Rodney Stiff has one piece of advice for anyone who wants to turn their idea into a prototype that can be patented and sold commercially. “If you aren’t prepared to mortgage your house, go all in, take a risk and back your own ideas, then don’t expect others to.”
If you fancy yourself a bit of an inventor and you aren’t familiar with the name Rodney Stiff, you should be. The Jabiru Aircraft co-founder is a straight-shooting, gentleman of the highest order. He’s happiest in his manufacturing workshop, surrounded by racks of fibreglass, aluminium and alloy plane parts. At 82, he’s sharp as a tac. He runs his eagle eye over everything, as he sips his black tea, and his staff casually drop in and out to pick his brain.
And what a mind it is. The Order of Australia Medal recipient is responsible for some of Australia’s greatest inventions. The engineer started his career at Massey Ferguson in Cairns. He moved to Bundaberg to help Austoft Industries develop a mechanical sugar cane harvester. “I told them I’d only be gone five years, but it’s been 52,” Rod said.
He said demand for sugar was high after WWII but there was a shortage of labour to cut the cane. “Every cane growing region around the world had an entreprenierial farmer who was experimenting, but the early harvesters were primitive and unreliable,” Rod said. “Harry Toft had a bible of harvester patents from around the world, dating back to 1904, so we started on what we already knew and worked our way from there.”
Rod is listed as the inventor of 17 Austoft patents, including the 7000 series mechanical cane harvester, which remains the gold standard globally. It revolutionised the sugar industry by enabling farmers to cut green cane, instead of burning it before harvest. Rod still personally holds seven of the patents for trenching machines, mechanical harvesters, billet planters and torque limiting devices that continue to be widely used today.
Quietly, behind the scenes, Rod was working on designs for a light aircraft. At the age of 49, Rod left Austoft and put everything he had on the line to start Jabiru. It took four years of hard work for the Jabiru LSA 55/2K model aircraft fuselage to receive Australian Civil Aviation Authority (ACAA) certification.
The Itallian engine manufacturer that Jabiru was using ceased operations just one month later, so Rod set to work designing his own engine. Within 18 months the new engine was approved by Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA), and two years later Jabiru shipped its first kits to the United States (US). Throughout his career, he’s created four aircraft fuselages, four engines, kits variants and propellers.
In 2009, he became the first person from outside the US to be awarded the Dr August Raspet Memorial Award for making significant advancements in light aircraft design. Despite winning countless Australian and international awards for aviation, engineering, export and employment, Rod is humble when asked if he’s proud of his achievements. “As Shakespear wrote: ‘the evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones’,” he quipped wryly.
Jokes aside, it’s clear one of the things Rod cares about most is people. At its peak, Jabiru had 140 staff, manufacturing 240 aircraft per year in Bundaberg. “It was hell,” he laughed. “I’ve enjoyed training aeronautical engineers and pilots that have gone on to fly jets for Qantas. I still enjoy flying ocassionally, but I’m not starting new ten-year projects. They don’t need me here anymore.”
Rod is “practising” retirement this year and will leave Jabiru in the capable hands of his daughter, Sue Woods, and Jamie Cook, who is one of Jabiru’s longest serving staff members. With their help, Rod has flown Jabiru through many storms, including the global financial crisis, constantly shifting bureaucratic red tape and now COVID-19. “You have to be willing to evolve, adapt and change your methodology of manufacture,” he said. “Australians are very good at innovating. I’d like to see less of our intellectual property being sent overseas to be commercialised. All that opportunity is being lost for future generations of Australians.”