It has been 70 years since privately-owned Australian company Dolphin Products began manufacturing high precision injection moulded plastic components in Melbourne’s historical manufacturing area of Heidelberg, where it still operates today.
First founded as a toy manufacturer, Dolphin later transitioned to the automotive sector.
Today, Dolphin Products supplies components and assemblies to a diverse range of local and international industries, including Automotive, Industrial, Mining and Medical. The company exports to Europe, North and South America, and Asia, and indeed half its sales revenue is made up of exports, for example to Orica subsidiaries in Chile, China and India.
“We are small and our ability to turn the business around is probably what our strength is. Some of the bigger companies haven’t been able to do that. It is very hard for them to turn around in a short time,” says Managing Director Mario Turcarelli.
The diversity of industry the firm supplies provides a natural hedge, he says.
“We are not too dependent on any one area. Depending on what is happening one picks up as the other goes down.”
The recent securing of a large contract with Orica for its “booster shell” product, beating out offshore competitors, has catapulted mining to be Dolphin’s largest generator of business.
Dolphin supplies Orica with components for its explosive parts and will be upgrading and putting in new equipment for the new project. The terms are confidential.
“What I can say is that it will replace the sales we do for automotive. That one project on its own will replace sales for Holden and Toyota,” Mr Turcarelli says.
Dolphin is also continuing in automotive with a three-way joint venture in Thailand, where 2 million cars are manufactured each year and most of the utility vehicles in Australia are made. Prior to assuming his current role at Dolphin in 2010 after buying the company when its foreign owners decided to shut it down, Mr Turcarelli was key Engineering Manager at General Motors Holden. He was responsible for setting up the GM operation in Thailand in 2000 and has spent a lot of time in Asia looking at overseas programs in Thailand as well as China, India and Taiwan.
“I learnt how to do business in Thailand. It’s a good place for automotive knowledge because of my background and the expertise that I developed. So I understand the Thai auto industry,” he says.
“We are focusing on transitioning our automotive knowledge over there.”
After mining and automotive, supplying the NBN with plastic connectors and parts is the next largest source of revenue, and the firm also has a clean room which allows us to make medical products in there such as kidney dishes, and also baby teats for Bebi, and meets TGA approval.
“Adding a clean room gives us a big advantage over other suppliers,” Mr Turcarelli says.
Dolphin, which employs 36 staff, has embraced automation, and finds wage costs are not the main obstacle to competing on the world stage.
“We can compete against some of the lowest cost countries in the world. If you sit down and design a process efficiently then the labour cost isn’t an issue. The level of manning is a lot less than it would have been 10 years ago,” explains Mr Turcarelli.
Dolphin utilises a pair of 3-D printing enthusiastically, for example to create multiple trials of a new product to get it right, and to make insert prototypes.
“It’s an important part of the design development process for new parts.”
Dolphin provides the shell for some Australian defence ammunition, making casings, , detonator boxes and machine gun clip charges. It also does some work on trains for Siemens, and sees opportunity in trains and trams from the interior trims and seating required, and well as electronic components.
Mr Turcarelli says he knows at least five plastics auto operations set to close, but they are all subsidiaries of big overseas companies. He expects smaller part manufacturers to be beneficiaries as the industry consolidates and large multi national component suppliers close their local subsidiaries, pressured by larger overheads and international costing targets.
“The manufacturing businesses that remain will be in a better position. You will see more of the smaller companies survive and the bigger companies shut down because they don’t need to be in Australia, because they have operations of offshore. We’re in a different position to them and as people are hearing that they are shutting down, we have more customers coming our way. “
The firm’s latest venture is to reinvent the humble clothes peg under its consumer brand product Waterdale.
“We looked at all the flaws, the steel spring won’t rust because it is made from stainless steel, and we made the peg of a nice soft plastic that won’t go brittle, because it has UV stabiliser in it. It is suitable for ladies to hang delicate garments and not damage them with the peg clippers,” says Mr Turcarelli.
“The key to our business is that we can provide very, very high-quality over a large number of parts, particularly for the mining industry. I think people underestimate what a reputation we have for innovation and technology. People don’t realise the level of respect out there for Australian scientists and engineers.”