Where else to look but automation? 

Chamberlain Group recently won the Manufacturer of the Year prize at the prestigious Hunter Manufacturing Awards. According to its Head of Operations in Oceania, Graeme Sheekey, the company’s success has been aided by advanced processes and making use of the knowledge that exists within the manufacturing community.

Grifco has a proud history going back to 1914. Founded by mechanical and electrical engineer Henry Griffith, it worked on ships for WWI, then converting Sydney’s gas lighting utilities to electrical, and then ventured into roller shutter operators in the 1950s.

The company became part of Chamberlain Group in 2006. To this day, commercial door operators remain a focus for Grifco which sits within the global group of companies that makes a wide variety of access solutions.

In 2015, capacity constraints had started to appear at Grifco’s West Gosford factory. It was some way into its Lean transformation, which began around 2012, and was struggling to meet demand for its door and shutter operator products.

Where else to look but automation? Graeme Sheekey, Head of Operations in Oceania for Chamberlain since 2017, says workers were initially skeptical when the robotics conversation was raised. Adopting factory robots is an area where Australia lags other developed nations, and experts argue this needs to change. Workers’ minds, though, generally turn straight to one question: will this take my job?

“People were definitely worried when we mentioned the [words] automation and robotics. They immediately thought it would be to reduce headcount; I think all it is done is it has reduced the need for any overtime and any weekend work,” Sheekey tells us during an open day visit the day before it won the Manufacturer of the Year Award at the Hunter Manufacturing Awards.

“If you go back 12 months ago, we were doing a lot of overtime and we could not have actually done any more machining. Now, with this second robotic cell, we have increased our capacity.”

Headcount is unchanged, and around 35 are employed at West Gosford, with 15 on the factory floor. The first robot, originally used to move both worm shafts and gears in, out and around machining centres, was joined by a second robot early this year. Both are only at about two-thirds of capacity, and cycle times have come down from six minutes (during the “jack of all trades” early days of shafts and gears) to about three.

The first cell is now used purely to make gears. The second – which came online in May – makes shafts. Each moves blanks through machining, then washing and gauging and sets finished parts down on a pallet. Operations in each cell can continue when everyone has gone home for the night.

Parts then move on to the final assembly area, and are put together with imported motors, castings and electronics. Locally-made content levels have changed over the years.  

What does not stack up has been outsourced, and the focus is on where the most value can be created at Grifco. This includes product development and design, and nine engineers at the site are devoted to this, both for locally-made products and ones assembled elsewhere by Chamberlain.

A third robotic cell is being planned onsite, depending on whether or not four export projects in the Middle East and North America bear fruit. The required capacity to serve markets outside ANZ did not exist in the pre-robot days, says Sheekey.

“You have got to have a three, five, ten-year plan,” he adds.

“So we are preparing ourselves for future growth, and then we can invest in more robotic cells.”

Further investments include new equipment for the injection moulding line, and assistance for this is being sought through the recently-opened federal Manufacturing Modernisation Fund. The offices were also refurbished this year, and a brand new 100 kW solar system is among new upgrades onsite, with 357 solar panels on the factory’s roof.

Besides investing in new technologies and processes, Sheekey credits looking outside his business as part of its success. He mentions organisations such as AusIndustry and the Advanced Manufacturing Growth Centre, as well as Central Coast Industry Connect, which runs local collaboration and connection programs.

You will not progress by doing things the same way indefinitely, agrees Sheekey. New ideas can come from internal sources – employees contribute roughly 10 suggestions a month through the continuous improvement program. The company wants to be manufacturing for another 100-plus years, and collaboration will be essential for this.

“You cannot just have your head in the sand. You need to learn and grow off other people. What are they doing? They can be in different industries. They could be a food industry or a cleaning or fast-moving consumer goods company,” he says.

“But they are all kind of using the same principles. And without industry groups, you would not learn and collaborate as much”