Build it Here

Integra Systems

We are talking about Integra Systems. This Melbourne-based family business has been celebrating its 21st birthday by bucking the trends. “Our customers are really starting to expand and ramp up, so it’s probably different to the trend of what many companies are facing,” says founder Paul Hughes.

Integra’s roots are as a mechanical engineering design and development business, but it has grown and changed from the early consultancy mode to become that increasingly rare animal, if the doom-mongers are to be believed – a successful Australian manufacturer. Unusually, Paul’s father followed him into the business two years after the start. Russell’s extensive engineering experience across broad industry sectors enabled Integra to expand the range of services provided to include product design and prototyping, tooling design and production, project management of large engineering projects and machinery design and construction. To better describe these services, the company name was changed from ‘Integra Tooling Systems’ to ‘Integra Systems’.

“We started out as a product development company but then we developed a unique punching system for processing sheet metal direct from coil,” Paul explains. “We went from design to mainly manufacturing and now we find it’s the combination of the two that is the differentiator now. The one complements the other and now we are looking for projects that involve design for manufacture – that’s where our real expertise lies.” This is a niche, where customers can continually innovate their products. “We encourage our customers to order smaller batches more often so they can continue to change, improve and update their product,” instead of ordering massive volumes from places like China and being tied to a set design for long periods. Integra offers short lead times too; this process adds value in the manufacturing chain in a way that so-called ‘cheap’ manufacturing offshore cannot.

Integra helps its customers refine their product in such a way as to optimise its manufacture, taking account of costing as well as design to ensure the production process is competitive, no matter what manufacturing process is used. Paul’s wife Erika, who is in charge of marketing, explains that in many instances a customer will bring them a product which is already in production. “We take a look at it, take it apart and apply our ‘design for manufacture’ principles to it. We can take sometimes thirty or even fifty percent out of the manufacturing cost that a customer is paying.” Paul adds that the overall cost of the item needs to include what happens to it after manufacture; often it needs to be made into an assembly or installed somewhere and that process can be made easier by better product development and design.

An example: outback solar-powered satellite phone booths, where the prime requirement is total reliability and ease of installation (because by definition these items are installed in places with no facilities at all). Generally, the booths needed to be transported, flat-packed on a truck, to a GPS location for assembly and installation on-site. Integra was responsible for the concept and then the detail design of both the booth and the mounting unit, for prototyping, for the manufacture of all metal parts and sourcing of non-metal components, for finishing services for metalware and for supplying it in kit form to the client. By paying keen attention to the assembly requirements at the end of the line as well as the functional requirements along the way, Integra is able to optimise that overall cost for its clients.

“I’m not saying we can do everything but we do perhaps look at things differently from other people, with our design skills,” says Paul. The company concentrates on production from light metal – no heavy steel work or casting, just fabrication from sheet or coil – but is happy to manage projects using its established network of allied suppliers. “We don’t try to do everything in-house. We have our core competences here and strong suppliers who are all experts in their special disciplines. We can co-ordinate and bring everything together.” Another recent project required aluminium die-casting, but the client was happy to leave it to Integra to do all the product development and source the castings.

Integra is not a large company, but it has its own key manufacturing facilities at its 1,200 square meter Broadmeadows factory: punching (two turret punches, one of them fully automated) and bending; a fully automated high-speed coil processing line (that Russell and Paul designed and built); and assembly facilities including welding and clinching, with 12 full time staff as well as subcontractors working remotely. Paul says Melbourne’s northern suburbs are a good place to source related services; the company has developed strong alliances, almost ‘partnerships’, with a number of suppliers and close relations with several research establishments. “We are a big fan of the collaborative approach to business.”

Erika adds that the aim is to be able to offer customers “the best solution possible to enable them to remain competitive. Sometimes they are faced with pressure from imports and are tendering in competition; innovation can help them become more competitive. A lot of our customers have won tenders through working together with us on innovation, not only price.” Engineering and manufacturing is “a globally competitive environment. Support for Australian manufacturers through industry groups [such as the Australian Industry and Defence Network] provides businesses like ours with advice, networking opportunities and business development tools.”

For prototyping and short runs, Paul says 3D printing is going to have a major impact, especially now they can produce items in metal as well as plastic, with higher resolutions than ever before. It’s all about the time from prototype to market. Most of Integra’s customers are too short of time to make importing parts viable, says Erika, because the increasing speed and volatility the marketplace won’t wait for the typical lead times of twelve to sixteen weeks for parts ordered overseas.

“We have identified a trend where, because markets are moving so quickly, people are no longer prepared to forgo some competitive advantage in order to drive down price through imports. Now they have started to identify the fact that the lead time on a container-load would cause them to fall behind the competition. So we are starting to see new opportunities for Australian manufacturers: people who need to remain competitive cannot afford the time-to-market penalty of imports. The tide is turning a bit.”

It is a worldwide trend too, says Paul. Many companies with products to market are finding there is an increasing gap between their IP development in ‘high-cost’ countries and the capability of their manufacturing operations in so-called ‘low cost’ countries – the latter increasingly cannot match the pace of the former. “It is starting to bite. For the smarter companies the trend is reversing” and more are looking at bringing manufacturing ‘back home’ now that they see the true overall cost of ‘cheap’ countries.

Many people used to associate ‘innovation’ with high cost or poor reliability, Erika says, “but now they are realising that companies like us are turning it around into a really competitive situation. The value of innovation can actually make or break a business. Without innovation your business will not be sustainable; with it, applied also to product development, you can be producing so much more competitively.”

This refreshing approach has brought Integra industry recognition, with the company taking the title of Most Innovative Manufacturing Company in the 2012 Manufacturer’s Monthly Annual Endeavour Awards and the Enterprise Connect Significant Achievement Award at the 2011 Manufacturer’s Monthly Endeavour Awards, which saw them win against competition from 1,500 other companies. The Most Innovative Manufacturing Company award recognised Integra for the invention of the world’s first high speed coil processing line – the Punch-IT Coil Line – and its use to enable Integra to be competitive against light-metal global imports.

Integra remains committed to its core programme of continuous improvement (known in many places as ‘kaizen’ as it was perfected by Japanese corporations). Too many companies, Erika believes, are scared of innovation because it requires trust and sharing of ideas and information and they are “afraid to let go of the IP.” Paul agrees and adds that it is the larger, less flexible corporations that are generally in most need of innovation and can benefit from allying with smaller, fleet-footed companies such as Integra. He urges owners and managers to think outside the box and be less cautious in their approach. There is little to lose and much to gain by taking the time to review a process that could encompass a more innovative means of production.

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?

January 18, 2019, 3:31 AM AEDT