In 20 years of operation, Mincham Aviation has faced some challenging times, but now its hard-earned reputation for quality and innovation is starting to pay off with clients worldwide. By William Poole.

There’s been plenty of gloomy news surrounding Australian manufacturing in recent years, but we saw a welcome bright spot last August, an Adelaide-based firm won a supplier contract with Northrop Grumman. Mincham Aviation will manufacture aircraft structure components for the first low-rate production lot of the US Navy’s MQ-4C Triton unmanned aircraft vehicle (UAV).

The contract is recognition of a company that over two decades has established itself as a specialist supplier to the aerospace and defence sectors, held in high regard both nationally and globally. However, the company has faced its share of setbacks in that time. As Managing Director and founder Darryl Mincham jokes: “There’s a saying in aviation. How do you make a small fortune in aviation? Start with a large one.”

Darryl spent 10 years in the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) as an aircraft maintenance engineer, where he built up a wealth of experience across aerospace design and manufacturing. On leaving the RAAF in 1996, he set up his business and began picking up work fast.

“I was working 18-20 hours a day, six days a week,” he recalls. “We started in a small, backyard facility, and after about 18 months we had large parts coming out of the driveway.”

By 2000 Mincham had moved to its current headquarters at Parafield Airport, in Adelaide’s northern suburbs. Expansion continued, and around 2009 it became necessary to acquire a second facility, about twice the size of the Parafield site, in nearby Edinburgh Parks. However, when the global financial crisis (GFC) hit, the company saw four major contracts cancelled. The workforce was cut by half, and the Edinburgh Parks facility was mothballed, today semi-leased while also serving as warehousing for Mincham.

“We had to restructure the company,” says Darryl. “But now we’re starting to get going again on a few projects. We’re pretty well back to pre-GFC days.”

Today Mincham employs around 15-20 staff, with annual sales of between $1m and $2m. The company is primarily a Tier Two/Tier Three supplier to the major defence Primes, and a Tier One to the Australian Defence Force (ADF).

Darryl is philosophical about the setbacks his company faced with the GFC. “We probably lost six or seven years of business, but so did the rest of the world, and there’s a lot of people who aren’t here now. You can’t go backwards, you have to swallow it and move on, and learn from those lessons and look at how you can better mitigate the risks moving forward to build a successful business model.”

Shifting strategy

“For us it’s not about becoming the biggest company in the world,” says Darryl. “I have no aspirations to be a 2,000-employee company. But if the work we develop here employs 2,000 people, I’ll be happy. We aim to build good strategic partnerships where we can and be part of many large projects that employ lots of people. It’s all about building national growth; we can do it.”

In the wake of the GFC, Mincham set about overhauling its business model. Primarily service-based for its first 10-15 years, the company elected to invest in developing its own products, giving it greater control over its own destiny. Its products and developments have encompassed everything from UAV technology to composite rocket components, payload delivery systems to ballistics products.

One example is a lightweight pannier system that Mincham manufactured, about the size of a small car and able to carry more than a tonne of equipment, taken up by the Australian, Norwegian and Canadian air forces. Another interesting project resulted in the world’s first recoil-absorbing suppressor for a rifle – produced by Spectre-Mincham in 16 weeks, the prototype has exceeded all expectations and the finished product will be on the market in the near future.

The company has been working in the UAV field since the late 1990s, when it produced a geo-research craft equipped with a magnetometer that could be towed behind an aeroplane at low altitude and detect mineral resources in the Earth’s crust, enabling mining companies to do about 12 months geo-survey work in a week. The structure needed to be entirely non-metallic, a challenge that Mincham overcame using composites, an area in which it continues to specialise.

Meanwhile, the company’s contract work covers an array of high-profile defence and aerospace projects. Along with the Triton, the company supplies parts for the Chinook helicopter for Boeing, and most of the fairings on the P3 Orion maritime surveillance aircraft. Mincham also designs and manufactures aero-medical equipment for the Royal Flying Doctors such as lifting systems, specialised stretchers, restraint systems and cabinet systems.

“We eventually want to be a 50-50 sort of company – 50% our own product and 50% service-based,” says Darryl. “That service base also gets split up into national work, and global supply chain work. Things like the Triton, the Chinook helicopter program and a few other little programs we’re playing with at the moment.”

Aerospace is the company’s primary market, accounting for around 80% of its work. Within that segment, defence and civil aviation respectively represent about 60% and 40%, though the ratio can fluctuate. However, the company isn’t entirely restricted to things that take off and fly. It makes lightweight lifting systems for the Army, and composite launch tubes for submarines, just to mention a few. It has also produced automotive components, and even built solar cars.

To cover so many areas, Mincham boasts a significant range of capabilities, with engineering design, sheet-metal fabrication and machining processes complemented by welding, heat treatment and painting. The company’s ability to work both with metals and advanced composites – its workshop includes an autoclave and two curing ovens –gives it a further advantage over its competitors

“Well, an aircraft is made out of all structures,” says Darryl. “Anything to do with structures, that’s our specialism. It’s good because it gives us the skillsets to understand how to combine domains like sheet metal and composite.”

Darryl explains how the company’s capabilities have evolved since 1996: “Around the ten-year mark we realised we had full MRO (maintenance, repair operations) through-life support capability. Then in the early 2000s we got prototype manufacturing up – we built up that capability. Then we built up the capability of full component fleet upgrades, low-rate production. And then we went to global supply chain low-medium rate production. As we’ve built these capabilities we’ve had to invest in government programs and high-end accreditations and the like.”

To bolster its own in-house capability, Mincham is smart in the way it collaborates with external partners. The MALIN (Mincham Aviation Laterally Integrated Network) is a group of about ten companies through which Mincham can outsource work, increasing the manpower and equipment available while mitigating risk. The company is also active in industry bodies such as the Defence Teaming Centre (DTC), and initiatives such as the Australian Aerospace Alliance and the Australian Technology Innovation Alliance.

“We’re currently working with partners out of Tasmania, New South Wales, Victoria…” says Darryl. “Because at the end of the day, the rest of the world when they talk about global supply chains, they don’t care what state you come from. All they want to know is you’re from Australia. If we’re going to be successful globally, we need to be thinking globally.”

Problem solvers

The diversity of Mincham’s work and the sheer variety of its capabilities reflect an overall ethos at the company that prioritises solving problems for its clients, rather than letting any particular process dictate what it can or cannot do. Darryl cites an example involving specialised antenna systems that it makes for the Australian Navy’s Sea Hawk helicopters.

“These antennae have what’s called a rotor-wash issue – erosion from rotor wash,” he says. “So we had to use a specialised paint system from the US, and when we got the paint, we found out it needed a specialised gun and the suppliers in the States couldn’t supply one. The Navy needed the systems badly, so we went away and designed and built our own spray gun to do the job. And now we hold Australia’s indigenous capability for that particular paint system.”

Not surprisingly, Mincham places a strong emphasis on skills, and this covers not only the latest state-of-the-art technology, but also more old-fashioned techniques. Alongside all the cutting-edge CNC machining and fabrication equipment in its workshop is a decades-old English wheel. Moreover, when the company has a major project, it will actually seek out industry veterans to bring in as mentors – even bringing them out of retirement. Darryl believes the loss of key skills is the biggest challenge facing Australian manufacturing.

“It’s been neglected,” he says. “I won’t say we’ve dumbed it down, but we’re almost down to that critical point with skillsets, where if we lose any more, it’s going to be almost a 20-year cycle to rebuild those skills. What we’ve seen over the last 20 years is a lot of the really smart mentors are now grey-beards who are entering their early sixties. And we’ve been negligent in passing those skill sets on. We’ve been way too risk-adverse. And now we’re looking at the rest of the world: we used to be one of the most innovative nations on the planet, and now we’re round 15th, 16th? We need to be in the top ten.”

Despite these challenges, Mincham is looking to the future. Within aerospace and defence, there are new projects in the pipeline, including intriguing plans to move into the field of electro-magnetic pulse (EMP) weaponry. In addition, the company is looking at other sectors to branch into, with its experience working with the Flying Doctors setting up a likely move into the medical space.

“What’s the secret for surviving in our industry?” says Darryl. “Diversification, and being able to have a business model where you can control your own destiny. That’s essential. That’s one of the lessons we’ve learnt. We’ve had a couple of hard cycles like the GFC, and it’s a risky industry we play in. We do a lot of R&D work where you’re pushing frontiers, which keeps the interest up for the boys.

“One thing we love is being told something can’t be done. That’s like a red rag to a bull. We enjoy that.”