With the recent closure of Holden, you might be convinced that Australian manufacturing is in crisis, as factories shut down, skills are lost, and more jobs go offshore.
But that’s not the full story.
In little factories across the country, bespoke, handmade manufacturing is still alive, and it’s surviving by going global — creating unique products that the world wants.
Many of these businesses face the spectre of competition with cheap Chinese manufacturing, but they’re responding in unique ways.
Australian-made sports cars
In a tiny factory in Frankston in Melbourne’s east, a woman is measuring coremat fibreglass material with a tape measure.
It could be a fashion house, but it’s actually a bespoke sports car factory.
Campbell Bolwell proudly takes the covers off a bright red, sleek, low-to-the-ground Nagari 300 that’s been handmade at the Bolwell Cars factory — they only make six a year.
Nobody’s been game to test the car’s full speed, but Campbell guesses it’s 300 kilometres per hour.
The body of the car is super light, made of carbon fibre and moulded into an aerodynamic shape.
“Let’s face it, these vehicles are toys for older boys. You see that going along the road and it’s a jaw dropper,” Campbell says, proudly.
Campbell is a self-described petrolhead — he designed and built his first car while wagging school at the age of 16.
“I had no licence. I wasn’t theoretically allowed to drive it,” he says.
By age 20, he was making 30 cars a year out of a tiny tin shed, down the road from the current factory.
During the 60s and 70s, Bolwell Cars released six different sportscar models. Today they’re collectors’ items — there are Bolwell car clubs in four states.
In the early years though, Bolwell were one of many small Australian car manufacturers, among the likes of Bill Buckle, Gogomobil Dart, Lou Molino Holden and Murray Carter’s Corvette.
Anyone could build a car in their garage and put it on the road.
This experimentation was possible because there were very few design regulations — even seatbelts weren’t compulsory.
But in the 70s, as safety became an issue, Bolwell Cars struggled to meet the increasing number of design standards and went into liquidation.
Campbell never gave up on his dream of making cars though. He kept doodling designs on napkins and in 2008, began making the Nagari 300.
Next year, Bolwell Cars will release the updated Nagari 500.
When it comes to dealing with competition from overseas manufacturers, Bolwell Cars is lucky — it’s selling the Nagari 300 in China.
Campbell explains that many of his Chinese customers will not buy a car it if it’s made in China, wanting one that’s Australian made.
He thinks this could be the future for small manufacturing in Australia — creating products so unique and of such high quality and value, they attract Chinese clientele.
“We’re a very innovative country. It’s the Australian ability to think outside the box,” Campbell says.
An ingenious bean slicer
Tatham Cutlery have been making this little kitchen gadget since 1923.
The Krisk bean slicer is sold in more than 50 countries; it’s big in South America, France and Kenya.
It looks like a plastic vegetable peeler and uses multiple, tiny razor blades to slice a bean lengthways.
There are more Krisk bean slicers in The Reunion Islands than there are people.
Devotees of the Krisk have been known to make pilgrimages to the Rydalmere factory in Sydney’s west from places as far-flung as Canada and Alice Springs.
Geoff Rowall started at Tatham as the manager in 1964. Back then, 20 women used to whistle in unison for entertainment as they ground the razor blades.
“They’d whistle whatever came into the forelady’s mind. She set the pace and they’d follow along with her,” Mr Rowall says.
Around the same time, “Joe The Gadget Man” used to sell the bean slicers on TV.
It’s still being sold today, and is still handmade, even after Mark Rowall, Geoff’s son and the current manager of Tatham Cutlery, consulted 10 robotics engineers.
“You can’t get a robot to do that many intricate motions in such a small area,” Mark said.
In 2009, the Krisk bean slicer officially became an icon at the British Excellence in Housewares awards.
But Mark and Geoff are both dismissive of the bronze trophy that sits on a filing cabinet in the office.
It brought Tatham’s little gadget to the attention of a Chinese manufacturer, who copied it — and since then sales have dropped globally.
Mark is angry the design has been copied, and that the brand has lost 80 per cent of its customers.
It makes him despondent about the future of manufacturing in Australia.
“We can’t buy the raw material in Australia as cheaply as China can put a finished product into the marketplace,” he says.
You don’t expect to find a high-tech factory making Olympic-winning oars among the haybales and Clydesdales of Oxley Island, on the mid-north coast of New South Wales.
Howard Croker looks like a farmer, with his pack of working dogs at his heels. But his company, Croker Oars, is shipping its product to just about every country.
There are restrictions on photography because the company’s methods are top secret — and competitors might steal them.
But what can be said, is the oar blades are made from layers of fibreglass fabric, carbon fibre and resin, and baked in a bespoke oven.
Howard does admit to occasionally copying other oar makers’ designs.
“If we can see a better idea, we’re going to take it,” he says.
But he says that’s the way of things — and his designs are always being copied.
“At the Rio Olympics … I could see six things in the opposition’s oar that were developed here on Oxley Island,” he says.
Howard explains small companies like his can’t afford to take out a patent in every country their product is sold in, so instead they have to continually innovate.
“We just have to keep looking forward and make a better product,” he says.
Howard began making oars from timber in his parents’ backyard in Ryde, Sydney, and got his big break when an Olympic pair rowed with his oars in Rome in 1960.
He made the shift to carbon fibre in the early 90s and took his first carbon fibre oars to the Barcelona Olympics.
Since then the company hasn’t looked back, and about 30 Olympic gold medals have been won using Croker oars.
Topics: manufacturing, small-business, industry, business-economics-and-finance, design, australia