Having transitioned successfully from automotive tooling into medical devices, Romar Engineering has shown its ability to diversify over the years. Its latest venture sees it partnering with CSIRO in the brave new world of additive manufacturing. By William Poole.

Romar was founded in 1968 by Robert Wilson, the company’s name a combination of his own name and his wife Marion. Robert began operations out of his own garage, before moving to a facility in Sefton in Sydney’s western suburbs. After a few years, Robert’s son Neil Wilson joined the company, and today he remains Romar’s Managing Director and owner, with Mathew Farag coming on board as CEO around three years ago.

In the early days, the company’s business was based around providing tooling for the car manufacturing industry, but around 15 years ago it began to diversify into medical devices, initially producing silicone masks for Resmed. Today Romar is predominantly engaged in the medical sector, though it also works in several other high-tech industries, such as aerospace, lighting and electronics. While it still operates from the same facility in Sefton, it has spread to four other sites on the same street as well as a micromoulding facility in Singapore, with around 40 members of staff.

“We’re now what I call a manufacturing solutions provider,” says Farag. “We’ll do the whole gamut, from tooling and design, to the actual manufacturing of the individual components, (and sourcing of things we don’t do here such as PCBs), to assembly of products, and the final packaging, whether it be ready for sterilisation or for general sale.”

The early shift out of automotive seems like an astute bit of business now given the subsequent fate of the car industry, but the move into medical wasn’t all plain sailing. US pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly was a major customer until around two years ago, when the product Romar was involved in was withdrawn from the US market, taking away a big chunk of the company’s revenue.

“In the last two years we’ve been trying to replace that business, and we’re coming close now to realising that,” says Farag. “We spent about $2m in R&D last financial year, and that was essentially to replace that Lilly business with new business. And it’s starting to kick over, we’re turning it back around.”

Another challenge arising from the move into medical was the higher demands set by the client. Farag explains that, while automotive customers knew exactly what they wanted and could dictate clear specifications, in the medical sector there are higher expectations for suppliers to contribute expertise and help devise solutions.

“That’s where I think we have an advantage over other suppliers,” he adds. “We not only do manufacturing and assembly, but we do the tooling internally, which gives us a lot of control over how we manufacture the parts. From the very beginning of the concept stage, we know how we’re going to make the tool to meet the medical requirements down the track. It makes a pretty big difference with the product at the end of the day.”

Romar’s success in being able to make this transition is attributable in part to the company’s emphasis on R&D and retaining skilled staff.

“I think personally manufacturing in Australia is heading this way,” says Farag. “We have more engineers on staff than actual production workers, and R&D to keep them occupied, that’s what’s creating our future business. We had about 60 staff when we were manufacturing for Lilly, and that represented about 70% of our business at the time. When that disappeared we didn’t lose 70% of our staff, we only lost 10-20 staff, predominantly casuals. The rest were all engineers who stayed on so that we can continue development of the work and products that we’d started to get those across the line.

Today the company’s customer base includes a number of innovative medical companies. It’s working with Melbourne-based Planet Innovation, the designers of an IVF product for Genea. It’s engaged in R&D work for Vaxxas, who invented a patch for vaccination and vaccine delivery solutions, and supplies parts for global medical devices manufacturer Cook Medical.

This client base also shows the scope of what Romar can offer as a supplier. With Cook for example, the company only manufacturers a single part, a silicon bung used in a much larger assembly (albeit manufactured to the most exacting quality and cleanliness criteria). For the Genea product, on the other hand, Romar’s input encompasses more than just individual components, but an entire, end-to-end process covering manufacture and assembly, quality checking and packaging for sterilisation, right through to final packaging.

“Customers in medical, particularly inventors or innovators, they say ‘I’ve got this invention but I don’t know how to make it. We’ve got the designs for it, we’ve been to industrial designers and they’ve done all the drawings and everything is there. We know what has to be made, but we don’t know how to make it and how to assemble it.’ This is why I say we’re a manufacturing solutions provider. We can provide them with that information.”

Adding capabilities

Announced in September, Romar’s newest venture is a partnership with Lab 22, the CSIRO’s additive manufacturing centre. The collaboration is built around Romar’s recent acquisition of a LASTERTEC 65 3D from DMG MORI. The first of its kind to be installed in Australia, the LASTERTEC is a hybrid machine that incorporates additive laser deposition welding into a fully-equipped five-axis milling machine.

“Essentially, you can do your additive manufacturing, print your metal, and also machine it,” says Farag. “And it’s so much faster. Additive printing from a bed is wasteful and takes a long time, whereas this is 3D printing via cladding methodology.

“The vision for CSIRO was that having a machine that can actually build and machine at the same time creates a lot of opportunity for people wanting that capability. It would be very difficult for CSIRO to put that in their own house because they don’t have the skills of the tool-maker, so they said ‘Let’s partner with Romar, we can work with them’. So that’s the base, but the future is: ‘Can we also get it to do titanium 3D printing?’”

That question represents the other dimension to the CSIRO partnership. At the moment the LASTERTEC works with non-reactive metals such as stainless steels, but not with reactive metals such as titanium, because of exposure to the environment.

“So this partnership with the CSIRO is partly to develop this machine to be able to print titanium parts in this format,” explains Farag. “Because it adds capability that nobody else has. Many people at the moment can print titanium – not a problem. But you can’t machine it on the same platform. This will allow us to do that.”

To expedite the collaboration, the partnership will see Romar establish a desk for CSIRO at its premises, with similar facilities made available to Romar at CSIRO’s sites in Lindfield and Clayton. For Romar, one of the intended benefits of the partnership will be the opportunity to gain new customers. According to Farag, this openness to collaboration for mutual advantage is all down to Neil Wilson.

“Neil’s vision has always been, particularly in Australia, we have to collaborate, not only with research organisations but with other business partners. There’s no point fighting each other if we can work together. We do that with a few companies, such as Minifab in Melbourne. They have an expertise we don’t have, we believe we have an expertise they possibly don’t, so let’s work together to get things across the line rather than try to work separately. There’s so much work out there globally, more than enough for everyone in Australia. We can’t get it on our own, let’s get it together!”

Managing uncertainty

One challenge Romar continually faces is simply choosing which projects to commit to. A sector like medical is characterised by constant, cutting-edge innovation, and with it a high degree of uncertainty. This is compounded by the long development times and multiple regulatory hurdles that any new medical product entails.

“We have a lot of customers that are coming to us with an idea, but we don’t know how successful their idea will be,” says Farag. “Everyone has always got the greatest invention ever, right? It’s being able to identify the right customer, and also attracting the right customer to us. That’s going to be a big challenge for us.”

A further difficulty lies in simply persuading the big global players to venture outside their usual networks and consider a company like Romar.

“The US in particular, where a lot of this stuff is sold, they don’t always look outside of their own home ground. And when they do, they usually look at China. It’s getting them to look a bit south of China, and have a look here! We’ve done that with a couple of companies. We have to keep attracting those types.”

Nonetheless, Romar is moving forward with some exciting, ambitious plans for the future.

“We’re working on a couple of research projects, but the next big plan is to consolidate our facilities, bring them into one site. We’ve got five different industrial units on this street, so bringing that all into one and expanding that. We’ve invested a lot of time and money into the Vaxxas project, and if and when that product does take off – we’re talking 2020 or 2022 – it will require significant investment in people and plant. Timing our next step for that is a big project.”

Above all, Farag is optimistic about the current outlook for manufacturing and the prospects and opportunities for Romar.

“I’ve only been in this area for around three years, and compared to back then, I feel a buzz that I haven’t felt before. There’s a lot of activity. People want to create new things. I think at the moment there’s a lot of positive sentiment, particularly in the medical space, about what can happen and who can do it. People seem excited about the future.”