Buying Australian isn’t always about ‘supporting’ local industry. Often it’s more about checking what’s available and realising the locally made product is better than the import. Matt McDonald writes.
There are several imported ride-on mowers available on the Australian market. Most were made in North America and designed for the ‘grooming market’. In other words, they are intended for already established lawns, manicured parks and so forth.
However, they are not suited to Australian conditions.
“In Australia the application for ride on mowers is rural and regional areas and typically what we call bush blocks and native paddocks,” Cox Industries Managing Director, Ken McColl told Manufacturers’ Monthly.
“In Australia the ride on mower is often used for mowing native grasses in rough, rugged terrain. The machine has to be much stronger than the US import generally.”
In contrast, said McColl, a Cox mower has no trouble handling uneven terrain and native grasses.
“It will go straight through it even if it’s knee-high and sometimes wet,” he explained.
And, he said, this is why these locally made products have been successful in this country. Put simply, Australians buy them because they cut their grass well.
How does Cox achieve this extra strength and durability?
“Fundamentally by engineering design,” McColl explained. “[We use] heavier gauge steel to make them stiffer…proper welding…not just spot welds like in automotive manufacturing but fillet welds.”
The largest ride-on mower manufacturer in Australia, Cox industries was established by engineer and inventor Owen Cox in the 1950s. Today, the company produces 5000 products a year at its factory in the Brisbane suburb of Acacia Ridge.
Of course, things have changed in the company’s 60 years of operation.
“[Over the past 10 years] we have automated the welding and purchased three welding robots,” McColl said. “About 10 years ago we had over 50 manual welders, people welding with welding masks and welding rods around the factory and today that number is one.”
That one welder is basically on board for any odd jobs which need doing.
There are more changes in the pipeline. The company is looking to invest in more high speed laser cutters in the next couple of years. According to McColl, factors like natural product growth and staff attrition mean these changes will not have a significant effect on the company’s core factory staff of about 30.
Research and Development
The company prioritises research and development. As McColl explained, in R&D terms there’s a parallel with the automotive industry.
“About every five years or so we have to have major product upgrades and new models… the lifeblood of this business is our R&D section,” he said.
“We have a team of very highly skilled and qualified engineers who are developing new products all the time and we release a new model about every five years.”
He said that while R&D is hugely expensive for the company, it is also “one of the keys to the future” and something Cox excels at.
When asked what changes he expects to see in the market, McColl nominated regulatory changes in the areas of carbon emissions from 4 stroke engines and evaporation of petrol from petrol tanks.
In addition, he said he expected there will be changes in noise reduction legislation at some point down the track. Though he added that noise is not a big issue in Australia because the mowers are generally found on large rural blocks and don’t tend to bother anybody.
In terms of technological changes, McColl said robotic mowers will be the next big thing.
“Robots are already used in domestic applications. A bit like the robot vacuum cleaners that are readily available now,” he said.
Like many, McColl finds it hard to be optimistic when he looks at the Australian manufacturing sector.
“I don’t think our governments have woken up what the demise of manufacturing is going to do to this country. I don’t see them in the short term doing anything that’s going to help manufacturing,” he said.
He nominated payroll tax as something in particular that he finds hard to stomach.
“Governments talk about jobs, jobs, jobs…every night of the week, but as soon as you start employing people they charge you payroll tax,” he said.
However, he does see a bright future for Cox industries and said the lowering of the Australian dollar has been a relief.
“There was a time there a couple of years ago when the dollar was very high people were buying the throw away product that’s available from off shore and we see a trend in them going back to buying solid, durable Australian made product from ourselves.”
“Our products last for years and years. Sometimes we get products that have been in the market for decades. We have people ringing up wanting spare parts for mowers from the1970s and 80s.”
The company does export around five per cent of its products to New Zealand, South East Asia, and the Pacific Islands. It doesn’t export to the northern hemisphere, simply because the shipping is too expensive.
That leaves most Cox mowers right here in Australia, where they are just right for those nice big bush blocks and those tough native grasses.