A specialised aluminium casting process has opened doors outside the automotive industry for local firm A.W.Bell.
Sophisticated component manufacturer A.W.Bell expects half its revenues to come via defence work this year, cementing the success of a turnaround since the firm diversified away from the automotive industry.
Almost a third of that defence work comes from the United States, says Chief Executive Sam Bell, and the firm also exports around $1 million worth of complex biomedical castings to Germany each year.
Integral to the firm’s recent success was collaboration with CSIRO materials expert Roger Lumley who helped develop a revolutionary aluminium casting process. The project – which was in direct response to a customer problem A.W.Bell had identified – was supported through an Australian Government initiative which placed researchers into businesses.
“We wanted to develop something that was going to be best-in-world practice,” Mr Bell says.
The company ended up developing a specialised aluminium casting process that produces a lighter weight product that is at the same time complex, high integrity and structurally sound. CSIRO researchers were able to analyse and verify the results, and provide independent validation.
“That really gave us a point of difference. We’ve used that development to catapult ourselves in front of potential customers and we got instantaneous recognition.”
Mr Bell says its machinery division, which exports to every continent, also helps keep the firm competitive.
“That gets us in front of a lot of other foundries to benchmark from. So we know what the industry is doing, and what the best in the industry are doing, and what they look like. That gives us a really good position to know our competition but also [to understand] any changes in technology emerging.”
An expected $10.5 million turnover this year puts the firm back on track after sales dropped to $6.5 million in fiscal 2014, though still not quite back at the $14 million-plus the firm was turning over in 2007 when around half of its sales were in automotive.
Employee numbers, now sitting at around 80, dipped from 145 all the way to the mid fifties.
“That was through the GFC and the decline in the automotive industry, and also through our focus on developing expertise to be able to win this work and then deliver on our promises,” says Mr Bell.
He says the turnaround of the business was started in 2007 by his father, who saw a lot of manufacturing going offshore and decided the business needed to diversify. After conducting some research, he identified defence as being a key market and more protected from the low-cost countries for manufacturers.
A.W.Bell already had a good relationship with the US from previous exporting of equipment.
This year, American global aerospace and defence technology company Northrop Grumman will be A.W.Bell’s biggest customer, representing around 12 per cent of revenue.
“We were in talks with a lot of these companies for a long time and some of that is starting now to come to fruition,” Mr Bell says.
The firm, which operates a casting foundry and supplies complex metal parts, now operates in a broad range of industries: Aerospace, Automotive, Product design, Transport, Food handling, preparation and service, Research, Military, Start-ups, Fuel Handling and processing, and Furniture .
“I see the future of the manufacturing industry being a lot better than it has been over the last five years, but it’s not going to be an easy road. We have to stay at the forefront of our industry, otherwise the big economies won’t come to us for solutions,” says Mr Bell.