Melbourne-based family business AW Bell is achieving major export contracts and expansion based on customer service, consistent high-quality output and on-time delivery. It is today a leading Industry 4.0 enterprise in the highly specialised field of complex precision metal parts based on investment and sand-casting processes.

Established in 1952 by Alan Bell, the company has grown steadily from its origins as a patternmaker for the Australian foundry industry. Now led by a third generation of the Bell family, it has evolved into a high-end automotive supplier as well as playing an integral part in several global defence, aerospace, space and biomedical device supply chains.

Today, the company operates from its modern 13,000sqm production facility in Dandenong South, Victoria. It is an AS9100D-accredited aerospace supplier of complex metal parts, incorporating investment casting, sand casting, rapid prototyping using 3D printing, production machining and tier-one assembly technologies. Employing some 100 highly skilled personnel, AW Bell specialises in high-quality metal products made from advanced ferrous and non-ferrous materials and continues to develop advanced technology.

Continuous improvement together with research & development has been critical to the company’s success. Technological developments such as its Aluminium Billet Equivalent (ABE) casting process has seen the company successfully transition away from automotive component manufacturing into high-end aerospace, biomedical, space and defence product manufacture.

Early adopters of Industry 4.0

To be competitive in the modern marketplace, the company recognised that adopting Industry 4.0 and Smart Process Engineering early would provide the company with a strategic advantage. With forward planning extending across a five-year timeframe, the overall objective has been to integrate the very latest world-class digital and physical technologies to streamline operations and promote the company’s strategic growth in bio-medical, aerospace, space and defence programs.

“Digitisation of production management across the foundry and production machining operations from the receipt of raw materials through to the delivery of final components is now a reality,” said Sam Bell, AW Bell’s Chief Executive Officer. “We have embedded the digital monitoring of components at individual steps in the manufacturing value chain creating a serialised record of each part at every processing point, today achieving the highest compliance with global aerospace traceability standards.”

Investment in world-leading technology and machinery has been an important element in the success of AW Bell. Significant investment in high-end CNC machines goes back as early as 1985 with the company’s purchase of its first Okuma machine, a MC-6VA vertical machining centre with an OSP-5000M-G control. In 2017 and 2018, the company commissioned two more Okuma CNC vertical machining centres – a MU5000V model and a model MU-6300V (P), each with the OSP-300MA-H control and an impressive 6APC Pallet pool system providing automation and excellent capacity.

These have now been followed with the recent introduction of an Okuma CNC MA-600H ll horizontal machining centre with an OSP-P300MA control. The new machine is one of the largest in the Okuma horizontal range, with 10APC capacity. This machine replaces two other existing machines, dramatically reducing labour costs with longer unmanned run time and remote control.

“Our experience with Okuma has been exceptional, as these machines produce components for safety-critical and high-performance/low-volume automotive, aerospace, land defence and bio-medical customers,” commented Sam Bell. “The high degree of consistent accuracy of parts with tight tolerances and the fact that we have achieved a 20% improvement in cycle times and can cope with extremely low volume as a result of the large tool capacity within the machines, gives us a strong competitive edge.

“Our own experience and research within industry clearly confirmed that Okuma was considered to be a leader in this field with high-end machinery, and the back-up service and training has been outstanding. This, combined with the intuitive operating system and high accuracy of the machines, has meant all of our operators are extremely keen to be involved in running the equipment.

“Looking to the future, the latest machines have the capability of machining titanium and with higher accuracy and capacity to meet increased business. We are in an excellent position to continue to grow.”

The new automated technology of the Okuma machine centres allows five-axis machining of highly complex components and provides real-time processing information and feedback on available capacity for response to critical customer timelines. The technology significantly boosts cycle times and throughput, and also provides superior control over batch repeatability. The pallet pool system and accuracy of the new machines allows them to run unmanned over multiple shifts, significantly reducing labour costs.

AW Bell has also installed new world-leading robotics for shell dipping in investment casting, which has enabled full automation of the line and continuous monitoring of production variables in real-time. The robotics is a technological first for an Australian foundry.

Future plans

Major plans for the future growth of this exciting Australian manufacturer will see the company moving into the vacuum melting of titanium investment castings, primarily for aerospace and space platforms. Currently the majority of high-value-added products made by vacuum melting are produced in the USA and Europe, with only a comparatively small proportion manufactured elsewhere. According to AW Bell, there is currently no capacity in Australia for the production of high-value-add cast products manufactured through the vacuum investment casting of titanium, where exceptional levels of quality are required.

With export sales now exceeding 65% of the company’s turnover (up from just 10% five years ago), with high-quality cast and machine parts exported to parts of Europe, Asia and North America, it is not surprising that AW Bell was the recipient of the Governor of Victoria Export Award in 2016. In 2019 aerospace and defence sales represented approximately 40%, with exports of biomedical products to Europe constituting an additional 20%.

AW Bell has been successful in securing principal supplier status with some major international suppliers in defence contracts based on its consistent world-leading expertise, high quality and on-time delivery. The company also exports machinery through its machinery division, with upwards of 95% of its products being exported in this category.

With its world-class engineering expertise, commitment to R&D and continuous improvement, and investment in new materials and capabilities for current and future market opportunities, AW Bell seeks to maintain its competitive advantage and expand in the global market. As one of the world’s specialists in the production of high-value, low-volume castings in exotic materials with an emphasis on demanding applications, AW Bell represents Australian advanced technology at its best.

Okuma Australia Managing Director Dean McCarroll commended AW Bell on its exceptional business model and its emphasis on today’s Smart Factory: “It is a great privilege for Okuma to receive their custom and to work alongside such a dynamic company as AW Bell as it continues to expand its market internationally, gaining respect with principal supplier status with world-leading companies.”