A fire at its facility might be expected to spell disaster for the future of a company – but not for Elexon Electronics. A mere six weeks after a fire destroyed its main factory it is back in business with new components rolling off the production line.
Manufacturers’ Monthly got the opportunity to speak with CEO Frank Faller to learn how Elexon Electronics is recovering far quicker than the company ever expected, thanks to support from an incredible array of suppliers and competitors.
During the early hours of the morning on August 12 a devastating fire destroyed its long-standing manufacturing facility based in Brendale and, with it, its world-class equipment.
“It became clear very quickly that all of our manufacturing equipment was destroyed, equipment that we had spent years acquiring either through government grants or shrewd investing,” Faller said.
“The silver lining was that much of our raw materials were not destroyed, which to restock would have taken anywhere from 26 to 58 weeks. It would have crippled us.
“Initially the call came from our security company because a motion sensor had triggered an alarm. When viewing on a CCTV, a spot fire could be seen. By the time one of the owners of Elexon arrived, the building was almost completely engulfed in flames,” he said.
IntelliDesign, an electronics manufacturer from the South side of Brisbane that suffered through fire ten years ago, was the first to help. Wendy Weeks, IntelliDesign’s quality manager, was the first visitor on the site and she delivered supplies and a copy of the recovery plan IntelliDesign had used during its recovery.
“Andrew Ward, one of the owners of IntelliDesign also called me soon after to implore us to get our test equipment out of the facility as soon as possible,” Faller said.
“The mix of smoke and water is incredibly corrosive and destroys anything that otherwise had survived the fire.
“So, with our insurance provider and Fire Investigation Unit on board, following strict PPE and safety rules, we commenced with removing and cleaning anything salvageable on day three after the fire.,” Faller said.
Wide range of support
Almost every electronics manufacturer in Australia has reached out to the Elexon Electronics team, from Grabba (Crystalaid Manufacture) in Queensland, through to GPC in Sydney, Entech in South Australia and Extel Technologies in Victoria.
“We are incredibly grateful for this support, and we have identified an opportunity to partner with Extel Technologies in Melbourne,” Faller said. “The company has much of the same Mycronic PCB assembly equipment so it was a great opportunity to contract work to them. “Due to the compatibility of our equipment and theirs, it was simple to transfer our data and information to them and supply our parts and components.
“We expect them to be an important part of us continuing to send our quality products to market until we are back at full capacity in January 2024,” he said.
While some of Elexon Electronics’ competitors have been incredibly supportive, its suppliers have gone above and beyond to deliver a solution for the company.
“Two of our suppliers – Suba Engineering and HW Technologies, based in Sydney – were instrumental in providing a number of solutions for us throughout this process,” Faller explained.
While these two companies are competitors in their field, they worked together to help support Elexon Electronics during these challenging times.
HW Technologies had a complete Mycronic SMD production line for Elexon Electronics to rent but were missing a critical component, Faller picks up the story.
“HW Technologies had everything we needed in its showroom, but they did not have a reflow oven which is a critical component for our process,” he explained.
“Its competitor Suba Engineering offered to deliver a reflow oven to its site to allow us to have everything we needed in the one showroom.
“That is something we would never ask of them, but the two companies were willing and encouraged collaboration between themselves to support us, we could not believe it,” Faller said.
Utilising the showroom in Sydney was a short-term solution for Elexon Electronics, the next step was to ensure it could get itself back online and delivering for customers as soon as possible.
Elexon Electronics discovered a new facility only one and a half kilometers down the road. Covering 1500 square meters in warehousing and 1,500 square meters in office space, it was the perfect site for the company to set itself up.
The immediate steps were to plan to build a dedicated manufacturing cell within the warehouse with a suspended ceiling, air conditioning, ESD measures and other important safety and security components for the site.
While the company waited for these aspects to be completed it set up a marquee in the warehouse to have a space for new machinery and raw materials to be delivered.
“Suba Engineering was fantastic, they had a piece of machinery slated to go to a customer in South Australia, they contacted them to understand if it was possible to send it to us in Queensland instead,” Faller detailed.
“That customer was more than happy to wait a little longer so we could take delivery, that is just another example of the incredible community we have in manufacturing.
“Five weeks after the fire we built our first boards in our new facility at our new warehouse, along with technicians from both suppliers to help us with the initial setup.
“By having that marquee set up, we were able to accept delivery at our new warehouse and was going to save us double handling the equipment as it arrived in Queensland,” he said.
A capability Elexon does not have at the moment is flying probe testing, something that can be done at Crystalaid Manufacture, and the company was more than happy to help..
“They have what is almost the exact same machine we did, and they offered us access to it including a desk for our test engineer.” he said.
“Bosch Power Tools also reached out recently to offer some tools on loan for us to use until we could source our own,” Faller said.
The prospect of an event such as what occurred to Elexon Electronics is enough to send a shiver down the spine of any manager or CEO of a company, with many expecting to be out of commission for 12 to 18 months, not producing goods after six weeks like Elexon Electronics.
Getting back online is testament to the determination and skill of the Elexon Electronics team, but also the support of the wider manufacturing community in Australia.
“This whole process takes time, while a lot has fallen into place for us such as the new facility and the ability to source manufacturing equipment, the support of the wider industry is what made it happen.
“We are lucky this new facility will actually suit our needs better, it has a huge warehouse floor, and more space that can better set us up for the future.
The wider team at Elexon Electronics has been an incredible asset to the company’s success over the journey, but they became integral to the recovery process.
“These are the moments that you need a strong team and that is what we have here at Elexon Electronics,” Faller said.
“It has always been a focus of ours to develop a positive, strong, and inclusive culture, and these are the times it pays off, I have been amazed by our team throughout.
“The prospect of cleaning equipment or components is a daunting one and to do it day after day can be difficult, but everybody did it with a smile on their face and were encouraging each other, it really shows the commitment of the team,” he explained.
Elexon Electronics understood seeing the company where you are employed going up in flames would be scary for any of its employees, so it knew it had to act fast. The company maintained an open line of communication throughout, and they knew that on the other side of the recovery it would have a lot of work to do.
Not one team member has departed throughout the process, a testament to the success of the organisation.
“I would never have thought we could turn the situation around so quickly,” Faller said. “Six weeks after the devastating fire, we produced the first set of PCB boards for one of our main products. We already started building a few simple assemblies and by the end of October, we will be working on a job for a defence customer. It would have never happened without our amazing team, the support of our community and the patience of our customers.
“I always look at everything we do as an opportunity and this situation is no different,” Faller said.
“We know we will come out at the other end of this as a much stronger and resilient team, we are very upbeat and positive about our future.
“Last year, we took home the Defence Teaming Centre resilience award and that takes pride of place in my office, we feel we well and truly deserve it after everything that has happened to us,” Faller chuckled.
Safeguarding for the future
In order to prevent a catastrophe like this from occurring again at Elexon Electronics, it has worked tirelessly with industry professionals such as Fire Service Queensland to develop safe storage and handling strategies for Li-batteries.
This work encompasses a fire safety plan, reviewing process, staff training, lithium fire extinguishers and blankets, and even an advanced early detection system. From now on, Elexon will store all lithium batteries in an insulated and temperature-controlled 40-foot container outside of the building.
Its plan also involves careful control of batteries inside the building, with only the required production quantity for any given day to be taken inside. These will be stored in a separate room outside of the production area and purpose-built fireproof transport carriers will be used at all times.
At the day’s end, all remaining batteries, semi-completed and completed goods will be returned to the purpose-built container for safe storage.
There are new technologies on the market such as Aqueous Vermiculite Dispersion (AVD) extinguishing agent. It is a new technology that uses fixed and portable delivery techniques to effectively combat lithium-ion battery fires. Elexon will be using a mix of the AVD Lith-Ex extinguishers and fire blankets, ensuring it has the safest and most advanced lithium fire solutions at our facility moving forward.
Elexon Electronics is learning from challenges. “Despite our consistent efforts to maintain safety, we experienced significant setback. For this reason, we want to take on the role of industry mover and shaker and share our learning and experience with our community to prevent others from facing similar adversities,” Faller concludes on a positive note.