Manufacturers Monthly got the opportunity to tour the facilities at ActionLaser in Sydney who recently completed its project with the Advanced Manufacturing Growth Centre (AMGC), learning the ins and outs of the company and what is driving its success both locally and globally.
ActionLaser’s laser drilling technology was developed by CSIRO back in the 1980s to meet the needs of the sugar industry in Australia. The company was then born in 1988, delivering some of the first laser perforated filtration screens globally, and is now exporting close to 80 per cent of its product internationally.
The company was and remains the pioneer in laser drilling technology and manufactures filtration for industries including sugar, mining, chemical and plastic recycling. The company has recently launched its second-generation replacement MeltFilter discs that are more efficient and longer lasting.
ActionLaser created the MeltFilter discs to fit Erema Plastic, the global industry-leader in polymer and plastic recycling machines. Their R&D has determined the optimal steel type, annealing process, and heat treatment required, and developed a propriety method of perforating the steel disc, using a laser to drill precise micro-holes in a circular pattern that maximises disc strength.
When developed by the CSIRO in the 1980’s, the original chrome coated stainless steel filtration screens were designed to meet the needs of the sugar industry who were desperate for a more efficient centrifuge screen that was able to provide a longer working life and withstand extreme abrasion.
Head of Sales and Marketing Stephen Greer recently joined the company and explained the company’s growth to where it is today – a key part of the filtration industry.
“Originally the partnership was ActionLaser working closely with the Australian sugar industry,” Greer explained.
“When you are filtering sugar, you have three levels, the first two levels of filtration are relatively simple and low impact but it’s that third level that is the most challenging and that is where our system comes in.”
“That level of filtration has a lot of ‘violence’, it is very abrasive, and it is the pivotal level when it comes to maximising the amount of sugar extracted,” Greer said.
The laser system was created to perforate stainless steel as it was going to last longer than other types of metal, without it companies would be changing filters almost daily as opposed to months at a time with the ActionLaser system.
As with any business – particularly one delivering such a ground-breaking solution – ActionLaser has dealt with numerous challenges over the journey, as Greer explained.
“I think ActionLaser is similar to a lot of Australian businesses, we are good at what we do but we struggle to communicate that with a wider audience,” Greer said.
“Sometimes it can feel like we are a train running on greased rails and this is the benefit in bringing the AMGC on board, it gave us an opportunity to re-calibrate and even find a new way to think about how we look to the future, it is a great change in culture.”
“We need to stop being the humble little Aussie battler, we should bring more people with STEM backgrounds in who we can utilise to grow our company and help us to compete on a global stage,” Greer said.
While some businesses were nervous about bringing an Australian supplier like ActionLaser on board, German manufacturer Siebtechnik recognised the quality of an Australian product and sought out the ActionLaser filter.
It was an exciting learning curve for the company and allowed them to set up the business in a way that allowed it to cater directly to its clients as Greer detailed.
“We had the technology well established but it was about finding a way to make sure it delivered specifically for Siebtechnik,” he said.
“Siebtechnik needed the filter to be steel based which was something new, but it allowed us to test the limits of our system and how far the laser could go,” Greer said.
A further challenge faced by ActionLaser is the supply of its metal for its new product and new market coming from Europe, which can pose numerous challenges as many of the filtration companies are based on the continent.
“Very few manufacturers could make the steel directly to our parameters needed and so the only place we could go to was Europe and the fear always was that we would be left behind when compared to our European counterparts,” Greer explained.
“When looking at the global market we realised we could not go along doing the same as everyone else and we should start to look at ways to differentiate ourselves.”
“It was important to fill any gaps in our knowledge and source more locally and so we partnered with Heat Treatment Australia, which improved our lead times and onshored our process – which is fantastic,” he said.
International perceptions and growing globally
A success for ActionLaser has been its ability to not only deliver locally but really succeed overseas and export a large percentage of what it produces.
“I think the hardest thing for us initially was the idea of customers that we are far away from Europe,” Greer said.
“I remember speaking to a German client and when I showed him an Asian centric map that had us in the middle, he was fascinated by the idea that we are not as far away as he thought,” he said.
Production manager David Pask joined ActionLaser in the last couple of years and discussed how the company has overcome this perception.
“We recently had a Polish company where our contact spent months convincing his superiors to give us a chance,” Pask said.
“Then once they came on board, he contacted us and said, ‘Hey, I sent you the order Thursday and it was here by Monday’, which we knew was always possible, it was about convincing them that is what we can do.”
“We are good at logistics, it is what we have done for years and having clients in Europe for over 30 years means we have a firm understanding of what we need to do to deliver on time,” he said.
Uses for filters
Initially a challenge for ActionLaser was competing with low-cost markets based out of Latin America and Asia but the arrival of COVID-19 and supply chain issues has changed the thinking around products like filters.
The initial development of the filters was to meet the needs of sugar made in the southern hemisphere which is made from sugar cane and far more abrasive than sugar from the northern hemisphere [from sugar beets].
The challenging lead times seen throughout and after the pandemic has seen a shift of thinking away from simply cheap products but a move towards higher quality and longer lasting products such as the filters supplied by ActionLaser.
Creating this strong and high- quality product has seen the filter used for a range of applications, one being aluminium supplier Alcoa in washing its alumina By bringing in a longer lasting filter it removes the instances of replacement and team members having to enter the machines, which could increase the likelihood of injuries.
“Changing from cloth filters to stainless steel has taken the life from two to three months to now close to five years,” Greer explained.
“When I recently travelled to Europe, I was able to learn a lot about our customers and their needs and what I uncovered was, is that we are the critical point for all of these companies, the filter is pivotal to their operations,” he said.
Greer went on to detail how ActionLaser works closely with its clients to deliver a customised product filling the needs of the application.
“We do not just send the product and say here you go good luck; we go into a lot more detail than that,” he said.
“We will develop the product with a client, so we can make sure we meet their needs.”
“We can communicate what our limitations are when it comes to our technology – which is not much – with the plastics industry our limitation was that we could drill but we could not process the melt disk.”
“We have now brought that advanced manufacturing processing in house so we can manage the whole process and give strong repeatability, quality and performance,” Greer said.
Challenges facing Australian manufacturing
As often is the case, Australia developed impressive filter systems that were not seen anywhere else in the world, but people continually attempted to copy ActionLaser’s design; unsuccessfully, as Greer explains.
“I think the thing to remember is that when we started this process it was just us, whereas now there are five or six in Europe alone plus countless companies throughout Asia,” he said.
“These third-party companies are attempting to compete on price alone and we need to show our quality when compared to them. It is important for us to take the high road and continue to deliver a high-quality product and show users globally what a quality product from Australia can do,” he said.
Greer went on to discuss what Australian manufacturers need to be doing to compete on a global scale.
“When you look at a company like RØDE Microphones based out of Silverwater they have found a niche and completely dominate the microphone market globally, not just in Australia,” he said.
“ActionLaser has been able to lean in and own a big piece of a small pie by finding a niche and I think that is a strong way for us to compete internationally. It will be all about finding an area with maybe only two to three competitors.”
Greer is excited for the future for ActionLaser and with the arrival of new faces the company is expected to go from strength to strength.
With Bevan Rashford into his role of CEO for 20 years, the company is in a strong position and was able to bring Greer on board recently along with production manager David Pask, the company is looking to maximise its position in the market by bringing in the right people.
ActionLaser has partnered with a company based out of the United Kingdom which has been mutually beneficial for both.
“That company is able to service our filters throughout Europe, it improves our footprint across the continent, it means we now have the product, a service provider in the vicinity and a strong presence in the market,” Greer explained.
“We recently partnered with a Spanish company who will be supplying our MeltFilters to Europe,” Greer said.
“They have been able to go out and speak to our customers and get really positive feedback and having that close point of contact moving forward will be a massive benefit to us. They have already managed to generate over 40 leads for us.”
While ActionLaser is close to the Asian market, they will also have a partner in Japan who will be selling the filters and supporting them with the backup support.
“We have a partner in Japan who will be presenting at the expo in Japan later this year and we are excited to grow more and more in that market,” Greer explained.
“We are taking a different approach to each region; we have been in Europe throughout June and July, and we will go to Japan in October and then the United States later in the year and we will try to uncover the best way to approach each market.”
“We are taking it market by market, we have Europe up and running and I think the next step is Asia and then the United States after that but that is why these trips are so important,” he said.
It is not just new regions that ActionLaser is moving into, they are continuing to update its processes and making the customer experience far smoother.
“We have updated our website and created a new MeltFilter brand for plastic recycling to make sure as we go to more markets globally, the website reflects the quality of the product that we are sending to market,” Greer said.
“Even on our old website we were getting strong leads from across the globe, so we have updated it now and we hope to see that grow even further,” he said.
Automation is the next step for the company as it looks to find ways to improve the quantity of filters it can send to market as Pask explains.
“At the moment we have to babysit the machines as they work, we have to have them manned for the eight hours we are here,” he said.
“By automating that process we can change pour output from eight hours to 24 hours of working time and that will be a game changer.”
“We can then re-deploy those workers out into other areas and that will improve our output even further, it is an exciting prospect,” he explained.
The AMGC co-funded the project with ActionLaser, contributing $558,500 while Industry matched it with $741,500.
AMGC co-funds industry projects to commercialise innovation. In this way, approved industry projects demonstrate how, and the techniques, Australian manufacturing can become more globally competitive.
AMGC projects are expected to add 4288 jobs in Australian manufacturing and has committed $137.2 million currently with an expectation that it will yield a return of $1.62 billion in estimated revenue.
AMGC recently announced the Advanced Manufacturing Ecosystem Fund of $7.5 million in which it seeks to build the advanced manufacturing ecosystem in the Northern Territory. The fund aims to grow advanced capabilities and increase investment in and output of advanced manufacturing activity in the Northern Territory and grow jobs.
Tyson Bowen from AMGC explained what the goal for AMGC is when it partners with companies like ActionLaser.
“We look for hidden gems like ActionLaser and the goal is to give them the ability to commercialise and grow, with the aim to lift other company’s along with them,” he said.
“A rising tide lifts many boats.”
“It is about building partnerships between company’s and giving them the ability to grow and that is what we have seen with ActionLaser, they have developed this and now they can compete on a global market.”