Automotive parts manufacturers in Australia are finding new avenues to keep their once booming businesses afloat as the nation’s car industry grinds to a halt.

South Australian-based car battery handle supplier Rope & Plastic Group had a successful business in Australia and the United States before the automotive industry’s decline. However, the company has now begun manufacturing clotheslines. According to owner John Sutton the transition was an obvious choice.

“We were supplying car battery company Exide with handles, cases and lids, so it was a very lucrative business,” he explained. “In the meantime about five or six years beforehand we got involved with a company called Mrs Peggs Clotheslines, and started to manufacture, warehouse and distribute clotheslines in China.

“About the same time that Exide decided to close down their manufacturing operations, Mrs Peggs came to us and said they were going to take back the business and run it themselves. We had a double whammy.”

With the automotive industry offering no real future, Sutton decided to draw on the company’s experience in clothesline manufacturing to design and manufacture his own washing line. The venture was assisted by a $200,000 grant through the SA Government’s Automotive Supplier Diversification Program, which provides assistance to automotive supply chain companies effected by the impending closure of Holden’s car manufacturing facility in the state’s north.

The ‘Ecodry’ clothesline is designed to cater for the aged care and disability sectors and people living in small apartments. The clotheslines are manufactured and assembled in South Australia. The company produced 1,000 units in its first production run, and has its sights set on an international market.

SMR makes medical intervention

SMR Automotive is one of the largest manufacturers of passenger car rearview mirrors in the world, with 24% of the global market share in production of exterior mirrors for light vehicles. It is also a leading expert in camera-based sensing systems. However, the decline of car manufacturing prompted the company to seek opportunities in the medical device industry.

Through SMR Technologies, it has formed a collaboration with the University of South Australia (UoSA)’s Future Industries Institute to develop non-invasive diagnostic tests for bladder cancer in Adelaide. The sensors are set to simplify testing for bladder cancer recurrence, replacing the need to run tubes through the urethra to the bladder with a urine test. It is now being scaled up in a $9.2m project and will be trialled on 1,000 patients at Flinders Medical Centre to further test its commercial potential.

An SMR spokesman says the company is interested in exploring opportunities in the area of cancer research: “Cancer is a global issue and we hope that these sensors will play a key role in the fight against the deadly disease.”

Vineyard lifeline for Conma Industries

Conma Industries made components for the car industry for 35 years, but now a collaboration with a vineyard supplies company is helping it stay in business. It began making parts used to repair metal vineyard trellis posts for another Adelaide company Ocvitti about six years ago. The products have enjoyed success in California following a ban on toxic wooden vineyard posts there in 2000.

However, the introduction in 2015 of Ocloc trellis posts and entire vineyard systems designed for Australian vineyards has seen business boom. Conma’s General Manager Richard Rebbeck expects vineyard products to soon become the largest part of the business. Although demand remains for aftermarket car components, the new car component side of the company is almost finished.

“It used to be the biggest part of our business but over time Mitsubishi closed and then Ford went last year and production is winding down at Toyota and Holden so it’s been drying up over a period of time,” says Rebbeck.

Conma has also diversified into other industries such as the manufacture of heat exchangers for air conditioning units and metal pressings for rural pipefittings.

“It’s always a challenge, you’ve just got to get out there and be known as a good supplier and innovative and people come and talk to you,” says Rebbeck. “The more these products get out in the field the more people see them and want them.”

In September the company received a $328,700 grant from the SA Automotive Supplier Diversification Program to progress its diversification into the wine sector. Conma will use the funding to help manufacture specialised tooling and modernise and expand machinery to develop additional products that will enhance the Ocloc steel trellis system range and support further growth in the horticultural market.

The company manufactured about 100,000 posts in the past year and will have the capacity to produce up to 250,000 posts next year. The posts can be used to replace broken treated pine posts, of which there are millions in Australia every year, or be used as a cheaper, more durable alternative to traditional toxic wooden posts in new vineyards.

Solar re-energises Precision Components

Previously heavily reliant on the automotive industry, Precision Components is seizing the opportunity to branch out into new fields, and recently partnered with the UoSA in a field trial to develop highly efficient solar energy heliostats. The partners will open the concentrated solar research field in Adelaide’s northern suburbs, and also look to develop a Wi-Fi-controlled system to manage heliostats remotely.

Heliostats concentrate sunlight onto a tower where, depending on the type of receiver, molten salt is heated to generate steam to power turbines and generate electricity, or sunlight is converted directly into electricity using a high-efficiency solar cell. The trial includes 25 heliostats each measuring 7.2sqm, and a 16m-tall concentrated solar photo-voltaic (PV) receiver, which can generate about 30 kW of electricity per hour. The tower at the trial site can be adapted to trial both direct PV and molten-salt technologies.

Tanya Monro, UoSA’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research and Innovation, says the field would enable a rapid cycle of testing and product development, building on existing technologies developed by the CSIRO at its test facility near Newcastle, New South Wales.

“It was estimated that 5GW of solar thermal power was installed worldwide in 2015 and it’s predicted to be 22GW by 2025 and the heliostats are an absolutely vital component of this,” adds Monro.

Last year Precision Components and Heliostat-SA, which share a factory, manufactured 150 heliostats for a solar project in Yokohama, Japan. Precision Components has also partnered with Bustech to form Precision Buses. That joint venture last year secured $2m in SA Government funding to manufacture advanced diesel and electric buses on the same site as the heliostat field.

“This is another significant step in the diversification strategy we implemented to safeguard the future of the business and to create employment opportunities for South Australians,” says Precision Components Director Mat Fitch.

SA Premier Jay Weatherill said the solar field pointed to a new manufacturing prospect for the state. “Out of the ashes of old manufacturing we’re seeing new manufacturing, new technologies but using those skills and knowhow we acquired during those years when we were working as part of the supply chain to support companies like Holden, Ford and Toyota. We’re imagining a new manufacturing future with projects like this. We’ve got abundant solar resources but for us to optimise the technologies associated with solar thermal will put us at the centre of that thinking around the world.”