Based in Yennora, NSW, Lehane Centrifugal Clutches is a family business that specialises in the manufacture of industrial clutches. It recently upgraded its capacity with the acquisition of a Doosan HC500 horizontal machining centre from Hare & Forbes.

Lehane Centrifugal Clutches (Lehane CC) was founded in 1961, when Peter Lehane began operating a small manufacturing business out of his father’s backyard in Lidcombe, having completed an apprenticeship at de Havilland aircraft. He remains closely involved with the company, though these days he has largely handed the reins to his son, also called Peter, as he transitions into retirement. Peter Junior joined in 1985 and is now the company’s General Manager. A third generation of the family joined in 2015, when Peter Junior’s son Pierce came on board; he now works as the company’s CNC foreman.

In the early years, Peter Senior had picked up general engineering jobs, including quite a lot of work in automotive and motorsports. However, over time the business found its niche in the manufacture of high-quality industrial clutches.

“First of all we started repairing clutches, and then we started improving them,” explains Peter Senior. “And later on from about 1980, we basically specialised in centrifugal clutches, and we’ve been doing it ever since.”

The clutches that Lehane CC makes are for stationary engines in a range of industrial applications, in sectors such as mining, construction and agriculture. One major client is a German manufacturer of construction machinery.

“We supply them with our clutches for their concrete trowelling machines and vibrating plates, which go all over the world,” says Peter Junior. “That’s a small clutch, 100mm in diameter. We also have a larger range, up to about 600mm in diameter, that will transmit 2,000 to 3,000 horsepower. Most of those we send to India, where they go onto large diesel engines, usually for blowing air into mines.”

One sector the company definitely does not engage with is the automotive industry. Peter Senior explains: “We stay right away from anything that are automotive-related – too many problems. Usually the car manufacturers know exactly what they want, but most of those people haven’t got much of an engineering background and there’s lots of problems. So therefore we stay right away.”

Instead the company has focused on excelling within its own specialist field, where it trades on a reputation for manufacturing products to a very high standard.

“We have got customers all around the world that we do send our clutches to,” says Peter Junior. “There’s plenty of clutch manufacturers who make big volumes of stuff, but we specialise in high-quality ones that last for a long time. We can’t compete against the Chinese ones and we don’t aim to, but people buy our clutches because the quality is a lot higher than what a Chinese clutch offers.”

Lehane CC’s products are manufactured almost entirely in-house, with only the bearings sourced externally. Components are largely machined either from billet steel or iron castings. The company has also recently gone back to using Australian-made castings.

“It’s the quality,” says Peter Senior. “We got sick of getting castings from China and they’d finally arrive and they’d have holes in them and the material wasn’t what you expected. So we get them here.”

“It makes it much easier,” adds Pierce. “You don’t go through anywhere near as many inserts in the machines and it makes it a lot easier to keep all your tolerances really close, because of the consistency of the materials.”

The company’s niche expertise is reinforced by its policy of not taking on any contract manufacturing work on the side, instead just concentrating on its own products. Peter Senior explains: “I learned a long time ago: make your own product. I used to do jobbing work, but in the end I thought all I’m doing is wearing the machines out and not making any money. You’d quote on a job and if you got it you’d reckon ‘I was too cheap’. And after you’d just about worked out how to make money out of it, someone else has quoted half a cent cheaper and the job’s gone. I quickly got onto the fact we need a product”.

Today Lehane CC operates from a purpose-built factory in Yennora with a team of about 10 staff. The business moved locations in western Sydney a few times before settling in Yennora in the late 1970s. Most of its clients are in Australia, though exports account for a healthy proportion of its sales at around 20%. According to Peter Senior, business conditions are currently “comfortable”, though he adds that the drought has had an impact – a significant part of the company’s sales comes from clutches for water pumping equipment for customers in rural Australia. However, this is partly offset by the wide array of customers the company serves.

“We’re very diversified with the different applications the clutches are used for,” says Peter Junior. “It definitely does have an impact when there are droughts. We also have a lot of our clutches used for mining equipment, so when the mining sector is booming, we sell more clutches. When it’s quiet we don’t sell as many in that area, but we’ll sell them in other areas. It all balances out, though it’d be nice if everything was all really good all together.”

Boosting capabilities

Recently Lehane CC made a major investment in upgrading its workshop, with the purchase of a Doosan HC 500 MKII horizontal machining centre from Hare & Forbes. The new machine was brought in to replace an older machining centre, a Japanese brand, which had reached the end of the road.

“It was still a good machine but it was pretty ancient,” says Peter Senior. “It was causing a lot of trouble, like an old motor car. Costing more in maintenance.”

Peter Junior undertook the search for a replacement: “I looked at lots of machines. And in terms of value for money, I decided the Doosan machine was the right one for us. Whether I spent $500k or a million, I wasn’t going to make one more cent on a million-dollar machine. But the Doosan has proven perfectly 100% reliable. It’s easy to use and it does exactly what we anticipated it was going to do.”

Equally impressive for the Lehane team was the way Hare & Forbes handled the installation.

“The service was really good,” affirms Peter Junior. “They did exactly what they said and more. For instance, Pierce hadn’t used a machining centre before. He only knew how to use lathes. They trained him basically from scratch. And later, if he didn’t know something, he’d just ring them up and say ‘Look I want to do this; how do I do this?’ And they’d say ‘I’ll be over there soon and show you how to do it.’ That training really was excellent”.

The new machine has already had an impact, particularly in terms of how quickly it can perform each task. Pierce cites the example of the production of shoes. The shoe forms an internal part of the company’s very large clutches, machined from an iron casting that weighs about nine kilograms, and which entails a complex piece of machining.

“I think I worked out that we can do another eight shoes a day or something,” says Pierce. “So we can get a lot more stuff done. The new machine has definitely improved productivity. Sometimes it’s sitting there doing nothing, but even then at least it’s not using power. And it’s just such an easy machine to use. The Fanuc controller is really simple to operate, and you can have all your offsets kept in it”.

The Doosan machine is also helping Lehane CC do more in terms of meeting its customers’ requirements. One new client in New Zealand manufacture frost-fighting machines, which blow warm air through crops such as grapes to prevent the build-up of frost during winter. The customer had specific requirements which Lehane CC would have struggled to meet in the past.

“With our old equipment we couldn’t have done it,” says Peter Junior. “But with the new machine, the front of it that can attach a coupling. So that’s been a very busy job on the new machine.”

Meanwhile the Lehane team are still in the process of coming to understand all of the capabilities that the new machine can offer, with the prospect of new opportunities for the business.

“It does give us opportunity for other activity or other expansion,” says Peter Senior. “We’re not quite sure yet, but it could do. We’re only using a very small part of the capabilities of that machine anyway. You never know. We might start to do something else.”