Good customer relations can be a two way street. They can provide the customer the benefit of good service and deliver the manufacturer valuable insights into what products the market really wants. Matt McDonald reports.
Precision Tool Engineering was established in 1967 as a jobbing shop that provided quality precision machining services.
Even back then, this was a pretty cut throat area of business and by 1985 the company decided it needed to take control of its own destiny. It set about finding a product that would fit with its machining capability and also suit its sales and marketing department.
That product turned out to be hydraulic cylinders, and in 1990 the company was reborn as PTE Hydraulics.
“We came up with hydraulic cylinders because they are used in a wide range of industries and applications,” Peter Harrison PTE Hydraulics’ Director of Production & Marketing told Manufacturers’ Monthly.
“And we felt…that there was an opportunity there for some innovative thinking in improving designs in that area.”
Today PTE Hydraulics makes hydraulic cylinders for use in a wide range of industries including materials handling, general industry, agricultural, earthmoving, mining, waste management, manufacturing applications, and transport.
Another big change for the company occurred about two or three years ago.
“We discovered after a fair bit of investigation that with some innovative use of tooling, with some of the modern multi-axis CNC lathes that we’d bought, we could actually machine helical splines which were the key determinant of a rotary actuator.”
The rotary actuators they came up with are compact units capable of generating very high torque in applications requiring limited rotational movement. Their design is based on the use of multiple helical gears machined to a high level of precision to ensure reliability, efficiency and durability.
They are used within mining, drilling and earthmoving applications. And, given that they are designed as completely sealed units, they are also suitable for use within the pharmaceutical and food processing industries.
Given this history, is it fair to say PTE Hydraulics agrees with the view that Australian manufacturers need to be willing to diversify?
“It’s absolutely crucial,” said Harrison. “As you’ve seen with the car industry we are exposed in Australia to international competition.
“And the Indians and Chinese are getting very good at copying things and making big runs of product very cheaply because they obviously have low labour costs and cheap raw materials available at hand.”
Harrison explained that PTE Hydraulics was one of the early local adherents to the Lean Manufacturing philosophy and has always been fairly flexible.
And the critical point is that PTE Hydraulics has established close relationships with its key OEM customers.
“We’re talking to them all the time,” Harrison said.
“We can work hand in glove with them very closely, whereas if they’re sourcing product from India or China that’s a lot more difficult.”
In other words, it can respond to what the market really wants.
PTE Hydraulics sells only about
20 per cent of its products directly from its standard catalogue. The rest of its business involves customised items.
“We’ve found that working with our key OEM customers they always seem to require something to change, something not available off the shelf. And if you can still do that cost efficiently by using CNC technology in the machining area you can still compete,” said Harrison.
He said that this is path all Australian manufacturers need to follow.
“We’ve got to focus on those niche markets we’re really good at and still be cost effective and using the best production technology that we can,” he said.
Even the decision to start making helical rotary actuators was born out of relationships with customers.
“We worked closely with a number of our key OEM customers – that’s always been a critical success factor for us. Several mentioned they would be interested in a helical rotary actuator because it’s a sort of complimentary product to hydraulic cylinders,” said Harrison.
There are no other locally made hydraulic rotary actuators. They are all imported by major European
and American players who make them basically to catalogue specifications.
According to Harrison, such an approach works well in large markets but not so well here.
“So we saw an excellent opportunity to work with our customers and make them customised products to fit their particular application. And the overseas competitors find it difficult to match that,” said Harrison.
Research & development
PTE Hydraulics has an ongoing R&D program aimed at increasing the performance levels and the working life of products and simplifying their repair and maintenance.
This has included a long-standing collaboration with the University of Queensland’s Mechanical Engineering Department.
“It started back in the early 90s and at that stage it was focussed on boosting our hydraulic cylinder designs,” said Harrison.
The company worked with PhD and undergraduate students as well as the academic staff.
“[We were] tackling some of the fundamental design issues with hydraulic cylinders. And that’s how we’ve set ourselves up as the expert in Australia on those,” Harrison said.
PTE Hydraulics has done a lot of research on helical rotary actuators and now the company’s focus is on commercialising the products. The company now wants to get some of the designs out into the market place and generate some market awareness of them.
“They are an incredibly flexible product. [They’re] sort of like hydraulically operated hinges,” said Harrison.
This means that if you can control them very closely they give you a great deal of responsiveness.
“A lot of potential users are looking at it and saying that is something I could use in this product,” said Harrison.
“And that requires a lot of design and development work on our part to tailor our designs to those particular applications.”
Signing off, Harrison acknowledged that now is a challenging time for manufacturing in Australia and only those willing to put in a lot of hard work can hope to succeed.
But he added with optimism – “With adversity comes opportunities…”