CST Composites, a producer of composite tubing, has been in business since 1995. The company was recognised at the 2018 Endeavour Awards, receiving the Global Supply Chain Integration of the Year Award.
CST Composites has expanded in recent years, transitioning from highly-specialised production of low-volume custom products to high-volume manufacturing as an integral part of an international supply chain, with 93 per cent of the product being exported.
Chris Dixon, CST Composites’ chief operating officer, said that the company had initially been more of a job-shop, manufacturing small volumes of specially-designed, custom-made products. CST Composites’ transformation into a high-volume producer occurred quite suddenly when the company secured several large contracts to supply tube overseas. “Several years ago, we secured a couple of large contracts, and we had to upscale really quickly. We essentially built two production lines in a matter of months,” Dixon said.
In 2014, CST Composites acquired a factory in Ingleburn, NSW, and developed it into a high-volume manufacturing facility. The company’s headquarters and original production facility, located in Kurnell in New South Wales, has now become its research and development hub. Dixon said that, in recent years, production has ramped up by 800 per cent.
“We’re now at a point where we’re supplying 6.5 million parts a year,” Dixon said. “It was a really big turnaround from where we were previously. But what remains the same is that all our products, even at high volumes, still hold to extremely high-quality levels.”
Dixon said the company’s transition was a result of the IT control it wields over the whole of production – from design, to prototyping, to large-scale manufacture. “A lot of our success comes down to the fact that we do everything ourselves. We make our own machinery and we write our own software code to drive all of the machines,” Dixon said. “We have developed our own in-house ERP system to control everything. This has given us a lot of flexibility and the ability to scale up quite quickly.”
Dixon said that possessing the knowledge and skills to build all of the machinery in-house meant that the company didn’t have to rely on purchasing machinery from overseas or from other suppliers, keeping costs and lead-time down. The company is also at the cutting edge of using data to improve efficiencies. Every tube that goes through the system is measured with laser measurers accumulating millions of data points that go through every day. “A lot of people talk about manufacturing 4.0 and all that sort of stuff as something very new and very fresh, but we’ve been doing that for a very long time,” Dixon said. “We designed and built the production line so that we don’t need a very large labour force. We have about 30 staff.”
While small, the team is highly skilled and able to carry out processes from research and development to production. “We’ve got a combination of mechanical engineers, mechatronic engineers, material scientists, and manufacturing engineers,” Dixon said. “We invest around 30 per cent of our turnover back into our internal research and development.” The company has vertically integrated its capabilities, making it more flexible and responsive to the needs of product development and customer demand. “Because our research and development and our production is done in-house, we get to control the product from start to finish, providing us a lot of flexibility in terms of timing and delivery.
This flexibility provides CST Composites with a reduced turnaround time, enabling multiple rounds of prototyping and development of successful products to be carried out in a short time-frame.
It was this quality of CST Composites that helped it secure some of its more exciting and challenging contracts, including an order of tubing from NASA to construct a ground based re-entry skid pallet for the famous Hubble Telescope.
“That was quite a challenge, because the tube had to be sized with precision, and NASA was looking for a very short lead time. They were really struggling to find anything in the US that could either meet the accuracy or the turnaround time they needed. And so they came to us,” Dixon said.
“Within a week, we were able to make the tube NASA required and ship it off to them. They were really rapt with the quality of the product and the speed with which we could supply it.”
According to Dixon, transporting products to international clients at speed is one of the major challenges of operating in Australia. “We produce a lot of small parts, but we also make a lot of big tubes – up to 12 metres long. We’ve typically used air freight, as it’s the best way to provide the speed the customer demands,” Dixon explained. “But dealing with freight companies to get our product over the other side of the world quickly has been one of the bigger issues we’ve experienced. European competitors can ship something in a day. If we were to sea-freight a product, it would take six weeks.”
But Dixon said this challenge has presented opportunities for CST Composites. “It has driven our design work. We’ve redesigned our products to be in lengths so they can be transported easier. It’s driven a lot of innovation in our products and that has flow-on effects: the customers find it easier to pack our products up and transport them – it gives more options.”
At the cutting-edge
CST Composites has strived to be at the technological forefront – a feature of the company since its start over 20 years ago. “Composites are still considered a really new technology by most people. It helps being in a newer, undeveloped area – there is more potential and more markets to expand into,” said Dixon.
While high labour costs are a perennial difficulty for Australian manufacturers, CST Composites has pushed itself to make its systems less labour intensive. “We are trying to make our machines smarter so that multiple machines can be operated by a single person. Increasing efficiencies in this manner will provide operators with greater variety and, inevitably, more work,” Dixon said.
“A lot of the companies who have found manufacturing really tough over the years haven’t really developed far enough, and they’ve been hamstrung with traditional methods and procedures. In contrast, we’re looking way into the future. This is where we are going.”
Dixon said that the whole team was delighted to receive recognition for success at the Endeavour Awards. “Most of our team members are from an engineering background, so it’s not in their nature to gloat. But to receive the award was really awesome, especially in a category with such strong competition. To beat some of those bigger companies is definitely a real feather in our cap and we’re incredibly proud of it.”