Geofabrics’ future grounded in innovation

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As many firms will tell you, “business as usual” usually means falling behind. Brent Balinski spoke to senior management at Geofabrics Australasia about how they look to all employees to help refresh their operations.

Challenges and opportunities often get mentioned together. For Geofabrics Australasia, a big example of the former was the end of the mining boom; the latter is something the whole company spends a lot of effort considering.

“It’s very, very similar to many other companies manufacturing in Australia,” Brendan Swifte, managing director of Geofabrics, told Manufacturers’ Monthly at the company’s Albury factory recently.

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It saw the geosynthetics company’s sales fall from a peak of $150 million. They have recovered since, but are around $120 million – $130 million.

Issues of “unblocking arteries” to keep up with demand were replaced by different ones.

“You find yourself having to regenerate,” he added.

“You have to come up with new ideas to stay relevant.”

The company – a recent champion in this magazine’s Endeavour Awards’ Australian Industrial Product of The Year category – decided to take a more systematic approach to that much-used word, innovation. It narrowed things down to three genres: portfolio and products, profit and productivity, and pricing and processes.

Innovation is, of course, about much more than new products. In this case, it meant considering things including systems, definition of its markets, how its sells, and how it engages with the customer, explained the company’s chief operating and finance officer, Dennis Grech.

Formerly CFO at auto interiors specialist Futuris Automotive, he draws on the example of one of their high-profile clients: Tesla Motors. How it interacts with its customers, which is decidedly different from the standard car yard experience, interested Grech as much as their sleek electric sportscars.

IMG_5710“You don’t go kicking a tyre and having a look at a vehicle in a car yard, you actually go into a showroom, which is in a department store – it’s between a jewellery store and a clothes store and there you’ve got a Tesla vehicle… It’s a department store experience,” he told Manufacturers’ Monthly.

“It’s not just about manufacturing, it’s not just about selling. It’s actually that end-to-end process of how you engage with the customer. How do we deliver product to them? How do we allow them to order? How do we allow them to pay for that product?”

Whose problem will it solve?

Geofabrics’ major customers are attached to engineering and infrastructure projects, including coastal management, landfill sites, roads and rail, and – of course – resources.

Geosynthetics stabilise and reinforce vast amounts of earth, performing roles like keeping soil from absorbing water or eroding or collapsing into a spectacular heap. Geosynthetics, a “horizontal construction” are also reasonably new, and came about only in the 1960s

“They’re the only construction material invented in the 20th century,” said Swifte.

“Concrete, wood, steel, rock – [these have] been around forever.”

The company set up in Australia in 1978 as an importer, and began manufacturing in Albury in 1987, where its main product is made around the clock and around 55 are employed. It has since added a factory at Ormeau, Queensland, which has polypropylene Texcel as its main output and runs four days a week.

As is often the case in regional factories, many of the staff are long-termers, with some having tenures of around 20 years. This also means a wealth of corporate memory and wisdom onsite.

“They’re almost like mini-CFOs and mini-heads of operation,” Grech said of long-time lineworkers.

“They’ve got opinions on everything and some great ideas.”

For these reasons, they are encouraged to lend their insights to the company’s innovation drive. Everyone is.

IMG_5711“It’s as simple as what is the idea, what type of idea is it,” said innovation manager Ben Flavel, who began in late-April, describing the electronic process through which ideas are shared.

“What problem would it solve? Whose problem will it solve? And then how much value will it bring to Geofabrics. It’s designed to be an easy, quick snapshot: ‘hey I’ve got an idea. I can go and answer these questions very quickly.’”

The collection form app, introduced only in March, has already been used to share 165 ideas: 57 for sales, 51 product, 18 factory, 16 technical, 16 IT and seven others.

These have included website payment methods, ways to better highlight the company’s premium products, and ways to better package and deliver expertise offered through the business.

Submissions go through a stage-gate process of screen, scope, business case, design/test/validate and launch.

Flavel describes his job as like an entrepreneur-in-residence, championing and pursuing the submissions with a sense of fun and enthusiasm, and all the ideas as mini-start-ups.

“I think it’s important to recognise the idea, celebrate the idea in itself. So rather than just send out an email, I send some novelty toys,” he said.

Building on bidim

The Albury site has been making its bidim product since doors opened in 1987.

The polyester-based, nonwoven fabric starts as little polyester balls and end up wound into 6 metre-wide, 250-kilogram rolls at the end of the line. (“Just like your granddad’s cigarette rolling machine”, observed operations manager Howard Yen as we watched these at the end.)

Any of these geotextile rolls, once they leave the factory, can be matched up to a 10 – 15-minute window on the line using Historian software. This is essential for traceability, an area which lower-cost competition out of southeast Asian supply chains cannot match.IMG_5715

“Particularly in that landfill sector where there’s a lot of regulation, they really do value that transparency and QA, because they’re testing products onsite to make sure that what’s been delivered is what was ordered, what was specified,” Yen told Manufacturers’ Monthly.

Yen and company are currently in the middle of bringing a recent innovation to the company’s major product, bidim.

About to head into field tests at the time of writing is a graphene-enhanced version of bidim, which – when released – will be the first industrial-scale application of the single-atom-thick material in the world. (See sidebar.)

Besides the much-anticipated product, coated with Imagine Intelligent Materials’ Imgne G3 material, there are many, many areas where the company will be looking to do things differently.

Geofabrics has an aspirational target of increasing revenues by $10 million through its innovation program.

The secrets to unlocking all that value are out there on the company’s factory floors and offices, believe Flavel and co., just waiting to be tapped. Staff have all sorts of ideas. One at Ormeau who worked out that offcuts was handy on holidays, for example.

“Our 1200R Texcel makes a really great camping mat,’” Flavel remembered being told, with the coastal landfill/stabilisation product taking care of bumps and moisture.

“So then the next question is is there a market, how big’s the market. That’s then my job to go and explore that.”

Manufacturers’ Monthly travelled to the Albury site as a guest of Geofabrics Australasia.

A sidebar on graphene

The bidim with G3 project is the result of about nine months’ R&D with Imagine Intelligent Materials, which opened its Geelong pilot graphene factory this month.

“The background is that we’ve been working with them for about a year, I’d say, and in that industry, electrical conductivity in textiles has been desired for a long time,” David Giles-Kaye, executive director of Imagine IM’s certification labs, told Manufacturers’ Monthly.

Functionalised graphene would provide this conductivity and, if successful, provide a self-reporting leak-detection system for the many applications geotextiles are used in.IMG_5709

Proof-of-concept trials have been in progress the last couple of months.

“It was quite a journey,” said Swifte.

“It came from the concept that materials perform a function, but then how do you make that do something a little bit more smart?”

The product is scheduled for a September launch.

It would be a novel application for graphene, and dates back to discussions that began under the now-defunct textiles collaboration hub, launched under the former Labor government’s META initiative.

Giles-Kaye believes the collaboration – which involves technology spun out of the University of Wollongong, continuing work at other universities and the CSIRO, and new technology applied to a traditional manufacturer – is a model of the type of advanced manufacturing spruiked by the federal government.   

And with graphene in its early days and still unexploited as a platform technology, he believes there’s big potential there for Australian manufacturers.

“The story is not just about us, it’s about an industry,” he said.

“It ticks all the boxes for what the government wants us to be doing as an industry, and what the future of manufacturing in Australia really needs.”