Penguin Composites adapts to changing climate

Penguin Composites has rolled with the times over nearly four decades, and smartly tackled a variety of very different tasks. Brent Balinski spoke to the company’s CEO and founder John van der Woude about the importance of being versatile.

“We make power poles, pipe work, chemical tanks, igloos, dog wash trailers, pressure vessels; we’ve done some artwork, too” explained John van der Woude, founder and CEO of Penguin Composites.

The business on Tasmania’s north-west coast has dealt with changing fortunes in various markets by doing business in as many of them as possible.

“We've got a very nice mould over there for a big 23-foot cat. We've done a lot of septic tanks, filament-wound tanks,” continued van der Woude.

To the above can be added things like trench covers, walkways and chair-lift components – which have been exported to several international airports. And it recently added a lightweight but super-strong windlass cover to its repertoire (see video here).

The founder’s company is happy to lend its expertise with resins, fibreglasses, acrylics, vinyl esters, phenolics and other materials to a long list of applications, from building facades to underground mining to many others. It was necessary, explained van der Woude, as he proudly added that Penguin also built the seats at the ferry terminal at Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art.

Starting in 1976 as a maker of fibreglass kayaks and canoes for the adventure market, a product the company now barely deals with, Penguin has grown to cover two sites and eight buildings and a recreational vehicle (RV) manufacturing facility.

The RV market is now a focus for the business, which acquired Islander Campers in 2009. It continues to improve its processes around making composite panels for caravans, as it has been doing for roughly a decade.

“Continually improving and streamlining our processes. It’s a constant, ongoing change. New models – lots of new models,” van der Woude told Manufacturers’ Monthly.

“More wind-efficient, trying to get them lighter, so they will comply with vehicle loads. We've done some caravan models.”

The company makes an off-road caravan model in two different sizes. The CEO is particularly proud of the slide-on Innovan model, which is about half the weight of a comparable steel camper and thus requires much less muscle to tow.

The focus on RVs is easy to understand, with the caravan market in Australia continuing to grow, and doing so by 4.4 per cent last year.

An area where opportunities are shrinking for van der Woude’s business is Caterpillar’s Underground Mining operations in Burnie.

Like many manufacturers in the north and north-west, Penguin has a long history supplying to Caterpillar, which is winding down its manufacturing operations in Burnie and moving these to Thailand.

The composites company provides heat shields and dashboards to Caterpillar. Once a significant part of Penguin’s output, their sales to the mining business have shrunk over recent years. This is now fortunately quite small, perhaps around a tenth of what they sell, said van der Woude.

The company’s longstanding ability to diversify should see them adapt, reckons the founder.

“We've been managing to move away, to diversify since 2008, when the GFC hit and before then we were already diversifying,” said van der Woude.

“We've weathered two storms already, with that happening, and looking for alternative products. Being broad, having a broad base, we're able to move across; to survive, basically.”

Its adaptability is a point of difference especially relevant for companies who are isolated geographically.

“We're a low volume, custom company, and that's where we can specialise in Australia,” he said.

“If it goes high volume it goes overseas. High volume becomes a commodity. We’re not in the commodity market.”



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