Established in 1992, Australian Precision Technologies (APT) has undergone repeated transformations over its quarter-century in business, placing it today at the forefront of advanced manufacturing in Australia, with a focus on zero defects (quality management system) and on-time delivery (scheduling & communication), with an open book costing policy to ensure globally competitive pricing and value.

As a company formed from a partnership between a manufacturer and an equipment supplier, it’s no surprise that APT places a strong emphasis on forging strong relationships, particularly in the area of technology. It has close partnerships with Okuma, which provides many of its CNC machines, and Iscar, which supplies its cutting tools. Iscar is currently closely involved in APT’s latest investment, with the adoption of M1 material requirements planning (MRP) software.

“Because we’re busy it’s great, but when you’re busy, you want to make sure you’ve got data to show how you’re doing day to day,” says Ron Weinzierl, APT’s Business Director. “So we’ll have a system that will drive APT’s efficiency based on data: customer satisfaction, on-time deliveries, quality, and so on.”

“And that would be our involvement,” adds Jason Allen, Managing Director of Iscar Australia. “Creating metrics around our Matrix tool management system, making sure they achieve performance efficiencies. Everything’s measurable, right down to walkaround time: if an operator needs to walk from one machine to another, we can determine exactly how long it takes to retrieve tools, how long it takes to get back to where they’re working. Everything needs to be measured for waste. You can’t have a Lean factory if you’re not measuring everything.”

Both APT and Iscar are candid about the advantages of having such a close, collaborative technical partnership.

“We can think we’ve got the smartest engineers, but they only learn the APT way,” Ron explains. “Iscar goes out on a global level to people all around the world; they can bring that knowledge in and help us to improve the way we’re going to machine our components for our customers. Our partnership is not just about tooling but developing knowledge and that’s real value!”

“It’s about rapport, it’s built on trust,” continues Jason. “I think we go beyond the standard business-to-business relationship, in fact to the point where we can stretch out days to support cashflow, we can have open discussion about margins that Iscar will be making. It’s an open-book policy as I’m concerned. As a partner you need to be able to show them where you are, and they can show where they are. That’s the key to a technical partnership and that’s where it goes beyond the whole client-supplier situation.

“The support, the service, the price, it’s second to none,” adds Richard Weinzierl, APT’s Manufacturing Director (and Ron’s brother). “Gaz (Iscar Product Manager Gary Simpson) lives locally, so he’s always calling in helping the boys out.”

“And that’s what APT focuses on with our customers,” adds Ron. “We want to make sure we work on an open communication, to make sure we’re delivering value, not only on cost but on on-time delivery and quality. Cost is the open part at the end. When you’ve got trust you’re always going to come up with what’s fair. And if you’ve got a fair partnership you’re always going to provide value.”

The emphasis on partnership and collaboration is evident across APT’s activities. Ron and Richard, along with Jason, are founding members of the Australian Precision Manufacturing Group (APMG). The idea for the APMG first arose during an Iscar customer event a couple of years ago. The event was marked by a series of open, animated discussions about the industry, so it was decided to hold similar events regularly.

That initial group became founding members of the APMG, which later grew to include Deakin University, among others. Membership is strictly controlled, with all members having a say in who can join to ensure that any newcomer is the right fit and that there are no clashes due to competing interests. The APMG gets together on a quarterly basis to discuss the state of manufacturing in Australia. There are also plans to lobby Government in areas such as skills, and the group has developed a capability matrix with the aim of bidding collectively for contracts in global supply chains.

“As a small business it’s critical,” says Ron. “APT works with 21 people working two shifts, five days, and as required three shifts, seven days. If we’re going to develop in advanced manufacturing, we can’t do everything. The end-customer wants to work with people with capability across the board, who they can build confidence in. So at APT, in collaborating with other engineering and advanced manufacturing companies throughout Australia, we will offer the costumer greater value, and that’s where our growth will come.”

Rebranding for the future

Whether it’s throwing out cam auto machines to make room for CNC technology, or shifting out of high-volume production of automotive components into higher-value advanced manufacturing, APT has never shied away from repositioning and redefining itself in response to changing market conditions. Most recently, it has embarked on a comprehensive rebranding to reflect its key activities and markets going forward, with the company now trading as APT Advanced Manufacturing.

“When people start talking about advanced manufacturing, I know that’s what Government’s focused on, they know that’s what’s sustainable in Australian manufacturing going forward,” says Ron. “So we looked at our brand and thought, instead of being precision engineering, we’re now in that transition, after huge investment, into advanced manufacturing. With our new brand, when Government looks at it they know we are leading the way in advanced manufacturing.”

The rebranding marks an extensive period of transition for APT, and it hasn’t always been easy. According to Ron, the 2014-15 financial year was among the hardest in the company’s history, with significant investment in technology, branding and infrastructure at a time when industry demand was low. However, with a new facility recently opened across the road from its main site, the company had its strongest year in 2016, with a bullish forecast of 20%-30% growth in 2017. The future is for APT looking good.

“We had 86% of our business with Robert Bosch in 1998,” says Ron. “Back then they said they were going to get out of what we were doing, which was alternator and fuel assembly in Clayton, and shut it down. So we knew we had to diversify, and we have, and we’ll continue with that. APT as a company, its brand is as good as it’s ever been. I believe there are better times out there than we’ve experienced.”

Built on partnerships

Richard Weinzierl laughs when he considers why he went into manufacturing: “Because I wasn’t smart enough to be an electrician. I went for an apprenticeship exam with Bosch Australia, and they said ‘We’ll offer you a job as a fitter and turner, but your scores aren’t high enough to be an electrician’. So I became a fitter and turner.”

Richard turned down Bosch (he was surfing at the time at Philip Island), but he eventually took an apprenticeship with JW Ford, and thrived, taking an associate diploma at night-school while he was there. It was also there that he lay the groundwork for what would become APT.

“Our very first customer used to buy parts from JW Ford,” he recounts. “Every morning we’d get a coffee together, and he said ‘Young fellow, if you ever go into business for yourself, give me a call’. I was 21. I’d just met my wife, and she came round one day and I was in the driveway pulling apart this old cam auto so I could start making bits for this guy, and she said ‘Well while I’m here I’ll help you’. That’s how I got that machine going, how I’d met her, and how I started the business.

“That customer sent me this simple little rivet that goes into stoves, and said ‘If you don’t stuff that up, I’ve got this other part’. That was a gas cock, so I bought another machine. We ran millions of those parts. That’s how I got going. Then one day I was working at JW Ford, and the boss said ‘Do you know anything about a young bloke who’s started a business in Dandenong?’ I said ‘Yep that’s me’. He said ‘Alright well I think you better finish up’. So I finished up.”

At that point Richard had a supplier providing him with equipment, who suggested they go into a 50-50 partnership. Within two years APT had outgrown its small factory in Dandenong and moved to larger premises nearby, where it soon had more than 40 cam autos running and was still behind on its orders. Over the next few years it transitioned to CNC machinery, eventually throwing out its last cam auto 15 years ago when it moved to its current base in Berwick (SE of Melbourne).

Ron bought into the business in 1998 after the original partner pulled out due to ill health, and today the two brothers run the company together. From those early days making stove components, APT has evolved considerably, initially following a well-trodden path via the car industry, before diversifying to carve out its own niche across various advanced manufacturing sectors.

“If you think about our transition, we’ve come out of repetition high-volume automotive production, and transitioned into precision, with a lot more customers, at lower volumes,” says Ron. “And now in the last five years we’ve diversified into advanced manufacturing. The growth industries are defence and aerospace. We did a small business map to look at where we wanted to take APT, and part of that was to focus on blue-chip defence customers, because that’s where the growth, the value is. That’s our mindset, our culture, that we’ve developed around that type of customer.”