‘You need what? No problem.’ A spotlight on Ben Darling
Originally joining aae technologies at 16 part-time while still studying at college, Ben’s love of electronics meant he quickly soaked up everything there is to know about our technology and how it can be used, modified and improved. Since coming on board full-time in 2011, he’s gained a huge amount of experience across every aspect of product manufacturing, development, maintenance and customer service, rising to become our Acoustic Positioning Product Coordinator.
Ben works directly with clients to tailor equipment to their specific requirements, as well as providing technical support through our modulus arm. We caught up with him ahead of another busy day of sourcing vital parts and finding new ways to meet clients’ needs.
How would you describe your role at aae technologies?
I’m the Product Line Coordinator, which means I’m in charge of our Acoustic Positioning product line from concept stage through to production, delivery and after-sales support. I also oversee the withdrawal of older products from the market as new products replace them, while also bearing in mind parts we’ll need for repairs and maintenance – both for legacy support and ensuring we have the new components for the new line.
What sparked your interest in subsea equipment and acoustic positioning?
I’ve always been interested in electronics and had a talent for it when I was at school, doing well at GCSE and A level. I also grew up with subsea equipment around all the time. My dad would bring home CSP units to soak-test them in the garage at weekends!
I used to help out here during school holidays, doing very basic assembly work and then slightly more advanced work while I was at sixth form. I wanted to go straight into work after leaving college, and applied for a few engineering positions, but when a permanent vacancy in production came up here at aae it felt natural for me to join the team.
How has your career progressed since joining aae technologies?
The first three years were spent in production, building acoustic positioning equipment, while studying for an HND in engineering one day a week. Then I moved over to repairs, as the servicing requirements increased with the rising level of sales. After another few years I moved to a more customer-orientated role providing after-market tech support and also gained another HND in business management in my own time.
During the last two or three years, I’ve worked with the design and development team for custom engineering projects. This could be modifications of existing equipment, housing of subsea sensors, or equipment we source to compliment our own. Last year, I moved into the role I’m in now – in charge of the whole process because I’ve worked in most of it!
With experience in production, servicing, design and support, I understand what we need to do internally, how the processes work and exactly what the customers want. I make sure the design engineering manager is aware of any problems and we address them through design.
What’s been your biggest highlight?
This is a tricky question, as we all work very much as a team, so I can’t think of one specific thing for me personally! Everything we do is team-related, from the company reaching its 30-year anniversary to achieving international business awards and successfully fulfilling some huge orders along the way.
There was one particular instance in 2014. We received a huge order, and at that time had one engineer building beacons, so I dived in, making batches of ten a week. We built and sold over 500 beacons that year, which was quite an achievement with a small number of staff. But it was just one of the things I’ve been a part of as a member of the team.
What’s been the biggest challenge from a customer?
One that I always talk about is when we had to convert a PAM 3510 tester – an on-deck test unit for beacons – for use in the Arctic. It needed to run at temperatures of around minus 10 degrees or more. Far, far colder than is usually specified for our equipment.
So, we had to put heaters into the PAM, but because it’s within an enclosed case you have the issue of some components getting too hot. To get it so that the elements heat the instrument up, but not to a point of failure, with the heat evenly distributed within the constraints of the existing design, and for everything to operate at a colder temperature, was a tough challenge.
Obviously, the Arctic is a very isolated place, so if it goes wrong, that’s it. You can’t just take it back to the shop. We did a lot of testing to make sure it worked, using a combination of heat mats, temperature probes and fans, so that if anything got too hot the probes would shut the heaters down. Don’t forget, the heaters also had to warm the equipment up enough to turn on in the first place. LCD displays are not very liquid at extremely low temperatures!
Another more recent project was with battery pack bottles, which stemmed from a customer requirement to extend the life of the batteries to power their equipment for longer. We developed the bottles, with me doing most of the board design as a customer special, and now they have become a standard product, available for anyone to buy and use with our equipment or other people’s. It’s a great example of a customer challenge or need driving industry innovation.
“As a family-run, independent business we’re able to provide exceptional customer service. Our ‘no problem’ attitude to requests is our main selling point.”
What do you enjoy most about the design, building and testing process?
The variety of it all. Some days I could be helping customers all day, many remotely all over the world, about all kinds of issues. I love the interaction and problem-solving.
I also enjoy the continual improvement of products and being able to have influence over where that goes. We recently improved our 1519 Release Beacon so that its safe working load significantly increased from 75kg to 125kg, which makes a big difference to customers. That’s very satisfying.
It’s just great to be part of a team that’s looking at new products all the time, bringing them to market and seeing them do well. It’s all about hearing the feedback from customers and seeing them come back again and again to buy more!
What makes aae technologies unique?
As a family-run, independent business we’re able to provide – in my opinion – far better customer service than our larger competitors. Our customer-focused approach and our ‘no problem’ attitude to requests is our main selling point. We’re agile, can adapt to customer needs and give our full attention even to small engineering jobs. And because we use local suppliers and local people, we can get prototypes and one-off solutions developed comparatively quickly.
One good example is custom cable moulding, where clients need cables to interface into an ROV and then link up to battery packs to supply additional life to a transponder beacon. They’ll want us to build the entire solution – cables and equipment – so that it links up to their ROV and they can talk to it through the ROV umbilical. Larger competitors typically make their own equipment but won’t source and build a whole custom solution.
What are you excited about for the future?
We’re looking to enhance our MiniPod range to increase the number of MiniPods simultaneously operating over the wireless connection and increase data speeds. We’re also continually improving the accuracy and reliability of acoustic positioning equipment with further trials scheduled later in the year. All very technical, but exciting – especially for customers!