A long-time supplier to the automotive industry, Barden Fabrications found itself in a challenging position a couple of years ago when Australia’s last three remaining car-makers announced plans to close their manufacturing operations in this country. However, the company was quick to re-evaluate its strategy, and has now embarked in a promising new direction.

Headquartered in Bayswater, in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, Barden opened its doors for business in 1983. Over the years it has adapted and evolved into a one-stop shop for a range of sheet metal fabrication solutions. Barden offers a full suite of fabrication services, including laser cutting, CNC machining, CNC turning, turret punching, powder coating, metal folding via CNC brake press, and MIG/TIG and robot welding.

The automotive industry had been a key market for Barden for many years, where the company has produced various components for direct feed and aftermarket requirements. It has also provided a variety of services for defence applications, general fabrication services for clients in the construction and hospitality sectors, including high-end design furniture for a number of government buildings, as well as display, signage and safety products.

Like many manufacturers exposed to the automotive industry, Barden has faced many challenges over the last few years, with the economic downturn in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), automotive customers going into liquidation, a prolonged period of high exchange rates (a situation that has only recently dropped off). This was compounded by the Federal Government’s decision to withdraw a lot of measures aimed at supporting the car industry – a move that, according to Barden, make Australia “one of very few First-World countries to abandon the industry”, and of which the economic effects are still being seen.

The announcements by Ford, GM/Holden and Toyota in 2013-14 that they would cease Australian manufacturing in 2016-17, and the subsequent liquidation of several major customers that fed the car-makers, had a major impact on Barden’s business performance, requiring the management team to consider radical changes to the company’s strategic plan. The following areas were determined to be essential:

  1. The right personnel, either by bringing them into the organisation or developing existing staff through the newly created Graduate Engineering or Apprentice programs.
  2. Vertical integration through new capital purchase or business takeovers.
  3. The manufacture of innovative, new, independently developed products that reduce Barden’s reliance on external customers, with a focus on a balance between internal to external product ranges.
  4. Review and determine Federal and State support mechanisms to diversify the business.

Knowing that the above is not new concept and that competitors are also expanding, Barden also recognised the need to ensure that whatever it did, it was done right. So how has Barden gone about achieving this strategy?

  1. Takeovers & joint ventures

In late 2013 Barden formed a joint venture with Exacturn Engineering, based in the Victorian town of Healesville. Barden recognised Exacturn’s capabilities and expertise, and decided that the two businesses were a good fit. The result is Barden Exacturn Engineering, adding value in machining and turning, within Victoria and the broader Australian market. The joint venture enabled Barden to keep quality tradesman within the industry and grow a business that stands on its own two feet, while also developing young people through traineeships.

The implementation of the Graduate Engineering and Apprentice program has netted three graduates over the past three years as well as two apprentices. Barden works with local schools and Victorian Certificate of Applied Learning (VCAL) providers to allow for industrial work experience with the potential of apprentice opportunities for the right students.

In early 2014 Barden also purchased Cordite Engineering, based in Bayswater. The purchase expanded the company’s manufacturing capabilities in areas such as CNC punching and folding, but more importantly also added an in-house powder-coating facility, strengthening Barden’s credentials as a one-stop shop for its customers. The purchase expanded the company’s customer base into other market segments, helping it to shift further away from direct supply into automotive.

Last August brought another addition to the group in the form of Uneek 4×4. Established just over two years ago by Uneek Bending and David Fitzpatrick, Uneek 4×4 was engaged in fabrication of off-road vehicle aftermarket products such as bull bars, side steps, rear bars and roof racks, originally focusing on Jeep products. Through that period, Barden had been working with Uneek 4×4 on product development and the manufacture of some components required for those products. The addition of Uneek 4×4 conformed to Barden’s strategy to have a core product range that could be manufactured in-house, thereby reducing the company’s reliance on external customers.

All products that hold the Uneek 4×4 brand have been designed, developed and tested in Melbourne. A new warehousing, distribution, fitting and showroom facility is located in Carrum Downs, while all manufacturing takes place at the Bayswater plant. Uneek 4×4 distributes nationally as well as internationally, having sent products to USA, Canada, Belgium, South Africa and even Taiwan. The Uneek 4×4 website shows an extensive list of Australian distributors that stock and sell its products.

Barden continues to invest in the latest technologies, spending over $600k in past two years and $2m in the previously four years to ensure that its trained, highly skilled workforce is using the most current, state-of-the-art manufacturing equipment.

  1. Research & Development

Through the Uneek4x4 business, Barden has been working on a major new project that has been gaining a lot of buzz – the CAP Locker differential locking system. Developed by Barden, the CAP Locker is a brand new innovation aimed at 4WD drivers who venture off-road allows the vehicle’s differentials to fully lock for maximum traction. The plan is ultimately for the CAP Locker range to consist of four families of lockers: a partial-replacement (PR) family; a full-replacement (FR) family; the Limited Slip/Fully Locked (LSD) family for diffs with LSD lockers; and a competition series. All four families feature an air-actuated selectable locker.

The PR series is designed to reuse most of the OEM differential components, which is pretty good now compared to what they were 20 years ago. Only one bearing cap is replaced of the OEM differential, with the locking mechanism using a piston to push a locking ring forward to lock the spider gears together. Employing fewer components from Barden Exacturn, it is anticipated to be significantly cheaper than the competition.

The FR series is more like a traditional locker, which requires a new centre due to the factory differential only having a two-pinion centre. The design uses a solid steel billet and heat-treated after-processing, rather than casting as with most rival products.

Currently under development, the LSD locker allows the user to have an open differential with a selectable LSD on a switch, and a locker on a switch. According to Barden, this unique feature means users will be able to turn on the LSD for greasy tracks, then switch over to fully locked for really tough terrain. The design is also expected to give added benefits as the piston that pushes on the LSD clutch pack essentially turns old, worn-out LSDs into new LSDs. Also under development is the competition locker, with a full new patent.

Barden has launched a dedicated website for the CAP Locker, where customers can fill out an application form indicating their interest. The company is planning on taking pre-orders depending on the level of demand.

  1. Government initiatives and support

As with many manufacturers progressing out of the direct automotive supply chain, Barden has reviewed grants available through various Federal and State Government initiatives over the past couple of years. In many cases, the company has found that the requirements set to obtain the grants are geared to minimise take-up by manufacturers. According to Barden, the hoops that companies need to jump through make the grants ineffective. In many cases the grant needs to be approved prior to orders being placed, thus making decisions ineffective as you may need to wait months for approval. This in itself reduces the benefit as applicants lose the initiative as time passes.

Changes in Government also affects the grants available, with each new government launching new initiatives and new directions. According to Barden, Governments promote the clever country but do not support companies in developing new markets or products the way they should, meaning many of Australia’s ideas go overseas and the country loses the benefits.

Today, Barden employs 46 staff, up from 26 a year ago – all at its Bayswater and Carrum Downs sites. It ships to customers all over Australia, as well as exporting to customers overseas. Its client base encompasses a broad spectrum of industries, with the company placing a significant emphasis on delivering added value for its customers by providing a high level of service and expertise, while helping them through cost-reduction projects.

Barden’s strategy to overcome the automotive downturn will take time, but it is now well under way.