Innovative Engineering Solutions
The Fraser Engineering Group is the largest manufacturer of custom-made fire and rescue vehicles in the Southern Hemisphere. When we spoke with General Manager Martin Simpson, he said that, although known for fire engines, this engineering and manufacturing company can, will and has produced anything asked of it. Innovation is its middle name.
John Fraser began this company at his home and workshop in Johnsonville, New Zealand some sixty years ago and was a natural genius as an engineer. According to Martin: “Some engineers learn it, and some already have it.”
John purchased a factory and began adding computer numerical control (CNC) machinery, purchasing one of the first computerised machines in the country, and the business grew from there.
The company niche, says Martin, is innovative engineering solutions for virtually any industry. “We sit down with a customer and tailor-make an engineering solution: whether it be architecture, art, fire engines, components in missile launchers, etc. – anything you can imagine.” A unique example can be seen in a nine metre high stainless steel robot fountain which lies in a wetland area and in a new architectural structure for the Wellington Zoo. The structure has potential applications in disaster relief as it can be assembled and disassembled very quickly and is very strong and durable.
The company is extremely well known for making most of the fire engines in New Zealand. It can reduce costs because it controls most aspects of production; it is one of the only companies in the world that manufactures as much as it does in-house. “If you can control the quality and control the cost along with the delivery, you can also control how satisfied the customer is.”
Fraser recently participated in one of the most successful AFAC (Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council) conferences ever held. The economic effects were also extremely beneficial for the city of Wellington: 8,000 nights were booked in local hotels. Fraser was one of the driving forces behind the conference and the largest exhibitor at the show.
“Every top Australasian fire authority was represented, and they had the ability to come and visit our factory and have a look at how fire engines will be manufactured in the future.”
Fraser is the busiest fire engine manufacturer in the world, capable of making forty to fifty trucks at one time. The company is capable of this because it can manufacture everything in-house. Other fire engine manufacturers have become bankrupt due to cash flow issues. When buying everything outside of the company, margins add up; the cash outlay is massive on fifty fire engines.
“If you don’t get your part on time or the right quality, you don’t get payments and therefore you enter into financial difficulty. We control all those components and can absorb these costs internally. We can afford the efficiencies of scale, production and organisation.”
Currently, the company is tweaking more manufacturing and production processes. It is, after all, a production engineering firm. Martin wants to stress, however, that it is not just a fire engine manufacturer. It is adept at making the engines, but better at producing components efficiently then having its own group assemble with a minimum amount of rework. Altogether, Fraser has three, vertically-integrated fire engine assembly plants in New Zealand, the Pacific Islands and Australia.
Massive expansion is underway. Fraser is constantly rethinking how it does things as it embraces and loves change. “If you are not changing every day, then you are standing still.” The plan is to double manufacturing capabilities within the next six months to be capable of producing to three to four fire engines per week. Factories will be running with more automation and organised stock control.
“When you’ve got as many components arriving and being delivered – on time, at the right place, with the right specs – it can be a logistical minefield. So, we are constantly trying to work on that as well. We are probably the only fire engine manufacturer that delivers on time.”
If one is unable to control the manufacturing of all these components, just one component can stop the vehicle’s delivery and its payment. It can be a logistical nightmare when dealing with 40,000 parts on a fire engine. Manufacturing is either internal or external, and with Fraser, it is mainly internal although it sources its pumps from England and the US and the chassis from Italy and Sweden.
Fraser has one of the largest CNC machine shops in the country, with seven machine centres and six lathes for milling and turning, a full range of Amada laser cutters, turret punches, press brakes, AVB robot welders, a powder coating plant and an electroplating plant. Its huge fabrication facility has plans for more robots to speed up the processes.
“We manufacture high-voltage switch gears and specialise in that. We have the full range of chemical treatment for any type of zinc plating and possess some very good chemical engineers on site.”
Fraser’s goal is to create a billion dollar company and not necessarily just in the production of fire engines. “It is a huge opportunity for us because we’ve got the skills now with the factories and systems embedded in. We are extremely competitive. We also strive to have an assembly plant up and running in Australia as well.”
Fraser is planning to revolutionise manufacturing and the way that fire engines are built to offer the fire industry – and the firemen themselves – a more efficient, safer and lighter vehicle. “The end game is to get the wet stuff on the hot stuff in the most efficient and reliable way possible. We are changing the way that things are done.” The company is looking at different ways of putting out fires and re-engineering every possible facet of a fire engine to make improvements.
“We are an industry leader in the world, with the resources to spend millions of dollars to look at the fluid dynamics of water – with pressure loss and smarter nozzles, along with reducing the costs of these components, as they can be very expensive. We are making them lighter, more reliable and safer.”
Massive costs are associated with the injuries that can occur in the field. Back injuries are common when opening equipment locker doors or getting the ladder off the truck. Fraser is trying to figure out how to automate this and make ladders safer and easier to use.
Currently, Fraser is looking at the logistics of setting up a factory in Australia. The only remaining issue is in what state it will build. “We treat Australia as the same country as us, and I am Australian.” Many of its suppliers are Australia-based. “At the end of the day, we speak the same language, so it’s easy for us to do business over there.”
In New Zealand, it is working with universities. It is highly involved with the technical institutes and is part of the educational structure. “Pushing engineering is the only way that an economy can be successful through manufacturing.” The end result is also job creation and a boost in local economy.
The staff and culture at Fraser have been a huge part of the company’s success. “We hire a specific culture here of smart and innovative people. We have a great culture! We are flexible and agile and can make decisions in an instant. We can change the direction of this company in a heartbeat.” The company has a passion for making things. That is the difference between Fraser Engineering and every other manufacturer. It loves what it does.