Despite a few hard years and an ever-changing market, manufacturers in Queensland are still managing to thrive and grow their businesses. William Poole met up with three of them.

Kilner’s Engineering – Delivering quality

Once dominated by shipbuilding and associated industries, Bulimba – in Brisbane’s inner-eastern suburbs – has changed significantly over the years, to the point where today where most local manufacturers have moved on. The last in the area is Kilner’s Engineering, a fixture since 1974. Barney Kilner founded the business in the mid-1940s with his two brothers at Salisbury under the name ‘Kilner Brothers’.

In the early 1970s the brothers split the business and Barney’s son Geoff came on-board as the business moved to Bulimba. He is now stepping back and handing over to a third generation, with his sons Scott and Brad Kilner taking over the running of the business. Scott explains how Kilner’s has changed since the early days, when it was a full repetition workshop with punches, presses and furnaces producing items such as blades for the agricultural industry and truck components.

“We used to do that in a lot of volume,” he said. “I think we had ten milling machines set up with jigs, and it was continual production. But we’ve kept adopting new technologies, and as the agricultural industries got hit with droughts, and then tariffs changed in the mid-1980s, it reached a point where it was more economical to do jobbing work. So now we’re a full jobbing, contract-based business – no products.”

In making this shift, Kilner’s has also moved away from focusing on a small number of sectors, to the point where Scott says it would be misleading to cite any specific industry as a key market. The company’s customer list is extensive and ranges across architectural, construction, trucking and marine clients, to high-tech industries such as defence and medical.

“We also do integrated systems,” Scott adds. “We try to produce the finished product in house, looking after all of the cutting, fabrication, machining and assembly. A finished part, ready to go. That’s where we’re moving to, and we’ve been doing that for a number of customers for several years now.”

In servicing such a diverse client base, Kilner’s has differentiated itself by taking on challenging products and delivering to a high level of quality.

“Our customer base is moving towards the more complex and better-quality end of things,” says Brad. “They’re not hitting things with hammers, they’re expecting things to be folded perfectly the first time, not knocked into place. Near enough is not good enough. Which is why the diverse equipment we’ve got works so well, because we control the quality from raw material through to finished product.”

The combination of laser cutting, abrasive waterjet cutting, CNC machining, CNC mill-turn lathes, metal folding and fabrication equipment is unrivalled in Brisbane, and the ability to combine these with 3D Modelling and Design provides a true one-stop shop. The adoption of 3D modelling and design has pushed this forward further.

To meet the demands of the complex projects it engages in, Kilner’s maintains a highly skilled workforce. The company employs 14 staff, most with trade or university degrees and over 10 years’ experience. With its focus on investing in technology, delivering high-quality work and exceeding customer expectations, Kilner’s has maintained a steady flow of projects throughout the recent downturns in Queensland manufacturing.

Over the next 18 months Kilner’s is looking to relocate to larger premises somewhere nearby to allow for increased production and capacity. The additional floor space will help improve efficiency, and also provide operating room for a new 200-tonne, 4-metre LVD Press Brake, which has just been ordered.

Camtech Engineering – Moulding a niche

Based in Labrador on the Gold Coast, Camtech Engineering is gearing up to celebrate three decades in business. The company was established in March 1988, with six partners forming the core expertise. Camtech has flourished and 30 years later now has around 40 staff, and specialises in toolmaking and precision engineering. Camtech’s core business is in plastic packaging.

“We produce the metal moulds that your plastic items are formed in,” explains Managing Director Gary Roche. “We produce precision blow moulds, producing plastic bottles, precision injection moulds, producing everything from co-moulded baby’s teats to plastic crates. Our precision manufacturing and quality has produced items for the defense industry. We are the major manufacturer in the country of the moulds that produce your milk bottles and their caps and our years of experience in this field has us at the forefront of innovative design and manufacture.”

The plastics industry in Australia has struggled in recent years among growing competition from overseas. However, Camtech has carved out a niche for itself through its ability to take on higher-value work and through its investment in state-of-the-art technology.

“We have full five-axis machining capabilities on both mill and lathe, precision CNC cylindrical grinders, we literally do everything in house. We are toolmakers with NC machines that simply help with our precision and quality” says Roche.

That high level of capability also means Camtech is able to supplement its core market in plastics with work in other areas. This has included everything from gun-drilling to producing special curved doorframes for a shop fitting company.

“We honestly have the capability to do anything. We specialise in premium quality products. We believe that to support Australian manufacturing it should be Australian made.”

Camtech has managed to hold off the threat of competition from overseas so far, opportunities are emerging allowing them to diversify into other areas – the company has been doing work in press tools and customised engineering solutions. Meanwhile, changes in the Australian plastics industry have resulted in Camtech taking a much larger role as a provider of services to its clients, rather than just delivering a physical product.

“We provide a vast range of services to our clients” says Roche. “A lot of manufacturing companies have down sized their capabilities for leaner operation, meaning they no longer have the staff or resources to maintain their equipment. We travel to every state in Australia commissioning the equipment that we supply. A number of issues with installing new moulds in the machines, are to do with the lack of quality maintenance on the machines and they need recalibrating. We’re getting tied in more because of the technical support service that we provide.

“We find ourselves working more closely with our clients in the initial design stages of their products, because of our experience, knowledge and innovative approach to thinking outside the box.”

Mastercut Technologies – Overcoming crisis

Buying into a business can be nervewracking at the best of times, so doing so just before the biggest collapse in the global economy in decades must redefine the word ‘stressful’. Founded 28 years ago, Mastercut Technologies had been operating from its base in Burleigh Heads for around two decades when it caught the eye of Jim Cove and Bill Dennis, and the two men bought the company. And then the global financial crisis (GFC) hit.

“That was a baptism of fire,” recalls Dennis. “Many of our customers at that time decided it was too hard to manufacture in Australia, so we lost several major clients to overseas, which resulted in a significant reduction in turnover. Here we were, three months into ownership and suddenly wondering if there was any light on the other side.”

Inevitably, retrenchments had to be made, but Dennis and Cove nonetheless managed to tighten their belts and keep the venture afloat: “We made a point of maintaining profitability, albeit small initially, to make sure we remained financially in a good position moving forward.”

Today, Masterut has a turnover of about $2m annually, with around 11 employees. While the business initially established itself supplying acid-etching work for what was then quite a strong electronics industry in Australia, it has diversified considerably since, specialising within the twin fields of acid etching and laser cutting. The electronics sector remains important, but only accounts for about 25% of the business, with a broad church of clients encompassing jewellery at one end, up to large building facades at the other extreme. Mining, oil & gas are also significant clients, for which Mastercut produces a range of precision-cut stainless steel shims.

The company has built something of a reputation for itself throught its ability to assist clients with the development of a product, looking for better ways to make it.

“We’re a niche manufacturer, so we respond to our customers, typically business-to-business customers, coming to us with their projects and us helping them through,” says Dennis. “Just yesterday we had a visitor from Sydney University who came to us with a problem. We were able to have a good roundtable discussion and brainstorm a solution, and from that we were able to come up with a plan of attack and go forward.”

The company is exploring opportunities to expand overseas, particularly in North America, where its expertise in working with thin materials and various metals sets it apart from other etchers and laser cutters. Moreover, a recent grant from the Queensland State Government under its Made in Queensland program will see Mastercut expand into its capabilities via the acquisition of two new machines: a standard brake press purchased locally; and a desktop forming machine from Germany designed to do micro-forming.

“We want to be able to form the parts we manufature, which is invariably a downstream process not done by us,” Dennis explains. “We can now bring that in-house and provide customers with an end product that can go straight into their assembly line, rather than just a blank that they then have to send out again to have formed up.”

The new machines will also result in the equivalent of one and a half full-time jobs. Mastercut’s owners seem justifiably proud that the Made in Queensland grant will help their business to grow while also benefiting the state and its manufacturing industry.

“It’s no secret that manufacturing in Queensland is difficult,” Dennis concludes. “I feel proud that we’ve managed to maintain a manufacturing business, maintained solid employment. We’ve got long-term employees here, in fact most of our employees have been here longer than Jim and I, and developing the skills within the workforce has been important to us. I feel we’re lucky in that we’ve got quite a few good analytical brains so we can actually solve our problems before going outside for help. That’s been powerful for us.”