Opie Group’s industrial expansion, made with family and a commitment to technology-driven craftsmanship. AMT editor Paul Hellard visits for a bit of history

Located in Emu Heights, just under the vast skyline of Sydney’s Blue Mountains, Opie Manufacturing Group stands as a prominent example of industrial evolution. Founded in 1962 by James MacDougal Opie, this enterprise has transitioned from its early days of basic metalwork to become a leader in contract metal manufacturing and fabrication services across Australia. Today, the business is managed by his grandson, Tristan Opie, is the third-generation leader to successfully direct this Australian manufacturing company alongside his sister, CFO Alyssa Le Breton.

Opie Manufacturing Group, despite its size and growth, always retains at its core the heart of a family business.

From humble beginnings to advanced operations

Initially focused on leveraging the then-novel potential of stainless steel to produce sanitary fixtures and washroom accessories, the company has expanded significantly. Today, it combines decades-old engineering practices with advanced technologies. This strategy not only sustains but enhances Opie Group’s market position through high-precision laser cutting and full-service contract manufacturing to development of complex Data-Enhanced Production Systems and “Smart” Manufacturing Solutions, with its turnkey systems that includes the purchase and technical development of the largest robotic laser welder in the southern hemisphere.

Tristan Opie, now CEO, has been running around the age-old facility since he was a boy when his dad, David Opie, was in charge. He knows the history of metal manufacturing incredibly well because he has lived it. “I remember it as if it was yesterday. The whole place was full of hundreds of people with tin snips,” described Tristan. “We had pattern makers, pattern designers. The drafters on the drafting table with blueprints. Back when there were guys that used to do everything by hand.”

Going back to the very beginning, in 1962, when Tristan Opie’s grandpa should have retired, he decided to start a sheet metal business. Opie Manufacturing specialises in contract manufacturing. Back then, it was all about stainless steel. “He was directing his specialty towards sanitary products. He had the idea of turning the normal urinal into what’s known now as the wide trough with the grate on it creating a no spill feature that is still popular today. Grandad had a history of building all sorts of different things,” Tristan explains.

Generational leadership and technological advancements

The acquisition of their first laser cutter in 2001 was transformative for Opie Manufacturing. “That machine changed everything for us,” Tristan remarks about how automation revolutionised their production capabilities, allowing for round-the-clock operations if necessary.

Today, the 8000sqm facility employs a suite of advanced technologies to streamline its production processes and enhance product quality. Central to their operations are the high-precision Trumpf Laser Cutters, known for their reliability in handling complex metal cuts. Complementing these are Fiber Laser Cutters, significantly boosting production rates. For thicker metal plates, CO2 laser cutters are indispensable due to their robust cutting capabilities.

In addition to cutting technology, Opie has integrated Muratec Bending Machines into their workflow. These machines are pivotal for shaping metal parts with high precision, meeting both aesthetic and functional specifications of diverse projects.

“I believe Trumpf machines transformed how metalwork is done in Australia, and they’re basically bullet-proof,” says Opie. “We run them flat out, 24 hours if we could.”

“These days I still take care sourcing equipment personally because that is what I know and understand,” adds Tristan. “I’ve been buying Muratec bending machines lately and I’ve got another one on order. It’s like when I bought the tube laser, everyone said, ‘Oh, you must be crazy? You know, what are you doing? There’s no work for this!’ But now it’s running 24 hours and I have been running two of them now for over ten years. I expect the same results with our new TRUMPF Laser Weld 5000; it works as a multi-functional tool for fusion welding, heat conduction welding, and deep penetration welding. It’s a beautiful piece of equipment that keeps us on the leading edge, of technical capability in fabrication. We use technology to stay ahead while investing in the talent and craftmanship of our people to use that technology at its highest level.”

Another key feature in Opie’s technological arsenal is the 240m powder-coating line at the Emu Heights facility, designed as a closed-loop system that emphasises environmental sustainability by treating and reusing water without waste. It operates at capacity with three full lines per day. “This line is always busy and is as clean and green as they come,” Tristan explains. “They don’t discharge because it’s a closed loop. All the water is treated onsite and then reused.” The team at Opie Group completely designed the powder coating building. “We 3D-engineered it, so we get what we want. It’s like the equipment we buy; we do our research first and buy the best we can to meet the need of our customers,” said Tristan.

To support sustainable operations amid growing energy needs associated with such advanced technologies, Opie Manufacturing Group has installed solar panels capable of generating up to 300 kilowatts of power across facility roofs; this not only reduces operational costs but also minimises the carbon footprint, contributing towards a more sustainable manufacturing environment while expanding operational capacity.”

“The best defence is a good target”

Tristan Opie says targeting a leading defence contractor was instrumental in setting the OPIE Group on a path to success many years ago, after Opie Group targeted them as a customer they wanted to work with. “When we started working together, we started developing a lot more of our systems based around their needs,” says Tristan. “As it was in the defence realm, these jobs need a lot of traceability and their labelling requirements on their ready-to-weld kits are so precise. This specialisation really got us where we needed to be. It forced us to be disciplined and develop systems of compliance and quality and it has paid us in growth.”

This understanding of how to satisfy its broad range of customer including defence contracts has also helped Opie Group focus on its recent A$6m expansion, with its purchase of long-term Australian manufacturer Wilson & Gilkes and associated brands who also have a strong relationship and customer base serving other government institutions and the defence sectors. Tristan has successfully moved the Wilson & Gilkes operation from its ageing facility at Moorebank to Emu Heights while further expanding the Assembly Plant to a new site across the road. With this expansion, Opie Manufacturing Group also expanded its talent pool of skills with the move.

Diversification as a strategy for sustainability and growth

So, a business that started primarily as a sheet metal workshop now includes specialised divisions such as Stainless Metal Craft and Laser press that has now been expanded with focused diversification. This diversification strategy extends beyond product development; it also includes technological updates that align with environmental sustainability goals, evidenced by zero-waste systems within their operations.

Additionally, the recent merger acquisition with Wilson & Gilkes underscores strategic intent to widen reach and influence global markets, notably in the security enclosure fabrication sector.

Tristan stresses the importance of staying current, adopting new technologies, and ensuring the team is well-equipped to handle the complexities modern manufacturing demands. “We’re actively recruiting roles in both management but in fostering the trades people and crafts-based roles within the teams,” Opie states, underscoring an ongoing commitment to operational excellence in all facets of business activities.

While Opie Manufacturing Group might have national and even global ambitions, they understand the importance of being local and helping the community thrive as an employer and being a supporter of local community sporting teams with sponsorship and community outreach.

Tristan recounts how a, “young local fellow came in with his resume a few weeks ago. His grandad works at a local fabricator, and we do work together. His grandfather walked him in the front door and said, ‘You know, here you are. Go and see if there’s any work.’ I just happened to be at the desk when he was asking the receptionist if he could leave his resume. And I said, ‘Mate, do you really want a job? He nervously replied, “That’s why I’m here…” ‘Well, I said, ‘You’ve got a job, kid. Get your work clothes on, and you be back here tomorrow.’’

While Tristan might be the third generation of leader to run this vibrant, thriving, and busy company, it should be noted that he has a son and daughter who, like him as a boy, have been running around the plant and watching their father lead and no doubt; are learning the business as they grow.

“Whatever happens in the future, I know that Opie Manufacturing Group will strive to build and grow itself as a quality-driven Australian manufacturer and a modern dynamic company; with family at its heart.”