For any manufacturer, being “too busy” is always a good problem to have. And after more than four decades of growth, it’s a challenge TRJ Engineering has become adept at managing. By William Poole.

When you walk around TRJ Engineering’s premises in Hallam, it seems to epitomise the modern, efficient manufacturing operation. The large, open workshop is organised into clearly defined areas according to products and processes, organised along rational, coherent lines for maximum efficiency. Management and administration are housed in a separated building, connected to the factory by a footbridge that provides a comprehensive view out across the entire shopfloor. It’s an impressive set-up. But it wasn’t always like this.

Two years ago TRJ was based a couple of streets away, in three adjacent blocks on Apollo Drive. The business was doing well – indeed its occupation of multiple sites was indicative of its success. However, operating a growing manufacturing business spread across three separate workshops presented constant logistical challenges. David Murphy, TRJ’s owner and managing director, recalls the “lightbulb moment” when he realised things had to change.

“It was a Saturday morning, I was sitting out there with a coffee, watching three or four forklifts moving in and out of factories from site to site, like ballet. Something coming out of welding had to go back into the machine shop, two factories up the road. Sometimes we had to get a truck and put work on it and then follow the truck with a forklift to the other shop and pull it out. And I was thinking: how can we be efficient when we’re doing it this way? It doesn’t make sense.”

So in late 2016 TRJ moved again, just round the corner to Westpool Drive. At 3,800sqm, the new facility is 600sqm larger than the three old sites combined, with a purpose-built machining shop, eight dedicated general fabrication bays and six welding bays. The facility has gas lines plumbed in throughout, eliminating the need for gas bottles in the welding bays, and 16-ton and 10-ton cranes overhead, where previously TRJ only had five-tonners. Aside from the obvious benefits of not having forklifts and trucks running along the road between sites, the consolidation of the business under one roof has helped streamline communications and the overall management of operations.

Despite these upgrades, TRJ still seems like a business bursting at the seams. When AMT visits, a section of the front driveway is strewn with large, irregular structures made from COR-TEN steel – parts of a decorative wall the company is creating for the City of Casey – while every corner of the workplace is humming with activity. The increased capabilities and efficiencies resulting from the relocation have increased the company’s capacity to service the demands of its customers, and accordingly, those demands have increased.

“I think what we did is create a void,” says David. “I know when we first moved in here I though it was going to be quiet for some time, but now we’ve got to build 60 B-doubles between now and Christmas. That’s going to be a challenge.”

Of course, anyone in manufacturing will tell you too much demand is preferable to too little. For TRJ, a business that has maintained more or less consistent expansion over forty-plus years in business, it’s a problem they’re used to dealing with.

Ongoing expansion

David’s father Terry Murphy founded TRJ in 1974, operating from a small factory in Dandenong, south-east Melbourne. There were a couple of moves to larger premises in Keysborough as the business grew, before the relocation to nearby Hallam, and the first of the three sites on Apollo Drive. It was also around this time, the late 1990s, that David came onboard, eventually taking over from his dad in running the company.

“I never really wanted to come and work for the ‘old man’,” says David. “It was one of those things that just happened. He bought out his brother and then made the phone call to me. I was running a tool room in Keysborough at that stage. It wasn’t the same kind of work I was doing there, but it kind of just evolved into that.”

The company continued its steady growth, expanding to occupy the factories on either side, and then finally moving to Westpool Drive.

“We’ve gone from strength to strength,” says David. “When I started with Terry I think there were nine of us in total including myself and my father and the secretary – we used to park our cars in the factory because we had plenty of room. We currently employ 37 or 38. We increased our personnel pretty quickly.”

David describes TRJ as “general engineers in the broadest term”. The company works across areas ranging from the truck industry and earth-moving equipment, to street furniture and retail fittings, producing anything from small brackets to B-double truck chassis for refrigerated trucks. One current project involves the manufacture of caravan components in a collaboration with Hilton Manufacturing in Dandenong. Another contract is with the City of Perth, to produce street furniture. Vandal covers for earth-moving machinery are a big part of the business – David designed the company’s first set around 15 years ago and now TRJ produces between 20 and 30 units a month.

To meet the demands of such a diverse customer base, TRJ makes investment in the latest technology an ongoing priority. The company recently purchased several water-cooled inverter welders, and is looking into acquiring vertical storage units and possibly another crane. Also under consideration is an additional fibre laser, a machine that illustrates how technology has changed the way companies like TRJ work.

“We used to cut everything on the guillotine,” says Murphy. “And you look now and say ‘Gee it takes up a lot of floor space. Maybe we ought to get another laser cutter’. That’s where the business is evolving and changing. We were probably one of the first sheet metal or engineering companies that had our own laser cutter. That laser goes for eight or nine hours every single day of the week. It doesn’t stop.

“Where before we would guillotine something and bend it and then build up a welding jig and make it all fit around that jig, now we actually laser cut it with tabs and holes so they actually lock into each other and we don’t need a jig. We’re trying to think cleverer in regard to end use, how we’re putting them together, and improving our accuracy.”

This in turn highlights the attention TRJ pays to its processes. With support from the Federal Government’s Entrepreneurs’ Programme, the team has undergone a full internal course in Lean manufacturing, and Lean principles are implemented throughout TRJ’s operations. All jobs are processed through “first-in, first-out lanes”, where each task goes in one end and out the other within a 24-hour timeframe; and every Friday afternoon the whole workshop gets a thorough clean-up, regardless of any jobs going on at the time.

“Another goal we set was not to work Saturdays,” David adds. “That’s that balance between work and life, trying to stop people being here. We use Saturdays to fill in the gaps and try to get in front. We should not be doing that; we should be not be here on the weekend. We need to recharge. So that’s what we’re working on at the moment.”

Maintaining a happy, engaged workforce is evidently a key goal. A team meeting is held once a month with all staff encouraged to air any ideas or concerns. There’s also a suggestion box where anyone can offer potential ways to improve operations. Meanwhile, a shared passion for cars helps to unite the team at TRJ.

“We’re all car-mad here,” says David. “One of the boys has a couple of Mustangs; a couple of them are building hotrods. I’ve just finished building a 1932 Roadster, which has been pretty successful and won a few awards. Then we’ve got the four-wheel drive guys as well. Having that common interest does make a difference, that common thread through the place.”

Meeting client needs

David attributes TRJ’s steady flow of work to the strong client base it has built over the years, which means it doesn’t really have to go looking for jobs. That customer loyalty stems from the company’s willingness to take on any job, no matter how challenging, though David concedes this can also be their downfall: “I often say ‘If it’s made out of steel or aluminium or stainless steel, we can make it’. And sometimes we end up making the projects no-one else wants to make, so it causes some grief .”

The team prides itself on being able to solve its customers’ problems: talking through an issue, working out the specific requirements, and then being able to come forward with suggestions for alternative solutions.

“Having that really good relationship with all the clients we work with, we constantly try to look at something and say ‘We can make that better if we do it this way’,” David says. “And I think that’s the reason why we get a lot of our work, the fact we can help reduce some costs at their end.”

The move to a single site has probably come at just the right time for TRJ, with the company entering a particularly busy spell: “We’re going through a bit of a growth phase again at the moment. When we moved in here we said ‘Look how much room we’ve got’, but that soon got swallowed up pretty quickly.”

TRJ’s hectic workload reflects a fast-improving outlook that David is seeing across manufacturing in Australia at the moment. And while that growing demand inevitably presents some challenges, his team at TRJ are more than ready to take them on.

“Everyone is busy. It’s busy everywhere at the moment, even with our sub-contractors that we send work out to, they’re under pressure as well at the moment. Delivery times get longer, which is no good for anyone. It does have its challenges. But we’re trying to deal with it. We try to work a bit smarter and bit more efficiently to keep everyone happy.”