This article was originally published in the Northern Beaches Advocate on May 29th, 2021.
A local business is leading a local manufacturing comeback on the Northern Beaches and offering local employment.
Black Lab Design is a business at Frenchs Forest that is finding success by adopting a new approach to manufacturing. In addition to winning manufacturing back to the Northern Beaches, it is also bringing employment for young workers who are keen to learn.
Black Lab CEO Daen Simmat said he started the business around the idea that manufacturers needed to innovate their business model.
“The first year I opened Black Lab and we started doing fabrication, three of the biggest sheet metal fabrication businesses in NSW all went broke. For me it was reinforcement that what I was doing was the right idea.
“We have one qualified fabricator that works here. You don’t get taught what you need to do to compete in the industry these days. You need to challenge the right envelope.
“There’s a lot of traditionalists in manufacturing in Australia. This is how we’ve been doing it for years and years as opposed to pushing the boundaries. Every day I’m pushing the team to find ways to do it faster.
“It all started because I wanted to learn more about metal fabrication. I tried to go to other people’s businesses and learn but they wouldn’t tell me because it was like some big secret. It’s not a big secret, it’s really simple. They wouldn’t talk to me until I found a big job.
“That led to me buying a laser (cutter) and break press when we were down in Cromer. Now we push all of the fabrication boundaries because we’re not thinking about it as a fabricator.
“In all of the conversations I have with anybody, it’s about speed. We cannot compete on price. There’s a job we just quoted for Woolworths. We are at about $8.00 a bracket to do 48k brackets. China quoted them $2.00. That’s before freight but that’s also at least 8 weeks on the water,” said Mr Simmat.
According to Mr Simmat, the competitive edge for local manufacturing is time, which equates to money for his large enterprise customers. By reacting quickly to customer needs, he can win on value over price.
“The conversation transitions into what you are losing on sales revenue from not having the infrastructure to sell your products or not having the product to sell. We have the ability to react and deliver faster,” he said.
Asked what Black Lab Design does, Mr Simmat responds, “Black Lab materialises ideas. People bring us a problem and we solve that problem using the equipment and materials at our disposal.
“Upstairs there is a team of industrial designers that are conceptualising and solving problems from briefs. Manufacturing is the result of solving a design challenge upstairs.
“We are making it inhouse, not outsourcing it. That means we can control it. It’s like Tesla, raw materials come in, finished product goes out. We design it all the way through. I reference Elon Musk all the time.
“When I started running a manufacturing business, the simplest change was not to shut the doors at 3 o’clock. Everyone in this industry works 6.00am – 3.00pm. With the same equipment you can drop your costs and overheads by 50-60 percent by running an extended shift or double shift. You have more people but it’s a capital intensive business,” said Mr Simmat.
The disruption to global supply-chains during the COVID pandemic proved to be an opportunity for Black Lab, which delivered hand sanitiser stations to Woolworths at short notice.
“When Woolworths needed hand sanitisers, there was a risk of people stealing sanitiser so they wanted all the units to be locked and they wanted 2.5k units in a couple of weeks.
“We needed to find mechanisms that could dispense the sanitiser, we needed to find the material that was available, we needed to choose a colour to paint it that looked like Woolworths green and was available. We had to put all that together to solve the problem in the desired timeframe.
“During COVID, we spent $4m on capital in this business. That has been printing and fabrication equipment. That investment has put automation into the business. People don’t realise, automation creates jobs. We put in the equipment and all of a sudden there’s a massive backlog of stuff we need to do in the factory.
“There’ll be piles of flat parts that need to go on a press break and someone needs to bend them, that goes into powder coating, there’s a whole process. We could technically automate our presses and paint line but not to be dynamic enough and reactive enough.
“This business is set up to be super flexible because today’s project is totally different to tomorrow’s. We can do anything from high volume digital advertising displays to retail shelf support brackets from one day to the next, the whole spectrum from an $8.00 part to a $5k unit,” explained Mr Simmat.
The growing business also has a growing workforce but COVID has presented challenges for Black Lab to find local workers, with Mr Simmat saying young Australians can be reluctant to get their hands dirty with manufacturing jobs.
“We started here on the Northern Beaches because I didn’t want to drive out west. What I discovered was a unique resource which is starting to dwindle because of COVID. We had a very intelligent travelling community.
“The sort of labour tasks we do here is hard on the body and you can only do it for so long, you won’t do it for 15-20 years. We managed to leverage students and people on student visas who wanted to come and live in the area short-term and get a job.
“We design simple things that anybody could put together. When they get over it and leave, we get someone fresh with fresh enthusiasm and fresh ideas. We try to run an amazing culture here so everyone understands what we do and I am very transparent with the business.
“What’s starting to happen with COVID is that now we’ve had people with us over twelve months and nobody new is coming into the country, we’re trying to gear up and put more casuals on with the next ramp into financial year, it’s getting harder to find them.
“These jobs are suitable for anyone who is keen to learn, keen to listen and keen to turn up to work. We can give anybody a job. You could be a retiree who wants to work a couple of days, one of our best workers is a retiree. It’s about the mentality and energy.
“It’s manual labour, so they need to be fit enough to do the job. You’re not sitting in front of a computer. There is opportunities to progress in this business but you don’t come and work on the floor for three months and expect to be working in the office. It’s 12-18 months of really understanding what’s happening in the business first.
“We’ve sponsored a few people. We are just as happy to employ a young Australian person as someone from overseas but we find they aren’t applying for the jobs. We are happy to have 16 or 18-year-olds who may need a bit of direction as long as they are willing to work.
“When I am looking at people it’s about attitude and aptitude, not a piece of paper. It really is about coming to work with a positive attitude. Some days it’s going to be a shit job, some days it’s going to be a fun job. You should be tired when you go home.
“We need jobs for people to do on the Northern Beaches. We need to keep work going here. If we can find the space, we’re going to be able to continuously bring more work here. We are doing light manufacturing, it doesn’t interrupt anybody. We’re not sending any more trucks around the area than would be servicing the supermarkets anyway.
“It’s not an impact on the environment, we’re not doing anything that would be an issue, we are just bringing jobs to the area. I don’t want to go out west because the attitude changes. I think we genuinely have a better attitude and social dynamic here. That’s what I want to continue to support and I will do it,” said Mr Simmat.
Mr Simmat sees a bright future for Black Lab but thinks the concept of ‘food miles’ also applies to manufactured products.
“We are still a small fish in a big pond. There is absolutely a future in manufacturing. I don’t talk about Australian made, I talk about local made. We shouldn’t be making stuff in Australia for export, we should be making stuff here for Australians but we should be allowing other cultures to support themselves as well. They should be able to employ people locally to make things for their people.
“I wouldn’t get into export, I’d export the IP and put a manufacturing plant in the location they want to consume the products. You understand the culture of the customer you are serving, their expectations on time, quality and so forth. People have different expectations about what a quality product is. It’s very different in Australia than Asia.
“There is stuff that we can’t make in Australia and we need to solve that. There’s only one company in Australia that makes printed circuit boards, and they do it for high end and defence. Products that we can make, we should be thinking about how we do that locally. The closer the manufacturer is to the end consumer of the product, everybody wins,” said Mr Simmat.