Innovative Australian automotive components’ manufacturers are thriving in a global marketplace, and training our future engineers in the process. By Carole Goldsmith.

The AutoCRC assists Australian companies to participate in the global automotive market. Through its two divisions: Business Excellence and Research (currently the Automotive Australia 2020 CRC), the organisation also provides a link between the automotive industry and universities across the country, enabling final-year engineering students to get on-the-job placements and potential future career options.

“Our co-operative research centre is focussed on developing technologies relevant to the global automotive industry,” says AutoCRC CEO Ian Christensen. “The Business Excellence division’s role is to help auto suppliers improve their operational and business processes to be more competitive globally. This is more important than ever, as the big three auto manufacturers, Ford, Holden and Toyota will all have closed their Australian auto manufacturing operations by late 2017. “

Christensen explains that the AutoCRC’s annual spend is $12m. Its funding is derived on a 50/50 basis from Federal Government and individual auto companies that participate in its projects.

He describes an innovative research program that AutoCRC facilitated recently where South Australia-based Precision Components teamed up with the University of SA to develop heliostats. These are computer controlled movable mirrors that collect solar energy and feed it into the grid.

“This is auto technology developing solar collectors for large-scale energy generation for rural areas,” Christensen says.

In November, Christensen was at the Malaysian Auto Show in Kuala Lumpur for Gold Coast bus manufacturer Bustech’s first ever electric bus launch. Produced by Bustech for the Malaysian Public Transport Association, the electric bus project was a joint initiative of CSIRO, Swinburne University, Bustech and AutoCRC, in conjunction with the Malaysian Automotive Institute.

AutoCRC’s education program links automotive companies with universities, which place final-year engineering students into industry projects. Christensen explains proudly that last year, there were 40 projects, which included 80 students on placement in 21 companies. He says: “We need 20 more auto manufacturers involved in this program. There are no costs to the company, and auto manufacturers can have an engineering student working on projects for one year, which is a vital part of the final year student’s education and training.”

Christensen names Nissan Casting Australia Plant (NCAP) as one of the unsung heroes and quiet achievers of Australian auto manufacturing. It’s an Australian company that is holding its place as a rapidly growing auto components exporter.

Nissan Casting Australia Plant – Here to stay, and booming

“Some people think automotive manufacturing in Australia is dead,” said Richard Emery, Managing Director and CEO of Nissan Australia, recently. “I can tell you it’s alive and well at Nissan Australia and it will be here for years to come.”

NCAP’s automotive manufacturing business is going from strength to strength. Its production team works three shifts per day, up to seven days per week, to meet Nissan’s global demand for high-pressure die-cast auto parts. NCAP has been increasing its manufacturing capabilities and investing in equipment to ensure it maintains its technological and quality advantages. Post-2017 when Ford, Holden and Toyota have all ceased manufacturing in Australia, Nissan will essentially be the only car manufacturer with direct presence in this country.

Nissan operates its Australian aluminium casting automotive component plant in Dandenong South, east of Melbourne. NCAP’s site stretches over 90,000sqm and houses both high- and low-pressure die-casting machines, with the capacity to produce 10,000 tons of cast parts and accessories per year. From this, more than two million parts worth more than $65m are exported to other Nissan global assembly operations including Japan, the US, Thailand, South Korea and Mexico. The company also exports to other auto part manufacturers, such as Calsonic Kansei and Jatco in Japan.

NCAP has 141 full-time employees and 21 casuals with plans to employ more as demand requires. Every auto component it makes has a kangaroo stamped on it, to proudly emphasise that it was made in Australia. The plant has 13 different machines which produce 39 different parts for Nissan vehicles globally.

AMT Magazine was given an extensive tour of NCAPs’ production site by Quality Manager Vanessa Giordani. The factory is spotlessly clean with a walkway around the production area that we follow. In the LEAF room (named after the Nissan LEAF electric car), RMIT University’s final-year mechanical engineering student Jude Rodrigo is learning how to X-ray components with the YXLON YMU2000-D computer tomography (CT) machine, as part of his work placement at NCAP. Giordani comments that with the quality being so vital to its success and sustainability, NCAP invested in the $500,000 German machine in mid-2015.

The YXLON machine works in the same way as a CT scanner, enabling operators to delve non-destructively into the inner structure of a casting by generating a 3D reconstruction. This allows operators to see if porosity and/or casting defects are present, check tolerances and make adjustments accordingly to correct any problems, thus maintaining quality. It features the same technology that Formula One teams use to ensure their parts meet specifications.

Giordani proudly points to the KPI (key performance indicator) board, where several charts show NCAP’s production’s quality KPIs. She prepares these documents together with her quality team of ten people, mainly all mechanical engineers like herself.

“Around 98 % of NCAP’s customers are overseas,” reports Giordani. “We have only one internal Nissan customer in Australia that we make towbars for.”

Elsewhere on the tour, Validation Coordinator Tom Joseph is checking the dimensions of a stator housing component (part of the Nissan LEAF) in one the two new Mitutoyo coordinate measurement machines (CMMs). Joseph shows the stator housing design plans from Nissan’s head office in Tokyo. Then he inputs the data into the Mitutoyo computer system. Joseph then activates the machine, and a needle-like probe moves around the component measuring its dimensions to determine that it meets the exact specifications from the plans.

Giordani reveals that NCAP recently invested $300,000 in these two machines which were supplied by MTI Qualos, the authorised Mitutoyo dealer in Australia. NCAP’s continual investment in advanced manufacturing technology is a vital part of the company’s continuous striving for excellence in quality.

The tour reaches the casting machine, where molten aluminium is poured into the die or casting mould and the auto parts are made. Giordani explains that component castings are checked every two hours as part of quality assurance. NCAP recently collaborated with and CSIRO to develop CASTvac, a casting technology that eliminates the valve blockages caused by molten aluminium. It avoids machine stoppages and can save the company up to $100,000 a year in the manufacturing of a single component.

Behind a set of glass doors, a family of three robots are assembling and testing the water jacket for the Nissan LEAF. Further on, another group of robots are checking the stator housing for quality and design consistency, with great precision.

Giordani advises that NCAP works closely with a number of universities providing on-the-job internship projects for final-year mechanical engineer students. They are working on a range of projects during this factory tour and some may secure NCAP jobs when they graduate.

When asked why business was booming for NCAP, Managing Director Peter Jones replies: “Our success is not based solely on price. We can proudly say that demand for our products is built on quality. If you look at the finish, accuracy and tolerances of the parts we manufacture, such as those for the Nissan LEAF and e-NV200 electric vehicles, you may think that they have been machined, but they are straight out of the casting mould. The high quality of these castings ensures that we have the exclusive global contract to supply these parts.

“These components are that precise that they match up exactly with parts made in Japan, to a tolerance of only 15 microns, less than the diameter of a human hair,” adds Jones. “That’s Formula One-level manufacturing.”

Australian Clutch Services – servicing global demand

Another great automotive export success story, Australian Clutch Services (ACS) is one of this country’s market leaders in the supply of new and remanufactured clutch components and systems. ACS’s owner and Managing Director Brenton Jordan founded the company 28 years ago as a clutch-reconditioning business in a shed-like building, west of Adelaide.

The company has since expanded rapidly and now has 45 employees. Headquartered in the industrial hub of Wingfield, north of Adelaide, it has a purpose-built warehouse incorporating assembly of clutch products, R&D, sales and service, warehousing and distribution.

“To service the growing demand for our products across Australia, NZ, Asia and Europe, we also have warehouses located in Melbourne, Sydney, Darwin, Brisbane and Townsville as well as Poland,” Jordan explains. “ACS’ Australian and NZ major sellers are the standard clutch replacements for passenger car, 4WD and light commercial vehicles. In Europe and Asia, our main markets are heavy-duty clutch kits for 4WD vehicles and racing clutch kits.”

Clutch kits are manual transmission parts, which usually consist of a pressure plate, a clutch disc and a release bearing. The company has also developed the Xtreme Clutch range (high-quality upgraded clutch kits and components for motor racing applications). It now supplies these products to racing teams in Australia and globally.

“Our 4WD clutch kits allows the vehicle owner to improve the performance of their car in terms of towing capabilities and clutch reliability,” Jordan explains proudly. “Also our racing applications are specifically designed to hold the power modifications made to standard vehicles used in racing environment. A standard clutch would not be able to endure the forces experienced in race cars.”

PWR – Keeping race cars cool

World-class cooling solutions manufacturer PWR Performance Products is also booming on the export front. As the only specialised manufacturer of competition radiators, intercoolers and oil coolers for high-end race and performance automotive applications, PWR has fast-tracked its way to become a leading name in top-level global motorsport. Teams in fields such as Formula One, V8 Super Cars, DTM (Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters), Indy Cars and NASCAR all use PWR’s cooling products.

The Gold Coast hinterland manufacturer listed on the ASX in late November. PWR’s CEO and founder Kees Weel explains why it became a public company.

“The main reason is our growth globally, with a large presence in the UK and USA,” explains Weel. “It helps us to have a company board around to advise us on our future directions. The other reason is that we wanted to offer our employees options to buy our company shares. Almost half of our 100 Australian employees have taken up the offer already.”

PWR also has 60 employees in the USA and four in the UK. Weel started PWR 30 years ago, and now 85% of the company’s cooling solutions are exported to the global motorsport industry, with the majority of products destined for the USA, UK and German market. The product range includes aluminium radiators, intercoolers, oil coolers and accessories. Its export success was recognised in 2012, when it won the prestigious Australian Exporter of the Year.

Weel and his son Paul have also been V8 Supercars team owners – and Paul a driver – so they certainly know the motorsport industry inside out. Paul is now PWR’s production manager and his father explains that the company is actually named after his son – Paul Weel Radiators.

PWR’s state-of the-art manufacturing plant includes a controlled atmosphere blazing furnace, a CNC machine shop, R&D facilities, design department and large fabrication capabilities.

“As a motorsport cooling solutions business, we have the ability to engineer, design, manufacture, test and validate all our products,” says Weel. “At our world-class wind tunnel on-site, we can replicate a motorsport action situation to ensure our cooling system’s validation. Our full-time wind tunnel testing division can test core configurations in a real-world environment.”

In the broader automotive industry, PWR supplies the entire cooling system for the Porsche 918 Spyder vehicles being produced in Germany. Weel says: “They are hybrid vehicles with only 1,000 in total made. Porsche engineers came to Australia to test and validate our products in their vehicles.”

PWR has several final-year mechanical engineering students, mainly from Griffith University, working on various projects at its manufacturing site. Weel explains that around 90% of these students are retained at the company after they graduate.

According to Weel, the main reason for the company’s success is that: “Every step of the manufacturing process is done in-house. To my knowledge, we are the only dedicated competition radiator manufacturer, which produce all aspects of our own heat exchangers from core manufacturing, through to complete assembly fabrication. This gives us design flexibility while maintaining quick turnaround to all our global customers.”