A disastrous fire could have spelled the end for Australian gearbox manufacturer Digga. Instead, thanks to good management and a shrewd investment in Bystronic laser cutters and press brakes, the firm has gone from strength to strength. By Garry Barker.

Like a phoenix risen from the ashes, Digga, an Australian company renowned worldwide for their high-precision manufacturing of planetary gearboxes and many other engineering components, not only survived a disastrous fire in its factory, but, with the co-operation of Bystronic, used the recovery from the blaze to boost productivity, production and sales.

Digga’s origins are unusual. Founder and principal owner Stewart Wright began in 1981, living in a trailer park in Brisbane, selling wear parts for big augers for the construction industry, contacting customers on the park’s public telephone box.

“He is a very clever man, full of ideas,” says Marketing Manager Lionel Smitka. “Most of our success is due to him and his vision.”

Customers began asking him to handle repairs and provide equipment, so he began making augers, then drive units to power them, then attachments for loaders.Today it makes more than 70 different types.

“We got into planetary gearboxes in 1984, buying in gearsets. But supply was a problem; wait times were up to eight weeks. So we set up to make our own and still do. Gearboxes are our mainstay. We are renowned for them and their quality. We have supplied thousands to a very large US organisation and many other users worldwide. Most gearboxes of this kind carry a one-year warranty. Ours is five years. Some have never been serviced and are still running after ten years.”

The company is also unusual in its industry in having a woman as its Managing Director and Chief Executive. Suzie Wright has been in the post since 2004, during which time Digga has grown into an internationally significant company.

The fire on 2 March 2016 destroyed or terminally damaged every machine in the company’s main factory at Yatala, 40km south of Brisbane, and gutted the entire 12,500sqm facility. Concrete walls survived, though they were covered in toxic soot from burned tires, solvents and paint; everything else was a ruin.

“Other owners might have grabbed the insurance money and closed down,” says Smitka. “Ours supported our recovery.”

“The fire has literally breathed new life into Digga,” adds Wright. “We were being forced to look to outsourcing some manufacturing offshore due to the heavy cost of new machinery investment and rising labor costs.”

However, the rejuvenation of the factory, the surge of loyalty and energy in the workforce as every aspect of production was renewed and reorganised, changed everything, she says.

No orders lost

Within a week of the fire, Digga was back in limited production in rented premises and cutting steel, painting and powder-coating at five contractor sites around Brisbane.

“We moved some of our export production to our facilities in the USA and the UK,” says Production Manager Peter Moody. “It was a really big challenge, but we never lost an order and every order was delivered on time.”

Another critical factor was the response from the workforce on the factory floor. Led by Moody they worked very long hours, recovering production and maintaining quality at remarkable speed.

“And we are continuing to reduce set-up and processing times, which in turn reduces costs and allows us to stay highly competitive in both local and export markets,” Wright says.

Meanwhile, supported by their insurers in the multimilliondollar cleanup, Digga’s management decided to replace every machine.

“Gear cutters, welders, press brakes, laser cutters – the lot,” says Smitka. “And that’s how we came to know and appreciate Bystronic.”

New, world-class machines

Competition from low-cost competitors in China, India, Vietnam and Thailand has sent many Australian manufacturers to the wall. Ford, General Motors Holden and Toyota have closed their Australian plants, costing 50,000 jobs directly and indirectly at hundreds of local component and accessory makers and suppliers.

In this gloom, Digga is a shining light. By investing in the world’s best equipment – in Digga’s case Bystronic’s laser cutters and press brakes – and by clever management it is competitive on price and ahead on quality and productivity. Digga pays close attention to precision, clever design, streamlined work practices and workforce morale.

“The way our people responded to the huge job of recovery was terrific,” says Moody. “The immediate aftermath was logistically a nightmare: using five different facilities and getting everything back to a central point to maintain customer service. But now we have new, world-class machines and a whole new way of working – more efficiency, less wasted time and a logical workflow.

“With the three new Bystronic machines (and other new equipment) we now have a world-class manufacturing set-up. Labour is expensive in Australia so we run a lean shop. There’s more still to do but our procedures and efficiencies are now really good.”

Operators were moved to take better advantage of their individual skills and, at the core, the new, faster and more efficient Bystronic machines.

“We chose the Bystronic BySprint Fiber 6-kilowatt fiber laser, and two press brakes, the Bystronic Xact Smart 160 tons and the Bystronic Xpert 320 tons,” Moody adds. “They are the world’s best, with the most up-to-date technology, easy to operate, producing quality products with great accuracy. With the use of BySoft 7, we have integrated our engineering department and production. We do a lot of machinery attachments and loaders. Material ranges from 1.6mm up to 20mm. By using BySoft 7, engineering now can profit from the advantages of easy design and cost-effective manufacturing.”

Xtremely accurate press brakes

Digga now has two press brakes in a line extending from the big BySprint Fiber 6-kilowatt fiber laser, all linked by the BySoft 7 program, which tells the press brakes what needs to be done with components as they come from the laser cutter. Both press brakes and the BySprint Fiber are controlled through the user-friendly ByVision graphical user interface.

“Our benefits from having this flexible high-performance controller are the tools for troubleshooting and maintenance information,” says Production Manager Peter Moody. “It provides ease of use for lower-skilled operators and adds additional skills to our staff. Hence, we can teach our staff more easily on both technologies, bending and laser cutting, because the ByVision controller works with nearly the same kind of graphical symbols for bending and laser cutting.”

The smaller of the two press brakes, the Xact Smart 160 tons, has the ability to process simple parts with complex angles. Moody explains: “That allows flexibility and fast job changes, delivering accurate bends. The Xact Smart is used for all our subcomponents on both low- and high-volume production runs.”

The Xpert 320 tons is the most advanced machine of its type in the world, and the one at Digga is among the first to be installed in the Southern Hemisphere.

“Its advanced features, such as its independent six-axis back gauge, dynamic hydraulic crowning, intelligent safety system, and optical bend guiding system, were crucial in our choice of Bystronic as our preferred supplier,” says Moody. “The advanced control system monitors side frame deflection and system temperatures allowing automatic compensation during each bend. The comprehensive database of bend allowances, tooling shapes and material types allows for quick and precise bends with extremely high repetition accuracy.”

Tough equipment for tough conditions

Today, Digga has a worldwide reputation and a multimillion-dollar international market. The company employs 200 people around the world, with subsidiary manufacturing facilities in Melbourne, Sydney and New Zealand, the USA and the UK.

“The biggest advantage we have is that Australians are so hard on their gear,” says Smitka. “Our equipment will stand up to the demands of Australian users and withstand Australia’s harsh conditions, so it will stand up to conditions anywhere in the world.”

The last word comes from Moody, the man at the sharp end of Digga’s production: “Manufacturing in Australia is tough, but if you run your operation efficiently and optimise the machinery and the hours you have, you can be competitive worldwide. We buy good tools. That’s why we went for Bystronic. They are the world leaders in laser cutting and bending and that fitted the Digga way.”