The recently announced Boxer Combat Renaissance Vehicles project represents a step into defence and a new chapter for the constantly-evolving Global Manufacturing Group. By Brent Balinski.

Metal manufacturing business Global Manufacturing Group (GMG) has a reasonably well-defined patch, but the reality is that its work ends up all over Australia.

“We don’t really do much in Brisbane – we leave those guys to look out for themselves,” explains Phil Dowling, Director and one of three owners at GMG. “Anything above Noosa to Rockhampton and west is our catchment. Though we deal with some national clients and some of the things we do for them could end up anywhere, west Australia or Victoria, or New South Wales, we’re not always quite sure where our stuff is going at the time. A truck turns up and takes it away, you know?”

As with the location of its customers, the sector these belong to is subject to revision. What started in rail now takes in oil & gas, mining, medical, defence, and more.

“We draw a pretty long bow,” Dowling says of the industries the company currently serves. “We’re a fully turnkey operation. So if you come to us and say ‘Listen, we want 35 of these’, when we pack them on the truck, they can be fully assembled, fully painted, fully finished.”

The company began in 1982, and Dowling started work as a business development consultant in 2002. After the founder wanted out, Dowling and two others bought GMG in May 2005. Under the trio’s leadership, sales grew from $12,000 a day to around $72,000 at their peak during the LNG boom, and the company opened a second site in Gladstone.

Along the way, GMG has remained committed to improving its facilities, staff and management, and to applying these to whatever challenges it makes sense to. The domain expertise under the two roofs includes programming, welding and fabrication, blasting and painting, cutting and machining, and marine services.

Being flexible

“What Australian industry is really good at is small runs, and to stay competitive, you gotta do it quick and smarter and sharper,” says Dowling.

Being quick and smart underpins GMG’s success. As with many an engineering house, it’s able to smartly juggle a number of projects, and to commit itself to many different kinds of projects.

“Work in Gladstone has quietened down, it’s a bit of a quiet town since the the gas boom finished, but there’s been a bit of infrastructure spend up there with the Boyne smelters – a lot of upgrades and stuff there, which is great,” says Dowling. “The coal mines have started to spend a bit of money again. So there’s little bit of wash through there. Also, in the alumina refinery area there’s a bit of money being spent upgrading and fine-tuning some of that. So there’s a bit of a groundswell there, where nobody had spent any money there for a little while.”

The Gladstone branch includes GMG’s marine services division, which has completed projects for CSIRO, making and installing a davit for plankton recovery, and Queensland Alumina, cleaning the ship’s hold back to food-grade standard after removing waste.

“The division revolves around the really big ships… If one of those big ships comes in for something serious, we could have 20 or 30 blokes on that, on a rotating 12-hour shift,” Dowling adds, highlighting the company’s ability to turn on a dime as jobs come in.

GMG was built on supplying railway car parts for Downer EDI and Bombardier; work that continues to this day from the state’s rail manufacturing hotspot of Maryborough. Recent diversification has seen the company branch into a joint venture with Auxilium Systems to make light towers for mining. GMG has also produced aftermarket parts for converting American pick-up trucks, and this has expanded five-fold over the last three years, according to the company.

The quest for greater levels of flexibility has also encouraged GMG to collaborate more with local manufacturers.

“We got overloaded a little bit late last year,” explains Dowling. “So we just rang around to a few of the blokes we know in Queensland and said ‘Listen, I got this spare capacity’, and we eventually found a bloke. He was absolutely delighted to do the work.

“That works vice versa for us. If anyone has a breakdown, they call a bloke and say ‘Can you cover us, so that we don’t charge them like a wounded bull?’ We just work with them because we know someone’s going to have to return the favor one day. So there’s that sort of collaboration on capability and capacity.”

Building capability

The company’s latest major new capital investment, a Mazak Smooth VTC machining centre, also included a major software upgrade and staff training from Mazak. Training was given to all workers, from apprentice fitter and turners to leading hands and team leaders. The machine has proved to be a ‘sweetheart’ for fitter and turners, and further assisted to adapt quickly to the short-run jobs Australian customers generally need completed. Dowling estimates it’s brought a 50% lift in productivity for such jobs.

“It’s not as if we’re making the same widget day after day after day,” he adds. “We’ve got to think how we’re going to do this as smart as we possibly can to be competitive on those sorts of small runs.”

In-house skills programs – including apprenticeships, traineeships and cross-training staff – have been invaluable. Employees are shared across the two centres to broaden their expertise.

“If we see an opportunity where it’s going to benefit not only the individual but the company as a whole, then we take it,” says Dowling. “And I think when you do training like that, people have a tendency to want to stay with you, because they’re comfortable in working in that environment and they know their skills sets are increasing.”

GMG has been on its Lean journey since 2005. The company recently shut its factory down for the day and staff were given a Lean refresher course. It has also had a team from Germany’s Rheinmetall visit and inspect the factory for three days.

“They said ‘Look, we’re very impressed. The system is sort of in parallel with the ways we do business. And while we’re here, we’d just like to sign off on a memorandum of understanding for being a supplier’,” recalls Dowling. “We were a little bit surprised that we checked all their boxes,’ and they were incredibly thorough, I tell you!”

Cracking the defence market

GMG was selected as a teaming partner with Rheinmetall, which bidded successfully to build 211 Boxer Combat Renaissance Vehicles for Phase 2 of the Department of Defence’s LAND 400 program. The $5bn project includes roughly two-thirds Australian industry content, and the first 25 vehicles will be made in Germany before production moves to the Military Vehicle Centre of Excellence (MILVEHCOE) at Redbank Industrial Estate.

GMG had previously ‘dipped a toe’ in defence, but had never gained much traction. Being a part of LAND 400 was a three-year effort, and required a sustained commitment to sell GMGs and the state’s capability at seminars and other events.

“It’s probably a bit like Victoria and New South Wales and the regions: no one thinks anything happens, whereas Maryborough specifically is an old engineering town from the turn of the century,” says Dowling.

Asked what GMG will contribute to the Rheinmetall-led project, Dowling says the answer can only be a broad one, and involves components and assemblies that will bolt onto the Boxer. The project has thrown up interesting challenges, such as German paint specifications, drawings in German, and steel specs that Dowling describes as ‘pretty interesting’.

Collaboration so far has been relatively smooth, according to Dowling, who praises the Germans’ language skills and thoroughness. The lag of eight hours is tolerable, and online collaboration has been simple enough. Dowling expects that GMG will establish a specialist defence team shortly, and adds that there may be opportunities to participate with R&D with Rheinmetall in future.

The capital upgrades attached to serving LAND 400 were not massive, though according to Dowling it would represent a small shift in investments in the next six months “just to put us on the leading edge”.

“Rheinmetall will be part of that, with more sophistication with their activities,” he adds. “But the spinoff will benefit all our clients and the industry in general in Queensland.”