One Stop Machine Shop

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-By Claire Suttles

Sixty Six years ago, two young soldiers returned from the battlefields of WWII ready to launch a new business. Armed with little more than determination and skill, the men weren’t afraid to start small and dream big. “It started with just two guys and a machine,” explains Sales Manager John Moffett. Named for its founders, Baker & Provan grew quickly and is now recognised as one of Australia’s premier heavy engineering companies. The firm also remains privately owned by the same family to this day. “It’s a family business,” Mr Moffett reiterates. “The founder of the company lives about 5 kilometres away from the workshop and he just celebrated his 94th birthday. His son is the managing director. He’s here every day, so we still have the family involvement.”

Baker & Provan works primarily in mining, rail and defence and specialises in metal fabrication jobs using CNC machining. According to its website, the Sydney based company offers specialised welding, equipment assembly, and the manufacturing of precision mechanical components, process machinery, and equipment for large plants. The team offers the full range of services, from engineering design and documentation through fitting and testing, as well as project management of the entire process. “We’re a one stop shop,” explains production manager Keith George. “We’ll do it from start to finish… from engineering [to] painted and presented to the customer.” The company is known for its high quality work and is a Defence Recognised Supplier, an ISO 9001 registered company, and a NATA accredited organisation.

Baker & Provan is able to offer a wide range of services and complete large-scale projects partly because of the size of its equipment. In fact, the company’s 6800 square metre workshop boasts some of the largest machines in all of Australia. Its CNC horizontal boring and milling machine, for example, has a floor that can take unlimited weight, a rotary table that can manage up to 30 tonnes, six controllable axes, and a 2 ½ meter by 3 meter CNC rotary. The monster of a machine rests on a 300 tonne foundation made of concrete reinforced by steel and has recently been utilised to machine 76 locomotive bogies for the rail industry and to manufacture earth moving equipment. The company also operates a 12 metre lathe, which Mr Moffett describes as “one… of the largest lathes around.” The enormous scale of these, and many of its other machines, gives the company a distinct advantage. “Not too many people have got them,” Mr Moffett explains. The Baker and Provan workshop, as described on the company’s website, also includes 1000 square metres of floor space for deep hole drilling and fabrication, a hydraulic test site, an assembly and test area, and eight overhead travelling cranes, each of which can lift 23 tonnes.

Mr Moffett credits “the capabilities and capacity that we have within our workshop” for setting the company apart from the competition. This capability allows the business to complete projects from start to finish, something that many other workshops simply can’t do. “There are other companies around that will do smaller machining, lighter fabrication,” Mr Moffett explains. “There are workshops that do equivalent machining but not fabrication, and then there are other companies that do the fabrication and not the machining. We’ve got everything under the one roof.” The company is even utilised by other workshops that don’t have the full range of capabilities that Baker & Provan have. “We have other engineering companies come to us to machine their fabrications,” reports Mr Moffett. “Because they’re capable of fabricating it but they’re not capable of machining it.”

Baker & Provan operates under four basic divisions: manufacturing, major projects, reclamation, and engineering services, with manufacturing serving as the company’s backbone for most of its history. The workshop repairs and manufactures small and large components using its fabrication capabilities and advanced machining. The company uses its own proprietary parts and equipment in the manufacturing process and quality tests and cleans the finished product after final assembly.

The major projects division supplies project management, manufacturing, and design services for major infrastructure jobs and defence projects. The company began working with the defence industry in the late 1980’s when it landed a manufacturing contract with the Royal Australian Navy. The company continues to work closely with the Navy, designing, manufacturing and servicing cranes and winches for its ships. In fact, Baker and Provan produces more of this specialised equipment for the Navy than any other company. For one of its latest projects, the team supplied six shipsets of lightweight, shock qualified, and non-magnetic cranes for the Navy’s Mine Hunter Project. The team has also supplied the Navy with Collins class submarine parts. Currently, the company is equipping the ANZAC ship project with boat cranes and providing a host of engineering services including development and design, assembly, manufacturing, and testing, all of which is being carried out inside the Sydney workshop.

The firm launched its reclamation division in 2005 after acquiring NuBuilt Engineering and integrating its experienced reclamation professionals into the company. In reclamation, broken items are repaired rather than replaced with new ones. The process is “substantially cheaper” than replacement, Mr Moffett explains, and the company tries to offer the option to clients if possible. To do this, Baker & Provan goes onsite, often to mines or heavy engineering shops, discusses the cause of a breakdown with a client and recommends how best to handle the damage. “We’ll sit with them, talk them through it, and say these are the options,” Mr George reports. Determining the feasibility of refurbishment isn’t always straightforward. “We do a lot of investigations with the types of materials that some of these items are [made of] because they are fairly old and people don’t know what the materials are,” Mr George explains. Once reclamation is determined to be the appropriate course of action, Baker and Provan will repair the broken part to like-new condition.

Engineering services overlap and support the other three divsions of the company. “There are more engineers in this place than there are workers, I think,” Mr Moffett jokes of the well-staffed division. Engineers play a key role in the entire project cycle and ensure quality and safety from start to finish. Responsibilities include design, stress calculations, and creating individualised solutions for clients. In short, Mr Moffett says, the engineer “tells us how to do things.”

Baker and Provan doesn’t advertise. “We’re known,” Mr Moffett says. “I think that every second person you speak to knows of Baker & Provan because it has been here a long time.” The company does send representatives to trade shows, and will often put up a stall that includes demonstrations of its heavy machinery. “I also go and see customers,” he adds. “I don’t just sit at the desk and make phone calls. I’ll actually go and knock on doors.”

Due to its strong reputation in the industry, the global financial crisis has had a limited effect on the company. “It’s been hard,” Mr Moffett admits, “but we’ve done fairly well through it. Our books have been a little lower than normal [but we’ve] not had to put anybody off, we’ve not had to lessen shifts. I think we’ve survived fairly well.” An arguably greater challenge to Baker & Provan is manufacturing outsourcing, particularly to China. “China is a challenge with all manufacturing because they’re cheaper,” Mr Moffett states simply. “A lot of companies, instead of getting their work fabricated or machined in Australia, they’ve gone off-shore. They’re happy with a lesser quality product because it’s cheap.” Mr Moffett says that he has found evidence that some offshore manufacturing utilises inferior quality material and he is concerned about a potential decline in the quality of manufactured goods throughout the industry. “If you want a quality product,” he says, “you do it with Australian companies.”

In spite of the challenges, Baker & Provan remains optimistic about the future. After all, with over half a century behind it, the company has good reason to anticipate continued success. The team plans to continue moving forward and would like to expand by 15 per cent over the next 12 to 18 months. “You’ve got to set goals,” Mr Moffett says of his strategy for short term growth. For now he recognises that, with the current economic challenges, it is an accomplishment just that “our doors are still open. Manufacturing… is very, very quiet at the moment and there are companies that are closing their doors.” But, Mr Moffett reports, “We’re still going strong. We’ve got to be doing something right.”

Making Sense of Management

Management is the art, or science, of getting things done through people. Sounds fairly straightforward – except for the fact that people are not robots waiting to do our bidding. People have their own minds, motivations, and goals. So how do managers keep operations – and the people behind them – running as planned?

December 16, 2018, 3:51 PM AEDT