Soaring Innovation (3/5)

Written on the 1 February 2011

JULY 2010

When the world’s largest aerospace and defence companies land in the UK for the Farnborough International Airshow (FIA) this month, four Brisbane companies will be there. Ferra Engineering, Heat Treatment Australia, Micreo and Crystalaid Manufacture offer supply chain solutions to high flyers Lockheed Martin and Boeing.

FERRA Engineering may have secured its future through a $1.1 billion 30-year memorandum of understanding (MOU) with US defence company Lockheed Martin, but the Tingalpa-based manufacturer is still hungry.

Sales manager Aaron Thompson says now that the deal to supply F-35 parts is finalised, Ferra hopes to expand its global aviation presence at the FIA with new customers.

“The F-35 deal secures the future for us but what we’d like to do is secure additional commercial aerospace work to risk mitigate in case the F-35s ever fall through, providing parts for 747s, Airbus or something like that,” he says.

“The bulk of our business is export at around 70 per cent and our major customers are Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman from the US, Eurocopter in Germany and France, and GE Aviation in the UK.”

The company’s main function is to cut metals like aluminium, titanium and steel to profile parts to the specifications of these companies, often using the services of Coopers Plains-based Heat Treatment Australia.

“Rather than going as individual companies to Farnborough, we go as a Queensland team as part of Team Australia, offering a turnkey solution rather than a silo approach,” says Thompson.

“There’s a few reasons why companies choose us. Being in close proximity to each other means we have lower costs, and we’re more flexible as well. We’re competing with US companies day-to-day, which means we have to work smarter, we have to watch our costs and give a total solution.”

With 100 staff including contractors, Ferra’s annual revenue varies between $10 million and $15, but Thompson expects rapid growth in coming years.

“Once the JSF (Joint Strike Fighter, pictured) program ramps up production we’re going to witness a lot of growth in the next six years. It’s probably going to create over 100 jobs for us once production starts,” he says.

Heat Treatment Australia general manager Karen Stanton also expects to benefit from the JSF program, anchored by increased business with Ferra Engineering and other customers.

“They (Ferra) do the manufacturing of components for aviation companies and we do the heat processing on those components – we’re still relatively small, with 35 staff here in Brisbane, a branch in Sydney with 10 staff and a branch in Melbourne with five,” she says.

“At this point it’s still early on with JSF. They’re rolling it out in stages and we are at around stage three of 20.”

But the process is not as simple as just providing services to manufacturers, because third party approval is needed in this high security industry.

“Through other companies we already do work with Palmer Aerospace, Lockheed Martin and other companies, but at the trade show we plan to meet with the likes of EADS, Boeing, Airbus Military, and we hope to get relationships going with them, so that they decide Australia is worthy for them to send staff here to check our products,” she says.

“It’s military aviation and there are some fairly risky types of behaviour, so they operate with the processes and procedures to safeguard their products. We really are selling a chain of supply here in Australia, and the Federal Government and Trade Queensland have made sure we go over to these shows to promote and encourage that.”

Stanton says Heat Treatment Australia has annual revenues of between $5 million and $7 million, but the business is very capital intensive.

“The last furnace we bought was from Poland and it cost $1.5 million. We have four furnaces at the moment and as we progress we look to invest in more, but that will be a year and a half away still.”

For Eight Mile Plains-based Micreo, managing director Tim Shaw is reluctant to reveal his customers. The company produces radars and electronic warfare systems.

“We’ll be going to FIA because even though our customer base is 95 per cent export at the moment, there are still quite a few companies we haven’t spoken to yet,” he says.

“We build products that use microwaves, which are a key component of radars and electronic warfare systems, and people are continually looking for better performance.

“It’s about survival. It lets you see other aircraft and other radar installations at further and further distances – it’s a question of who’s trying to eliminate you, recording all the radars out there trying to look for you, whether they be anti-aircraft missiles or airborne interceptors.”

He says his radars could be found anywhere ‘where there are defence ships and aircraft’, while another part of the systems include electronic countermeasures that use signals to decoy the enemy.

Micreo recorded $10 million revenue last year, but Shaw expects $12 million in FY11.

At Newstead-based Crystalaid Manufacture, general manager Gerald Parker emphasises that his microscopic circuit board expertise is not only used in the defence industry, but across a broad spectrum of sectors.

“The circuit boards and micro-electronics we build are used typically in defence or in technically-high content products, that are intrinsically safe where people rely on the circuit boards critically – that can be for aircraft, navy, land, civil, aviation and unmanned craft,” he says.

“With retail electronics you might go back and argue that they don’t work, but with us we make sure they always work. We do make products for defence, but it’s not specifically about that – there are many cases where we don’t know where our products are going because our customers don’t tell us.”

He says the company provides a service called contract dye and wire bonding, which is quite rare because there aren’t many companies who offer that on contract.

“We’re talking about the accuracies of micrometrics many times smaller than the diameter of hairs on your head,” he says.

“It sets us apart, our installation here is all brand new, very high quality, we aren’t well known, and the skill, accuracy and ability to work in the microscopic space is critical.

“We’re looking to reinforce existing relationships at Farnborough and showcase our new microscopic work, because. I went to the Paris air show last year and saw a lot of companies with circuit bonds, but I don’t reckon I saw too many people with the microscopic technology we have.”

The four companies will go to Farnborough as part of a mission organised by Trade Queensland, with visits to France and Spain as well.

The aviation industry employs 16,500 staff from 900 local and international companies in Queensland.

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