As it approaches its half-century, Victorian manufacturer MFB Products is maintaining its competitive edge with the latest state-of-the-art sheet metal technology. By William Poole
MFB was established by Brian and Faye Bilston in April 1970, taking its name from Faye’s initials: Margaret Faye Bilston. While they remain involved in the business, these days they’ve largely handed the reins to their son David Bilston, now MFB’s Managing Director.
“They started the business 50 years ago, and the driver behind it was providing precision sheet metal for the electronics industry,” says David. “And that’s still basically how the business operates today. Our core business these days is data enclosures, but we still offer jobbing shop services.”
Over the years the company moved from site to site around Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, before settling at its current base in Wantirna in 2002. Today MFB employs 50 people, with a couple of staff running a sales office in Sydney and the remainder in Wantirna. Its main product range is in electronics enclosures, ranging from the cabinets widely utilised in data centres, to more rugged models for outdoor environments.
The company’s customer base is varied, encompassing the data electronics, communications and IT industries, as well as clients in defence and security, through to specialist engineers requiring radio frequency (RF)-shielded enclosures. Apart from occasional exports within the South Pacific region, MFB’s products are largely destined for the Australian market.
According to David, the business’ strength largely stems from its core product range of standard 19-inch rack technology. However, growing competition from China is increasingly pushing the company to seek new ways to differentiate itself.
“That’s forced us to kind of reset and focus on more specialised product,” he explains. “I love it when a customer comes and says ‘I want 500 of these’, but the reality is that doesn’t happen often enough. It’s more about the bespoke, specialised, customised option. Or a customer says: ‘I want that cabinet, but I want it wider, I want it higher, I want it deeper. I want it to do different things.’”
To meet those demands, MFB boasts a diverse array of capabilities. Most sheet metal processes can be performed in-house, in a workshop equipped with turret punches, press brakes and panel benders, plus five welding bays. The company can perform light engineering, inserting and finishing, with a dual powdercoat line and a batch oven for larger objects. Final assembly is further complemented by the capacity to even incorporate low-level wiring. All this means MFB can offer an extensive set of options to its customers.
“It’s much more specialised, and to do that we have a fairly sophisticated CAD design centre,” adds David. “Customers can come to us and say ‘Here’s our drawings’. They might just give us a sketch and we’ll develop something from that, there’s this process of discussion and finetuning, and then it goes into production.”
Underlining MFB’s capabilities are a growing list of certifications. The company is Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO)-approved to supply Class B and Class C enclosures. It has also held ISO 9001 quality management accreditation since 1997, and earlier this year, it was accredited with ISO 14001, the international standard for effective environmental management.
“It’s new, something we’re still working our heads around, but it’ll extend further,” David adds. “It’s an important aspect to the business: our carbon footprint’s minimal, and we’re careful in how we manage our waste. When we tender for government work, or even commercial, they’re all looking for companies that can tick those boxes. As a preferred defence supplier, we are conscious of having the right accreditations to ensure we are a centre of excellence in everything we do. It gives peace of mind to our customers that we have good policies in place. It’s a feather in our cap to develop these systems in growing the business. We want to be seen as an innovative, smart business – and a relevant business at that. So, this is very important to our operation.”
Crucial in making all this possible is MFB’s 6,000sqm purpose-built facility in Wantirna. Designed with a clear, coherent sense of the company’s processes, the factory has an open layout that minimises congestion and bottlenecks while maximising productivity and efficiency. With three forklifts usually in operation, a traffic management system keeps operations running smoothly, while an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system handles stock control, inventory and production flows.
“This facility has workflows that are unique to MFB,” explains David. “And we’ve been able to develop that process, whereby raw materials go in one end, we process and assemble the work, and then finished work goes out the door at the other end. There’s a clearly defined system in terms of how we process our product.”
As well as optimising productivity, the site has also been designed to create a beneficial environment for its personnel. As well as recently installed LED overhead lights, all the walls are painted bright white, eliminating dark spots and improving visibility in the workshop. MFB’s turret punches are situated in a dedicated room, separated from the rest of the factory by a noise absorption wall. While this shields the broader workforce from the noise from the turrets, the wall also prevents the noise reverberating within the room, making for a better workplace for the turret operators.
That emphasis on building a workplace that supports staff welfare is indicative of the people-focused culture at MFB. With Faye and Brian still working a couple of days a week, the company remains a family business, which can also boast minimal staff turnover. For David, a workforce dominated by long-term employees brings significant benefits.
“Those guys who have been here, they understand the business, they understand what their part is in the operation of the business,” he says. “From a manager’s point of view, it self-manages; it really does help in terms of how things work. Everybody takes ownership, the guys really do take ownership of their job and push things through. And that’s a great thing, that we encourage. A concept developed by my father, that I am keen to see continue.”
MFB recently acquired a RAS Multibend-Centre panel bender, supplied by Sheetmetal Machinery. The company had already owned an earlier model of the same machine for about 20 years, and it has served MFB well. However, it was starting to show signs of wear and tear: the machine’s accuracy was fading, making it harder to achieve the required tolerances; and on the occasions when it broke down, sourcing parts was becoming increasingly difficult. Nonetheless, events out in the wider world meant the new machine was a long time coming.
“To be honest, we’d been looking to purchase a new RAS in 2008; I was very close to placing an order, and then the GFC hit,” says David. “Holding off on the purchase was the prudent thing to do. Things take their course and you just have to grin and bear it for a while. Our decision was to try and extend the life of the existing RAS. But now we’ve just come off two boom years for the company. That gave us the opportunity to rethink investing in a new machine.”
Meanwhile, RAS had released a new scaled-back version of the Multibend-Centre, which is the model MFB bought. The old panel bender remains in service as a back-up for busy spells, but according to David, the new machine unquestionably represents a significant upgrade.
“I think they market this machine as an entry-level panel bender, but from our perspective it’s a perfect fit,” he explains. “It’s a really sophisticated bit of equipment. It suits our purposes hands down. For doing large panel work, it’s a no-brainer. There is more sophistication with the machine. It’s a lot faster. The way the machine works, it just has a sense of accuracy about it.”
The 20-year interval since MFB bought the first machine has seen the addition of numerous new technological features, including offline software and a more intuitive, graphical user interface. Operators can program the machine and then see an animation of the actual folding sequence, so that if a part or fold is going to crash, it will be flagged up on-screen in advance rather than during actual folding operations. Despite these changes, the new model features many of the same logos and icons as on the original, easing the transition for MFB’s operators.
For David, the new machine brings enhanced accuracy and productivity, while also improving safety: “In our industry, with manual handling of parts, back injuries are a given, so it’s important that we can reduce the risk wherever possible. With the new machine, the guys load a panel onto a table and it goes away and folds the part. The alternative would be to have two people standing there holding that panel at a press brake; a lapse in concentration and the part is folded incorrectly. So straight away I increase my risk associated to injury, and I decrease my accuracy of folding.”
David was highly impressed with the service MFB received from Sheetmetal Machinery, both during the new machine’s installation and in terms of after-sales support: “I’d have to say they were ten out of ten. We’ve bought different machinery from them over the years. They’re knowledgeable. The technology that’s going into machinery that sheet metal fabricators are using is phenomenal, it’s amazing. And Sheetmetal Machinery is aware of that – they’re really, really good at promoting that idea and being able to provide support, which is really important. They’re hands-on; they’re responsive and very helpful.”
Looking to the future, MFB is concentrating on further diversifying its operations and branching out in new market segments. Amid increased competition from overseas, the focus is on high-end work where the company’s competitive edge is based on quality and advanced capabilities, rather than price.
“Competition from China forces us to look for alternative work. We’re doing that. We’re diversifying with our product, moving into different types of product. This morning we had a truck leave here carrying big enclosures for the energy sector. That’s an area we want to explore further. We think there’s lots of opportunities with renewable energies, all sorts of things that can come out of it. And that’s potentially a huge area for us.”
With this in mind, David is excited about the possibilities which technology such as the new RAS panel bender could open up for MFB.
“If we can promote this type of machinery through the business, we’re going to identify ourselves as a sophisticated manufacturer. Someone who can design, and manufacture, and turn around product quickly, which I think is an important part of how we market the business and how we operate. That ability to turn things around quickly, accurately: That’s what customers are looking for, from local manufacturers.”