This year sees Elmass (Australia) celebrating 20 years in business, but the company, based in Brendale, Queensland, had an unusual start. The idea to commence a specialised contract broaching service was first hatched at Queensland University of Technology (QUT)’s Graduate School of Business.

Elmass founder Martin Forrer had to write a business plan for his final MBA capstone unit. He needed to find a market niche and formulate a business strategy, defining the resources, the nature of the business, as well as financial and organisational matters. Having studied engineering in Germany, it goes without saying the business plan was written for a company that matched Martin’s technical background.

Martin understood that to be successful, a balance had to be found between financial, competitive and human resources aspects of the business. Research had shown that a contract broaching service could be successful if the elmass technology, a highly efficient broaching process hardly known in Australia, was used. After graduating, Forrer took the business plan to local banks, but s the concept was ahead of its time, no bank was prepared to  finance the start up.

Determined to establish his contract broaching service, Martin contacted Elmass Schaffhausen, a leading Swiss manufacturer of broaching machines, and sent them the plan. The Swiss company agreed to a substantial investment in Queensland to introduce its technology in Australia and to expand its worldwide market. And so on 10 September 1998, Elmass (Australia) was founded as a joint venture, with Martin as local partner to Elmass Schaffhausen. Martin was invited to Elmass Switzerland for training on the products and their extensive maintenance procedures, and to learn about the new AFX machine series.

Back in Australia, implementation commenced of the structures and procedures to meet ISO 9002 quality standards. Equipped with only a few hand tools and a small mill/drill, Martin started a manual contract broaching service in Brendale. The initial phase was used to introduce the technology to potential clients and to quickly build a customer base. Three months later the first NC-controlled broaching machine, the P4-500 AFX, was delivered to the workshop at Kenworth Place. It was the first Elmass machine installed in Australia and only the ninth machine of its type worldwide.

Elmass initially targeted the low to medium volume market for internal keyways only. This allowed Martin to introduce the technology to local engineering companies and demonstrate its superiority. The company enjoyed the full backup from Switzerland, with head office providing custom-made tools and other services quickly to meet evergrowing local demand.

Soon Elmass was asked to make its first splines. A dividing table and suitable tools were organised and the company started to broach splines, hexagons, grease grooves and many customer-specific shapes. Demand for splines and hexagons was growing very fast, so Elmass invested in CAD programs and started to design and manufacture special tools locally. This eliminated the usual two-to-four-week delivery time and enabled the company to be ready for production in less than 48 hours, if the tools were not already on hand.

In 2002, Walter Bührer, Elmass Schaffhausen CEO and inventor of the elmass system, retired and sold the company. The worldwide manufacturing rights, patents and brandname were purchased by Verlie Group, a medium-sized, family-owned manufacturer of special-purpose machines, for which broaching was a welcome diversification. A new head office, Elmass Production, was created in Halle, Belgium, while Martin was offered a management buy-out for the Australian business.

Local demand for Elmass’ services grew continuously, causing some production issues, so the company relocated to its current address in Moonbi Street, Brendale. With just one machine to meet all the deadlines, Martin’s wife Vreni and daughters Sandy and Denise came onboard for a flexible afternoon shift producing keyways and splines. A Jones and Shipman surface grinder was installed to resharpen the cutters or to grind them to customer requirements. In 2005 capacity doubled with the acquisition of a second broaching machine. The P20-250NC machine was smaller, but still capable of broaching about 80% of the parts usually machined. However, it could also be upgraded with a third axis to broach splines automatically.

In March 2006 Elmass employed its first school-based apprentice. Sean learned quickly, was reliable and could soon work unsupervised to a high standard. When Sandy and Denise had to leave later that year, Sean was employed full-time.

To continue to grow and to apply best practices, Elmass participated in a Micro Business Review (MBR) delivered by QMI Solutions and the Queensland Government on behalf of the Probe Partnership. The MBR saw the company graded a ‘World-Class Rated Business’ – well above overall and industry sector averages. It also provided Elmass with valuable information on how to improve and grow. In response the company worked out a 12-month action plan that has shown good results. Elmass further automated processes and reduced overheads, with the efficiency gains passed on to the customers, avoiding any need for a price increase. To be even more efficient, Elmass also ordered a NC-controlled turntable for the P20-250.

In early 2008 Sean left to continue an apprenticeship as a fitter and turner. Soon after, Jesse commenced a two-year apprenticeship. Like Sean before him, he also learned fast, even running the workshop on his own for four weeks while Martin was in hospital.

To mark its ten-year anniversary, Elmass customers nominated the company for the Business Achiever Award 2008, in the category “Made in Pine Rivers” – an award Elmass went on to win against several well-known companies.

Managing changing conditions

In 2009 Elmass received a large order to broach 66,000 parts with indexed keyways. Amid this unprecedented demand, Elmass was hit with a temporary staff shortage. However, assistance came from longtime customer G&O Kert, whose third-year apprentice Ryan Beck came on board to help out. With Ryan’s assistance Elmass managed to clear their backlog and were able to deliver the keyways on time. In exchange Ryan was trained in all aspects of broaching, helping him complete the Unit of Competency in Broaching.

In late 2010 an order to broach 800,000 indexed keyways within 18 months was received. Elmass was able to bring Sean back and he was trained to be their leading hand. The large volume also demanded two new three-axis broaching machines. Martin went to the factory in Belgium to discuss suitable machines that could expand the business’s capabilities after the contract was completed. To stay ahead of competitors the decision was made to purchase a P36-700 NC, one of the largest three-axis broaching machines ever delivered to Australia.

Shortly after his return, an accident meant Martin couldn’t work for four months. Sean stepped in and managed the company as if it was his own. He expanded the workforce with two new apprentices to manage the increased workload. Both apprentices were trained on the P20, which was very similar to the new machines, meaning they were ready to operate them once they arrived.

Lots of planning and preparation was required before the new machines arrived. The workshop had to be reorganised to make room, with electrical wiring upgraded to pull twice as much current. Storage facilities had to be increased to hold sufficient parts for about two weeks of mass production, with loading stations built for both new machines to optimise floor usage and production.

The first machine, a slightly modified P10-250 NC, can reach speeds of up to 30m/min, and is designed to broach keyways or splines up to 10mm wide and 200mm long. The P36-700 NC featured several significant modifications, including a rotating platform that carried four stacks of parts, a second NC-controlled broaching head, and hardware and software modifications that allow the cutters and toolbars to be cleaned after every cycle. A frequency inverter was added to the hydraulic pump, increasing the speed of the return stroke and cutting dead time by about 20%.

Sean was given the opportunity to commission the second machine in the Elmass factory in Belgium. He was given detailed machine specifications and instructed to test every function, verifying that the machine could meet the defined hourly production rate under actual production conditions. For these tests, 1,800 parts were shipped to the Belgium factory. Sean recommended some minor changes to the system that proved beneficial to both the commissioned machine and for future product improvements. With the recommendations implemented, the machine has exceeded specified production rates.

Once both machines were installed and all processes were optimised, Elmass could produce 60,000 indexed keyways per month.

With the GFC, large volume orders fell away, and Elmass sadly had no other option than to reduce the workforce. A new business strategy was created. To expand capabilities and offer a unique service, Elmass converted the P36-700 NC machine into a standard broaching machine, allowing it to broach keyways up to 700mm long or splines, hexagons and other shapes up to 500mm long. Its size meant the P36-700 NC could also broach keyways or splines in blind holes in very long parts. The machine’s full frame height of 1,400mm can accommodate a combination of long parts and short toolbars to cut keyways or splines.

To differentiate from its competitors Elmass also introduced an at-call broaching service, which is highly appreciated in breakdown situations where a keyway or spline is needed as soon as possible to minimise production losses in plants. Customers can call and reserve a machine for a specific time, and are asked to email detailed drawings to reduce production time. These are used to set up the machine while the part is in transit to Elmass. On arrival it goes directly into the machine; the customer can wait in the coffee shop next door, then take the completed part back.

Developing young talent

Since its beginnings, Elmass has maintained a good relationship with QUT, as well as several other universities. Students at these universities have formed teams that design and build Formula SAE racing cars, and compete at international student racing events. These students often ask for advice in relations to splines. Elmass sponsors these teams by broaching their keyways and splines free of charge.

As a result Elmass has attracted interest from final-semester students, with many applying for work experience with the company. Being an engineer himself, Martin was qualified to offer three of these students the industrial practice required to complete their engineering degrees. The students were involved in design work, and in practical work in the workshop. They gained hands-on experience in how to use measuring tools, mark parts, grind cutters, determine material characteristics using simple methods such as the colour of sparks, and to program and operate broaching machines.

The students were also invited to participate in discussions Martin had with his customers about new projects. During these discussions the students were encouraged to present their view how to solve some aspects of the tasks. This was a welcome opportunity for them to use their skills in the real world.

Meanwhile Elmass is looking forward to exploring new business opportunities and the chance to continue to build longtime, mutually beneficial business relations.