Liferaft maker blows away the competition

Hobart’s Liferaft Systems Australia may not be a household name, but it leads the world in a highly demanding area and is a supplier to navies and shipping giants all over the world. Brent Balinski spoke to its managing director, Mike Grainger.

“This is like building parachutes, in this company,” explained Mike Grainger, managing director of Liferaft Systems Australia (LSA).

“Only our parachutes have 100 people hanging off them.”

LSA specialises in marine evacuation systems (MES), a demanding niche involving a very serious, very much life-or-death application: getting as many people to safety as possible in the event of a mishap on a ship.

It is one of one four companies worldwide in the MES market, a market which it has also changed through various innovations. These have included building an evacuation slide deploying passengers and crew directly into a vessel, and creating the world’s first 100-person liferaft.

Its product range is very limited and focused, and everything is tailor-made for clients. These include the US, New Zealand, British, French and Dutch navies.

“We don’t make small liferafts for sailing yachts, we don’t make lifejackets or immersion suits,” said Grainger.

The firm began in 1992, formed to provide their slide-based solution to Hobart’s world-renowned shipmaker, Incat.

Like several other suppliers to the maker of wave-piercing ferries, it got started to supply as Incat expanded in the 1990s. It is part of the Tasmanian Maritime Network.

For three years Incat was LSA’s only customer, but now the inflatable structures specialist exports 98 per cent of what it makes.

“North America and Northern Europe are our biggest markets at the moment, and Norway’s a good market for us – passenger ferries in Norway,” Grainger told Manufacturers’ Monthly.

“The largest ferry operators in America are using our systems. Some of them are using our systems exclusively. Defence is also a big part of our business.”

Current contracts include US Navy vessels and the Royal Navy in the UK for two aircraft carriers under construction.

“One has been launched, the other is about halfway through its construction phase,” Grainger added.

“That was a big feather in our cap – for those massive ships, which are as big as the biggest aircraft carriers in the world, they chose to use our systems for evacuation of those.”

Serious applications such as what LSA caters for are governed by extremely strict standards. The company receives three random visits a year from an international classification society, which conducts random checks including to see if systems – which are roughly the size and appearance of a large jumping castle – are built within millimetres of technical drawing specifications.

Systems are also randomly inflated during inspections, and must do so within a certain time. The massive structures generally inflate within 60 seconds.

“Everything we do here comes under an international convention called SOLAS, and that’s the Safety of Lives at Sea Convention, which was implemented after the Titanic disaster,” explained Grainger, who is chairman of the board of global shipping association Interferry.

Equipment must also be able to work within a temperature range of – 30 to 60 degrees C.

Working to such a niche and such a demanding set of criteria presents several difficulties.

R&D is done in-house, as assistance with projects, such as a recent redesign of the company’s slides, is hard to find. Unlike, say, the data for properties of different types of steel, information on inflatable structures is hard to come by.

“There’s no-one in this country that can tell you how much a tube of air will bend under a certain pressure or for a given volume,” was an example Grainger gave. “So we developed all that data in-house and put it to good use.

“It’s not easy, but I guess the positive aspect is that we control our own destiny, somewhat.”

The company has trained staff in 26 countries to service their units, with this needing to happen every 12 months.

A recent growth opportunity identified is the super yacht market, for privately owned ships in excess of 100 metres in length.

LSA is also developing a new product, which Grainger declined to say very much about other than the system would be another “game changer”, would inflate faster, be cheaper to make and be safer overall.

Product development and accreditation present their difficulties, but the Derwent Park business beats the world in its esoteric little manufacturing corner, finds itself in demand from some of the biggest names in shipping, and has gotten very, very good at what it does. 

It’s that or fail: nobody wants to be stuck with a giant parachute that doesn’t work.

“Our quality system is probably as good, if not better, than any other manufacturing facility of this size in the country; again, that’s just because of the nature of the product,” he said.

“We’re the only company in Australia that builds inflatable life-saving equipment to an international regulatory framework.”