The acquisition of a family business by its next generation is generally characterised by a high failure rate. Yet the growth experienced by a successful Sydney sheetmetal company is evidence how current technologies can make the difference during transition.
Furthermore, it provides added credibility to the link between automation and a greater capacity to compete with manufactures from cheap labour countries.
Managing director of Custom Built Sheet Metal Pty Ltd (CBSM), Greg Wallis, made the step up from general manager of seven years when his father retired from the business. Established in 1970, the company was at the time a successful jobbing shop and contract workshop.
Yet Mr Wallis saw that prospects for the business were limited due to a multitude of competition and the lack of a unique competitive advantage.
At that time he also recognised it was imperative to leverage the best automation technology of the day to increase small quantity efficiencies, maximise inventory procedures and take the company through a massive stage of diversification and growth.
"My plan was to build on the sound foundations established by my father, so in addition to further developing our contract manufacturing services, we decided to add our own products," said Mr Wallis.
Custom Built Sheet Metal now relies on contract manufacturing for only three quarters of its production, with more than 25% coming from its capacity to make commercial-focused products for which it sees market potential.
Recently the company introduced a major partner to its Australian BBQ Manufacturers business which produces the burgeoning Lifestyle range of premium quality stainless steel barbeques. The new partner has assumed control of national sales and marketing functions which were drawing on too much on Mr Wallis's time and thus has enabled him to be 100% focused on the core business.
"The repetitive volume of our own products is one assurance we needed to invest in a range of new technologies, but over our shoulder we always monitored the danger in competing against manufacturers in countries where labour costs are virtually negligible.
"Critical to our successful expansion and diversification has been an investment in automation. Our software-driven new machinery can produce the contract jobs much quicker, easier, and more cheaply. And making our own product range irons out the peaks and troughs that you get between orders.
"Certainly, the threat of cheap manufacturing from countries such as China is being combated by the use of highly efficient automated production systems.
"Not only does it give us tremendous flexibility, the equipment enables us to do small runs quickly and cost efficiently, thereby we eliminate the need to carry large inventories."
The centrepiece of the company's drive into expanded, dynamic markets is the FINN-POWER Shear Genius FP SG6 turret punch with 12-bay automatic loading station. This unit can accommodate up to 56 stations plus indexing tools, allowing for great flexibility in design and production.
Adding to its productivity is an auto-nesting software, part of the Jetcam software supplied with the machine by Advanced Sheetmetal Technologies . This function allows CBSM staff, at the touch of a button, to program the Shear Genius with jobs so that any given sheet of metal - regardless of dimensions - is utilised most effectively and with the least amount of waste.
An automatic loading station has allowed CBSM to use its FINN-POWER turret punch as a 'set and forget' operation, with great savings in manpower and an increase in productivity.
"We used to have to have at least two employees just standing there waiting for one sheet to be finished so they can load the next", said Mr Wallis.
"Now it's a fully automatic operation. The loading station selects the right bay and picks up one sheet. Then it aligns it precisely before loading it onto the turret machine's bed. At the other end, conveyors remove the waste material to dedicated bins, whilst finished parts are sorted and delivered to the outloading bay. Only minimal human supervision is required to run the automation during nights."
Other FINN-POWER automation has been integrated as the company expanded. A FINN-POWER FP/LP combination turret punch and CNC laser facilitates much quicker and productive operation. Whilst conventional lasers spend a great amount of time and energy puncturing the sheet before cutting, the combination punch/laser allows the machine to mechanically punch through the sheet first before the laser takes over the cutting duties.
Bringing more production in-house, CBSM is now equipped with robotic welders, CNC folding equipment, and a zinc-phosphate long-life powder coating line.
CBSM is now a preferred supplier to the NSW Government and has a long list of 'blue-chip' companies amongst its customers.
In the two years since Mr Wallis' remake of the company, the company's workforce has increased by more than 50%, working in two shifts. Even when the last worker goes home for the night the FINN-POWER machinery keeps on producing.
Contract work ranging from electrical boxes through air conditioning units and petrol pumps to sign housings and facia has never been stronger, and anyone that lives in a unit or townhouse is likely to have their mail delivered to a letterbox made by the company.
And the distinctive, Australian-designed and -made range of Lifestyle barbecues it conceived are now being sold by many big-name retailers around the country as well as being exported to many other parts of the world.