics manufacture in Australia has pretty much run its race especially when it comes to accessing the USA markets. I take some encouragement that we still run manufacturing and a service center in Australia and all of our engineering for both existing products and soon-to-be introduced products comes from our Brisbane factory which is still supporting local employment.

Well the Narco co-operation and distribution was going great until January 2011 when Narco went into bankruptcy and closed their doors after 65 years in business. Life is meant to be a challenge and we are now back to distributing from Australia again.

XCOM has now delivered many thousands of radios to aviators around the world. Our original goal was to produce a product for what is now called light sport aircraft, but it is always a real pleasure to see many exotic and unexpected aircraft utilizing our little Australian XCOM radio. Military helicopters in Russia, aerobatic aircraft in the USA, gyrocopters in the Australian outback, gliders operating from the world famous Minden Airport in Nevada are just some of the unique locations and aircraft using the XCOM VHF transceiver and there is always an immense level of pride when I walk past an aircraft fitted with an XCOM product.

The future for XCOM is very secure. The product is currently sold around the world with it’s FCC and FAA approvals, but for some areas this is not enough and we are in the very final stages of full TSO approval. Once the TSO approval is completed the XCOM transponder and several other really unique and must have products are only just around the corner. XCOM is uniquely placed in a very boutique market segment for aircraft that require a small and light but compact and reliable VHF transceiver which shares its origins with Australian “rag and tube” ultralight aircraft.

Michael Coates May 2011.


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