“Not much comes to the door that we steer away” according to C&S Engineering and Toolmaking, based south-west of Sydney. By Brent Ballinski.

As with many other success stories, C&S Engineering and Toolmaking began in a shed in a backyard. Trading since 2003, Craig and Steven Darvill’s business got started after Steven got tired of commuting from The Oaks to Greenacre, and joined his dad – who repaired trucks – in the family workshop, with Steven’s brother Craig subsequently joining in his off-hours. The brothers invested in an old manual machine, and word got out that if a job needed doing, then Craig and Steven could get it done. Neighbours were early customers, then they told their friends, then those friends told their friends and so on.

“Once we got our first CNC machine, it was only a month and Craig had to give up his full-time job,” says Steven. “Very daunting, of course, because we’d never taken a wage out of the company at that stage. And I think a month or two after that, once they knew someone was there all the time, we just got flooded. We purchased two more CNC machines, and we were still at the parents’ place. After a short while we were forced to move.”

C&S relocated to 24 Anzac Avenue, Smeaton Grange, roughly 60km south-west of Sydney’s CBD where it still operates to this day. It has carved out a niche here as a versatile and state-of-the-art machine shop, offering quick turnarounds and the ability to move a rough idea from back-of-the-envelope drawing to a manufactured job, with a “no job is too small” ethos.

“Not much comes to the door that we steer away,” adds Steven. “The things we don’t do on-site are heat treatment, because it is a specialist process or it’s a field on its own. For example, gear cutting we tend to farm out, because it’s a specialist trade.”

Until the second half of 2017, the company did not have a website or any serious thoughts about marketing its expertise. Describing the company’s primary focus, Steven says: “We’ve got dirty hands – that’s what we’re good at!”

Almost purely through word of mouth, the company has now nearly outgrown its Anzac Avenue unit, and is ready to take things to the next level. This will take capital investment, giving new attention to networking, and finding the right staff.

“I never know what job I’m going to do tomorrow”

C&S’ client list includes Total Aerospace Solutions, Jennmar Australia, Yamaha and Tyco, though it happily takes small walk-in jobs and any other random challenges that are thrown its way. It has worked in sectors as varied as resources, automotive, and food and beverage.

A team of only three, the business has had to stay focused while remaining versatile in its capabilities, according to the Darvills. This has meant not chasing big volumes, a point of difference against other machine shops.

“Many companies focus on large runs of products such as 3,000 to 5000, but we took a different direction and started doing prototype work and one-offs, and small runs, and that’s still what we do. If we make 100 of something, that’s a big run for us, but it doesn’t mean we can’t do more, it just hasn’t worked out that way. Our other employee says ‘The one thing I likes about this job is I never know what I’m going to do tomorrow!’ It’s so varied.”

Machining makes up an estimated 80% of the work, with the other 20% consisting of a mix of R&D, prototyping, fabrication and welding.

“For example – we’ll work very closely with our customers’ design engineers,” says Steven. “They come with a bit of sketch on a paper, and say what they need to achieve. They have the brains, and they understand what has to be done, but they don’t have the machining background, so they ask us. We can say ‘Hang on, it looks good on paper, but practically it’s not going to work.’”

C&S’ prototyping work includes environmental solutions, mining, aerospace, and motorsport, ranging from go-karts to Top Fuel dragsters and other genres of vehicle.

“Basically, when they’re in a pitstop for circuit racing cars, if they can save a half a second filling the car up, they’ll pursue that,” Steven explains of one client. “It’s that sort of thing. We do R&D work for those guys.”

C&S is also skilled in design work in GibbsCAM, boasts a wide fabrication offering, and has three sink EDM machines. Among planned upcoming investments is wire EDM machining.

Both brothers did their trade in toolmaking – Steven at International Tool & Gauge, and Craig at MF Dippert – though this is a small part of their current business. C&S will also meet a need for press tools and injection moulds, which can be manufactured if a customer comes in with a plastic or die-cast component,

“It wasn’t a huge part of our business, but we had a company come to us and we did some sharpening of their punches and then that led into a larger job,” recalls Steven. “The customer said ‘I need this press tool made to do this.’ And he trusted us, we designed it, we commissioned it not long ago, and it’s now in use.”

Head down, bum up

Running a diverse engineering business with only two or three people has not allowed much time for marketing or networking, the Darvills admit. At the same time, they’ve avoided some of the issues their peers have run into.

“We went to the last AMTIL meeting and they were talking about [economic shifts] and I don’t want to sound stupid, but it was sort of news to us,” says Steven. “We’ve just been so focused here – head down, bum up – and we’ve been somewhat oblivious to those other things. Because we’ve had our niche we’ve been less affected by these peaks and troughs in the market.”

Wanting to take its operation to the next level means that C&S is stepping a little out of its comfort zone. Part of the brothers’ recent efforts to network with their peers have included joining AMTIL in May during a visit to Austech, an event they have only ever attended as visitors.

At the time of writing, the Darvills are looking to buy a larger workshop to expand so they can invest in new equipment, and to take on the staff that might free the owners up to do things other than remain chained to their workbench.

“Basically, at the moment our focus is on getting the job done and growing the business. Finding a good work/life balance can be a bit of a challenge at times,” says Steven. “Marketing is the key in trying to get new customers and build. We have employed a marketing company to take care of that, so we can concentrate on what we do best!

“Finding good employees is the one area we’re thinking is going to be the hardest, and that’s the first step to ensuring we meet any increased demand. We need to get someone to train and understand how things happen in this workshop, after all every workshop is going to be different. There’s a real shortage of good machinists these days. However, new employees would allow us to step away from the day-to-day operations now and then to focus on growing the business. It would take a little adjusting to, but we’re willing to take on the challenge to see the business move forward.”

Some things are bound to stay the same, though, such as the very first machine the Darvills invested in all those years ago. That still runs alongside new high-tech machines, every single day. And it’ll be hard to stop Craig and Steven from getting their hands dirty. If either of them steps back from the workbench, it won’t be very far or for very long.

“We have some pretty high-profile customers here, big businesses, and they like the fact that they can come in and talk to the guy that owns the business, who manufactures the parts, who has hands-on control over everything,” says Steven. “They know that they can come to the door and meet us and check what’s happening with their job. Everything’s above board, there’s no pushing stuff under the rug and [saying] ‘We’ll start it next week.’ They can see it for themselves!”