Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but engineering firm Howick has had its innovative machinery ripped off at least five times.

And that's just the instances they know about.

The firm builds machines that take light gauge steel and form it into the framing components for buildings.

The machines are sent all around the world to be used as portable framing factories to build anything from a shed to an 11-storey building.


Chief executive Bruce Coubray says the company has always been about innovation: "How can we be smarter and better?"

It's those design skills that competitors seek to copy, including one former customer who bought a machine, pulled it apart and reproduced it. Coubray says it is very difficult to protect the company's intellectual property without making lawyers rich.

There is no way to compete with cheap copies, he admits, but given that they are junk, the people buying them are probably not customers worth having anyway.

As he sees it the market is big enough for everyone and Howick aims to play at the top end, providing constantly updated machines with superior after-sales support to customers who value what they're paying for.

The company employs 25 people directly, including Coubray's sons, Nick and Hamish, with a further network of sales agents in all corners of the world from the United Arab Emirates to Brazil.

The domestic market for lightweight steel framing is small, so almost all the company's machines are destined for overseas customers.

Howick has sold machines into 56 countries, and Coubray says current sales of around $10 million a year could easily grow to $50 million as the construction industry lifts itself out of the lull caused by fallout from the global financial crisis.

Australia and Russia have proved to be strong markets for Howick and 30 per cent of its customers are repeat business. There are four machines constructing buildings in Sochi, Russia, for next year's Winter Olympics.

He says the firm's strengths lie in its innovations, but it is now learning to market the products better and its website is available in eight languages.

"We definitely put New Zealand on the map as being innovative in this industry."