There’s a long-standing narrative in this country that local manufacturing is dying. The demise of Ford, Toyota and most recently, Holden would seem to bear this out.
Yet the success experienced by Brisbane-based HTA Group runs counter to this narrative. It is a key supplier of heat-treated components to the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), billed as the most ambitious and expensive military program in history.
HTA Global has humble roots. The family-controlled company was founded in the early 1970s and specialised in traditional manufacturing for the automotive, tool-making and agriculture sectors. One of its best-known products was mower blades.
“A decade or so ago we saw that the writing was on the wall for traditional manufacturing,” said Karen Stanton, a family member and HTA Global’s Director of Corporate Strategy.
Around the same time, the company was approached by the JSF team, which wanted to develop Australian capabilities. With its traditional businesses on the decline, HTA Global saw an opportunity in aerospace, but it was fraught with risk.
“Basically we had to invest in the machinery and research and development, but there were no forward orders or contracts,” said Ms Stanton.
“It was a huge gamble, but we made the decision to invest in our capabilities and innovation and it has paid off.”
When the JSF team approached HTA Global, the Australian market supported around 20 specialist heat treaters. That number has fallen to approximately seven today.
The JSF team didn’t appear fussy in who it approached – many heat treaters were contacted, but HTA was the only company willing to gamble its future on contracts that weren’t guaranteed to materialise.
HTA’s roll of the dice paid off. It now supplies specialist heat-treated components to the JSF program, including processing for the landing gear and bomb-racks.
It has also developed unique intellectual property with its ability to vacuum braze two pieces of aluminium together to form integrated cooling channels.
These components are used throughout the JSF to house components such as avionics and radar systems.
With the demise of Australian automotive manufacturing as the poster child for the overall decline in local manufacturing industry, a development partly brought on by the Australian government’s refusal to further subsidise the domestic industry, it would seem Australia’s leaders are happy to let this sector die.
According to Ms Stanton, however, that’s a long way from the truth. She said that the Australian government is deeply involved in creating and fostering local manufacturing talent, particularly in the defence and aerospace industries.
“There are government programs that help us create supply chains and capabilities,” she said. “It’s through those programs that we are able to make connections and find new business opportunities.”
HTA’s involvement in the JSF program is, like the aircraft program itself, still in its infancy. Ms Stanton said that the work flowing from the program should triple for the company by the end of 2018. “We have long-term agreements in place,” she said.
“This will see us double the size of our business and double the revenue stream over the next twelve months.”
This will also mean an increase in the number of staff it employs. At present, the company has 65 staff, with another five based in the US. The company’s headcount is divided between the management team, aerospace specialists and engineers, as well as manufacturing personnel.
“We also maintain our traditional manufacturing shops,” she noted. “We work on many other projects, as well as commercial aerospace. We actively look for projects that fit our capabilities.”
HTA Global was a finalist in the Brisbane Lord Mayor’s Business Awards, and won the Australia Pacific LNG Award for Business innovation, something Ms Stanton said is extremely important to the company.
“When you are dealing with prime suppliers and government bodies, they often ask what recognitions we have received,” she said. “The Awards nomination is not just about us, it’s about outside bodies looking in and saying that we are doing a good job.”
Although the car industry is gone, with its associated fall-out in terms of jobs and capability loss, Australian manufacturing isn’t dead. It’s just gone into the air, as HTA Global’s contracts and success bears out.