A productivity game-changer

Combilift forklifts have increased efficiency and improved processes for many Australian steel manufacturers. Manufacturers’ Monthly caught up with Des Watkins, managing director of Watkins Steel about the company’s future plans and how Combilift saves time and improves efficiency.

Operating since 1968, Watkins Steel has serviced clients in the building, mining, and construction industries throughout Brisbane and South-East Queensland. The steel sub-contractor specialises in structural steel and metalwork fabrication, but has adopted robotics and the latest 3D technology to produce a variety of steel structures with increased precision.

The business was founded by Des Watkins Senior, and in 2004, his son Des took over the business. Every ten years, Watkins has moved factories and every decade, the company has doubled in size.

“By doubling in size and constantly growing, what we found spreading the square metres in our manufacturing facility increased our efficiency by about 30 per cent,” he said. “But the only way we can achieve this is with the Combilift forklifts. Moving away from overhead cranes and having the forklifts driving up the factory – it’s a game-changer. It’s been a revelation for us.”

A forklift to support advanced manufacturing

Watkins has invested in an eight-tonne and four-tonne forklift, with another on the way, supporting the company’s evolution from a purely traditional steel manufacturer. In 2014, the company began investing in robotics. The adoption of robotics meant a transition to digitalise and adapt the workshop to better-feed the technology.

“What determines the efficiency of the robotics is how fast you can get material into them and how fast you can take material off conveyors,” Watkins explained. “Our big point of difference is we’ve got the excess space, but that’s useless if you can’t use it properly. The only way to use it properly is by adapting to the side-loader forklifts.”

Making the change from using traditional gantry forklift to Combilift has made life a lot easier for operations managers on the ground floor, added Watkins. The Combilift CB multidirectional forklift uses manoeuvrability to increase speed, suited to longer length materials such as steel beams. The multi-directional range combines the advantages of a counterbalanced forklift, side loader and very narrow aisle truck in one vehicle. In steel manufacturing, products are often very long, and with tight workspaces around the fabricators, there is no space to move sideways with traditional cranes.

“In short, I’d say that Combilift set themselves apart not only for the quality of their equipment, but how operator-friendly it is too,” he said. “We have been a traditional steel fabrication business the whole time, but what sets us aside now is the innovation and the equipment that we utilise to make our business successful and a little bit different to a traditional steel fabrication business.”

In order to advance its robotics prowess, Watkins introduced laser scanning, creating a digital footprint using the Faro Focus 3D X 130 Laser Scanner to accurately capture the full external or internal detail of any building, site, or environment. As a result, all drawings are accurate before moving to the steel processing and fabrication phase and data is captured with speed and accuracy.

Seeing the possibilities for the use of these services outside of the steel industry, Watkins created a new company called Holovision, which provides an extensive range of 3D solutions.

“Holovision has grown at a rate of knots, so we now have the Banyo-based company in Melbourne, Mackay, Darwin and North Queensland,” he said. “We’re doing work in New Zealand and have our first job in America next month. I love how fast it’s moving – it does come down to how fast you can get steel in and out which is why Combilift is so beneficial for us.”

Laser scanning is powerful technology, able to measure around a million points per second up to a range of 130 metres. A point cloud of millions of surveyed points can be used for a variety of applications in different industries, including site survey and clash detection, volume-metrics, heritage sites, urban planning, building measurement, digital scene documentation and development approval.

Out with the old, in with the new

Up until June 2019, Watkins was operating out of one facility in Banyo, Brisbane, and the difficulty at the time was the bottleneck caused by the unloading and loading of trailers.

“We would have four trailers waiting outside our premises and a truck would take up to three hours to unload, using the traditional method of unloading steel items using overhead gantry cranes,” Watkins noted.

Watkins’ Four Step Process – an award-winning concept– has been implemented to set the business apart from other traditional steel fabricators. It is a unique digital workflow that links an entire steel fabrication and installation process for a project from start to finish, and factors in data such as steel detailing, processing, and installation.

The company created the digital workflow by investing in a series of technological equipment that could integrate with Tekla Structures Software for steel detailing.

“It involves 3D laser scanning the construction site, and the work area that we’ve been asked to supply steel for. The scanner captures the images of all the hard fixtures on the job site,” explained Watkins.

“The second step in the process is the Tekla Structures Software, which is designed to deliver a 3D image of the steelwork that needs to be manufactured, which visualises for the builder or the customer. The Combilift comes in at the third step, and that is the raw processing of materials. The NC1 files, which are developed from Tekla software, are also passed through the third step.”

Pushing innovation further

In order to support its recent growth, Watkins has built its own research and development department. Of the company’s 100 staff, 20 are doing jobs which have only just existed.

“With more lines of robotics coming, we’re going to be processing more steel,” he said. “For every line of robotics we commission, we employ an additional 10 people, which is a great argument for robotics creating jobs rather than replacing them. By utilising that technology, there’s massive opportunities in animation, virtual reality and augmented reality. We’ve taken between 3000-5000 man hours per month out of the factory just for the automation and digitalisation process.”

Watkins shows complete confidence in Combilift’s forklifts, leaving the ins and outs to his operations manager.

“Our team have the discretion to do what they want as long as they answer two questions: will it either make us or save us the cost of the machines. With Combilift, it’s been a no-brainer for us.”

Watkins has a vision of end-to-end automation for the steel fabrication process.

“There’s not a complete end goal because you can always improve with robotics,” he concluded. “But it still comes down to needing to move steel off the trucks and onto the machines, which is where Combilift has an integral place in the workflow of Watkins Steel.”