Precision Engineering on a Grand Scale

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-By John Boley

Elizabeth in South Australia and Sydney in NSW are home to an Australian privately owned global provider of design, manufacturing and engineering solutions for the automotive, aerospace, marine, mining, defence and general precision engineering industries. Broens Industries Pty Ltd is one of the world’s most advanced, high-tech engineering companies, delivering precision engineering, tooling, special purpose machinery and automation solutions across key industries in the industrial, commercial and defence sectors.

As Lawrence Ng, Marketing & Administration Manager explained to us, Broens represents the cutting edge of Australia’s leading high-tech engineering elite, dedicated to defence precision engineering, aerospace, automotive and marine applications all the way from design through to production. The company is able to deliver turnkey project management and manufacturing solutions across the spectrum of mechanical, electrical and mechatronic engineering.

It was in 2008 that Broens took over Static Engineering, a designer and manufacturer of aircraft ground support equipment with a diverse product mix including elevating work platforms, transport and material handling equipment, bulk aggregate handling grabs, fibreglass products, and a range of hydraulic and heavy structural engineering products. Static specialised in hydraulics but with amalgamation that included a third company, Calbic Precision Engineers, came diversification into wider areas including milling or machining, the manufacturing process whereby computer numerically controlled tools that move in numerous planes are used to manufacture parts out of metal or other materials by milling away excess material, through wire cutting and other state of the art machinery.

Increasing complexity of machined parts, in all manner of shapes that were once considered impossible to produce in a single piece, has come with more and more sophistication of computer control. Computer numeric control, CNC, is common today to all machining operations and the software has developed to enable computers to move the milling tools through ever more ‘axes’ so that complicated shapes can be created in, essentially, a single process. Six-axis machines are now almost common and even nine-axis milling is being undertaken (‘axes’ are not the same as ‘dimensions’ but refer to combinations of planes of movement of the milling tool and head).

Broens has one of the biggest – if not the largest – six-axis milling machines in the southern hemisphere, capable of machining components or structures as big as a car. Now, while it is unlikely that many car manufacturers might have a need for a vehicle hewn from a large lump of metal in a single piece, the concept of making something like a complete vehicle bodyshell has immense attractions in sectors where maximum structural integrity is paramount and joints – using rivets or welds – represent weaknesses in the structure.

A chain, as they say, is only as strong as its weakest link and a critical component is as weak as its joints. So while Ford or Holden will not for the foreseeable future be cutting a bodyshell out of a single large piece of aluminium – because it is very expensive, has far more rigidity than is required for a road car and is almost impossible to repair to the same strength – the manufacturer of a Formula One racing car might be much more interested because of the weight savings and the sheer strength of the resulting one-piece ‘tub’.

One area where structural integrity is typically more important than cost is in the aerospace industry, and Broens is, not surprisingly, at the forefront of this sector. Lawrence prefers not to name names in this area for obvious reasons of confidentiality but says that, for example, the leading edge or trailing edge of a wingspan could be machined in one piece. “Literally we can machine from start to finish a whole leading edge.” The aerospace industry is a very high-tech area and Broens is rarely called upon to become involved in design work – “we have to work to their specifications,” says Lawrence – and in any case critical components are often sourced from more than one manufacturer (there is another similarly equipped company in Canada) in order to minimise risk and potential downtime, so an item has almost always been completely designed before the client comes to Broens. “Clients as sophisticated as ours tend to know in advance what we can do for them,” says Lawrence.

For six-axis machining on this scale there are no more than a half-dozen companies in the world capable of producing components. Broens does not suffer by being way down south, Lawrence believes. The recent strength of the dollar is a constant challenge, of course, but “what we produce is one of a kind and not easily available elsewhere. Our products are unique.” It would be fair to say that Broens’ clients tend to value the quality and precision of the company’s output rather more highly than the price; in addition, Lawrence confirms that the ‘made in Australia’ tag is a “very positive” value-add factor all over the world.

There remains a good deal of work for a company offering this expertise, primarily to tier-one suppliers to the massive combines that are the likes of a Lockheed or British Aerospace (BAe) since Broens is “just a cog in the wheels to someone of that size, albeit quite an important cog.” Of course it is necessary to go through an exacting series of hoops in order to become a specified supplier to major aerospace companies, who take months – sometimes longer – to examine a company’s structure, its working practices, its management, and its quality assurance programmes as well as its actual output before adding it to the ‘approved’ list.

Broens serves not only aerospace but the related defence industry too – Lawrence is understandably reluctant to go into detail here beyond saying the company is active in ground support equipment for the air force and machining of components, as well as tier-two supply of armour plating – marine (mainly Navy, including submarines) and mining sectors. “For the mines we can supply a lot of tooling and also work platforms, especially for maintenance vehicles.” Currently mining is “doing quite well” as the sector booms, he says.

As regards the automotive industry, Broens makes items such as suspension knuckles for OEMs. “Our parent company in Sydney has a casting division as well and does all the casting, robotics and machining and then sends the components to South Australia and elsewhere.” Lawrence is sanguine about prospects for this sector, while the company is looking at options that would soak up any drop in automotive production. There are alternative sources of components like these in China (to take one example) although Lawrence says Broens’ strength remains in its ability to offer the highest quality assurances. “I am very confident we can maintain that quality edge in the coming years.”

The company’s other offerings include component machining, metrology, stamping, press metal tooling and assembly manufacturing with a dedicated assembly facility, advanced processes and a team of specialist technicians. Broens has a workforce of around 300 (100 in Elizabeth and 200 in Sydney) and Lawrence says the company is preparing for a next generation of young technicians to eventually take over, via an apprentice training programme that caters for some 40 trainees. He says there is no shortage of youngsters interested in what is a “very hands-on industry, not the usual factory floor production situation but a place where they can actually create things.” The working environment is not arduous (not at all like a traditional metalworking experience) and “there is a lot of variation in their jobs so that makes it interesting.” Broens has need of experts in software engineering and robotics, not so much just ‘machine-minders’, and in these areas there is no danger of staff being ‘automated’ out of a job.

‘So what’s the secret of Broens?’ we asked Lawrence. His reply was succinct and – appropriately – precise. “The company stands for excellence in engineering – it’s as simple as that,” he said.

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December 19, 2018, 9:25 AM AEDT