Innovation is the backbone of our company” – ASB Commercial Business E-Newsletter

Innovation is the backbone of our company

Integrated Hydraulics Limited is a Christchurch based manufacturer of precision components for hydraulic systems used in the mining, forestry, transport and marine industries all over the world. A combination of a strong culture of innovation, and highly skilled people has made IHL products the benchmark in this highly specialized industry. Tania Fletcher talks to us about their competitive edge.

How did Integrated Hydraulics get started?
We started in 1987 in a Blueberry packhouse shed with a manual drill and two employees. Now we have multiple Computer Numerically Controlled (CNC) machines, purpose built services and 30 plus staff.

Would you say that your company is built around being innovative?
Innovation is the backbone of our company! That philosophy has been passed down through the generations to anyone who works for us. I don’t think we’d be here today if we didn’t have that ‘wanting to always achieve more and achieve better’, quality-wise, speed-wise, aesthetically-wise. We’ve got a real technology centre here – firmly based on our innovative culture.

Do you actively recruit like-minded people?
Absolutely. For key senior managers and high-level specialist machine operators it’s definitely something we look for. We want to know that they’re willing to try something a different way, and they’re willing to learn from how we’ve done things in the past. But also how it can be better – ‘is that going to make the boat go faster’. We want to improve on what we’ve been doing in the past, and find the smartest way of doing things.

Sometimes it can be hard to fill certain positions, but if the right people are not presenting themselves, we wait. Also if someone comes along and we don’t have a place, but they’re the right person, we’ll make them a spot. That’s worked really well. It’s very important for us to have the right people. We feel that we’ve got a good culture and everyone works well together. We have a good group of innovative thinkers.

How do you approach new projects? Do you actively try to do things differently?
We have everything from $500 jobs to $500,000 jobs, so it depends on the project. But each job, whether it’s big or small, goes through essentially the same process. We look at how to do it the best, most efficient way we can. We recently just revisited a job that we had first worked on 10 years ago. But because of everything we’ve learned and our new technology, how we did it this time was significantly different. The job went through faster with less machining time, and fewer people involved.

Do you present the company as ‘an innovator’, as someone who will come up with a ‘better’ solution that may be different, but will be a better way of doing things?
Our customers fall into two categories, some have everything worked out themselves and we build products for them as they want it. Other customers have a gap – they know what they want, but they don’t know the best way to do it. In that case we’ll work with them in a true R&D capacity – from concept design through to full production.

So your customers are looking for a technology partner to actually ‘add-value’?
Exactly, we’re that ‘go-to’ company.

Was there a key ‘eureka’ moment?
Definitely. In 1990 we purchased our first CNC machine. We went from manual drills and manual sketching, to CNC (Computer Numerically Controlled) machines with Auto-CAD drafting, and offline programming. It was a huge expense, and it took a huge belief in the future of IHL to take that step forward. But if it hadn’t been taken, we wouldn’t be where we are today.

The next big step forward for us was this year when we purchased several leading-edge technology machines. Many of the machines we acquired are the first of their type in New Zealand, and give us the ability to produce prototypes and well as production items in the same machining centres. They also enable us to reap the benefits of ‘lights out’ automation, which gives us huge efficiencies.

It’s going to be the significant step up, but we need to do it to remain world-class.

What is the biggest challenge you face as an innovator?
Ensuring that the software development matches the manufacturing platform. We’ve got state of the art machinery from Japan, Korean, Germany and USA – stitching these pieces together has always been our biggest challenge. In theory they talk the same language, but actually it’s never the case. But now we’re not far off finishing a package that will link all of these things together.

Lastly is there a checklist that you would advise other companies to go through if they’d like to emulate your model?
The main thing is that our techniques need to be repeatable, flexible and scalable. And that’s modern manufacturing really, we don’t know what’s around the corner, we have to be able to scale up and scale down, depending on what the market and our customers are doing. We need to be flexible to be able to do varying types of products, and be able to swap over at a moment’s notice. Every process needs to be refined and repeatable to maintain quality.

Of course there are many ways of doing it, but if you keep those things in the back of your mind all the time, I think it will help you succeed.