At a glance
From darts to ventilators to baggage handling systems – NZ innovators have carved out a reputation for success in some of the more niche corners of the manufacturing sector.
Being an outlier certainly has its advantages. In particular, specialist manufacturers can generally focus on providing value over volume and charge higher prices for their goods – an advantage when operating from a small country, geographically distant from the world’s major markets.
But it also has its challenges.
In the absence of others operating in your niche area, for example, who do you turn to for information, advice and support when developing new products, troubleshooting problems, or gaining insights into future opportunities?
For Pyrotek Products – a small, niche manufacturer of industrial ceramics – accessing the expertise of Callaghan Innovation scientists has been invaluable.
Pyrotek itself is a large, US-based firm offering engineering and technology solutions to customers in a broad range of industries via its more than 80 locations in more than 35 countries.
However, its NZ operations are among Pyrotek’s smallest globally, explains Pyrotek’s NZ manager, Sean Dillon. Its 12-person Auckland manufacturing facility is a specialist producer of mid- to high-end ceramic consumables for aluminium foundries and smelters.
“There are no other factories like ours in the Southern Hemisphere,” explains Dillon, “so we’re very much on an island of our own – both physically, and in terms of what we manufacture.”
Yet in a tough manufacturing climate, and in the face of strong global competition, the manufacturer has not only managed to endure, but continues to innovate – helped by a partnership spanning almost three decades with Advanced Materials scientists at Callaghan Innovation.
Through the years
“It’s always been a collaborative relationship,” says Dr Pauline Calloch, an Advanced Materials research scientist in Callaghan Innovation’s Metals and Ceramics team, of her work with Pyrotek.
“They bring their expertise in their industry, and their deep knowledge of their customers’ industry and large-scale production, while we bring a deep, fundamental understanding of ceramics – the material they are producing.”
The relationship has its roots in Callaghan Innovation’s strong heritage in the field of ceramics, particularly under the leadership of former Advanced Materials Group manager Dr Ian Brown. One of NZ’s most experienced and distinguished research scientists, specialising in materials chemistry, Brown, now retired, also worked on industry projects.
In the 1990s, Pyrotek and Callaghan Innovation (then-IRL) together developed a new ceramics material called O’-Sialon (standing for a mixture of silicon, aluminium, oxygen and nitrogen) to make products harder, stronger and tougher than traditional ceramics. The innovation was transformative for the business, with the more-durable ceramics allowing it to expand into the higher-value end of its market and explore export opportunities.
That market repositioning, says Dillon, has helped the manufacturing operation endure , even as the market for that technology has matured, and global producers of ultra high-end ceramics, such as Kyocera, enjoy a large market share.
Pyrotek Products has continued to engage Callaghan Innovation’s R&D Solutions – either on a contract or a small-job basis – to innovate more iteratively.
Key to an ongoing and productive relationship, Calloch says, is Callaghan Innovation’s ability to reproduce Pyrotek’s manufacturing processes on a small scale. The company has also employed students to carry out summer research projects supervised by Callaghan Innovation scientists. Engaging with the agency in these ways, says Dillon, gives the company a means to test new ideas in a cost-effective way that doesn’t interrupt production – significantly diminishing risk.
Proximity also helps. Being in the same country allows Callaghan Innovation staff, based in Lower Hutt, to visit Pyrotek on an annual basis, while Pyrotek staff can co-locate in the other direction for larger projects.
And Dillon says being able to draw upon the scientists’ wider materials knowledge has been an asset on a number of fronts.
“Ceramics is what they call ‘the black art’; there is a lot of science behind these materials so there’s a lot more variability when working with them than with, say, metal products. For example, around 18 months ago we had a significant cost issue related to a manufacturing defect problem. We took advice from Ian and Pauline around a particular step in our manufacturing, which significantly improved the consistency of our product.”
Another task Calloch recently undertook for the company was a literature review, investigating relevant new developments in the field of ceramics. Gaining that perspective is not only important to inform future product development, says Dillon, but also to ensure any capital investment in plant, which can extend into the millions of dollars, is also future proofed.
“We’re in the ceramics game, but we’re in a very specific part of the ceramics game. Pauline, through her work with Callaghan Innovation and different customers, is exposed to a much wider range of materials and techniques – some of which ultimately could be translatable to what we do. Having access to that perspective, through a strong advisor with which we have a long relationship, is hugely beneficial to us.”
For more information on how Callaghan Innovation’s R&D Solutions may be able to support your business on its innovation journey, visit our R&D Solutions website.
Updated: 22 December 2020