Milspec Manufacturing is an engineering company specialising in the design and manufacture of a broad selection of high quality products. The site that the company currently operates has been in use for over 40 years, by groups such as Dart Defence, Australasian Training Aids, and, most recently, ADI Live Fire Target Systems, part of a group that was privatised and bought in 2002 by Thales Australia. Upon Thales’ acquisition of ADI Group, the intellectual property of Live Fire Target Systems was sold to a Swiss company, and its Albury facility was slated to be closed down. “At that time I was the manufacturing manager for ADI,” says Milspec’s Managing Director, David Cooper, “and I decided that it didn’t make sense. I sent a proposal to ADI where I purchased all of the manufacturing equipment and employed all of the manufacturing staff, and Milspec was born.” While David’s initial vision for the newly-formed company was to become a small precision engineering business with approximately 20 employees, he has seen Milspec grow far beyond expectations over the past 13 years to its current form; a multi-million dollar business with up to 75 staff.
First and foremost a manufacturing company, Milspec’s in-house capabilities, which include CNC sheet metal punching and folding, mig, tig, arc, and gas welding, CNC machining, electronic assembly, and 5-axis milling and turning, are envied throughout the industry. “We have full test facilities, and we can spray paint finishes to aerospace defense and Australian Standards, and all the way down to powder coating,” Mr Cooper says. “We can literally do anything from manufacturing rocket components to powder coating your pool fence, and we can do all of that under one roof, no need to subcontract out any of those capabilities, under stringent quality controls and standards so our customers have the opportunity to come to us, and all but buy a turnkey solution.”
While the majority of Milspec’s projects have been build to print , the company also possesses notable in-house mechanical and electronic design capabilities that it taps into when necessary for a project. One such project was the development of equipment cabinets for electronic railway signaling equipment. The cabinets are thermally efficient and passively cooled, keeping the equipment inside from overheating and failing. Milspec is currently working with Australian rail authorities to improve the reliability of a significant amount of existing rail infrastructure throughout the country. The company is also preparing to release a new key and asset management system, allowing a user to electronically tag a key and control access to it by date, time, and security levels, as well as track the access logs. “It is not a key security system, so much as it is a comprehensive key management system,” David says, “and of course the next logical progression to that is to not only control the keys, but that the equipment that they are opening.” Another current project is the manufacture of a full range of highly reliable alternators, designed primarily for military applications in harsh environmental conditions. Milspec’s 300-amp alternator is the worlds smallest military spec brushless alternator, and is currently in use in the Bushmaster, a vehicle manufactured by Thales Australia, as well as a number of American manufactured vehicles in use throughout the world. “Every bushmaster that is sent overseas into theatre goes into an upgrade program,” Mr Cooper explains, “and our alternator is what gets fitted into it.” The company has also recently completed development of its 450-amp alternator, a smaller model than the 300, weighing less than 20 kilograms.
The most significant benefit of Milspec’s line of alternators is their size and weight. “If you look at military vehicles and most road car these days, size and weight is significant,” David says. “In the good old days, they use to be able to climb into the engine bay for example and work on whatever is was that needed to be fixed. These days you can’t even see the engine because of how many extra components there are inside the engine bay of the vehicle.” Mr Cooper notes that Military vehicles are no different, and the complexities and electrical requirements of modern military equipment are constantly increasing. “The reality is that there may not be another alternator in the world that will fit into the engine bay. Ours do and can be engine mounted. Our research and development department has been working on this new alternator for a number years, and we’ve got what we believe to be a potential world leader, because it is so small, so lightweight, and absolutely crawling with some very clever electronics and software.” David believes that Milspec has created a market in which it can add new life into existing platforms, providing them with up to 4 times the power available in a smaller package. “We are working with a number of manufacturers as we speak, and pretty soon we will be announcing that we’ve got these products being installed into vehicle platforms.”
Milspec has received a number of awards and recognitions since its establishment, one of the most prestigious of which being its AS9100 quality accreditation. “It’s a defense and aerospace accreditation, and it is something that most companies can only dream of being certified to,” explains David. “There are less than 50 companies with that accreditation within Australia, and of that 50, there are probably less than 10 that are actual manufacturers. We do that seamlessly; it is not an expensive, cumbersome activity that we go through, it’s something that has been ingrained in our business philosophy and in the way that we go about our business.” Additionally, Milspec has also been the recipient of numerous training and employment awards, as a result of the company’s heavy investment in quality, varied training programs for its staff. “As a regionally-based company, our pool of potential employees is significantly smaller than a business in Melbourne or Sydney. I once heard someone say to me that you don’t do business with companies, you do business with people, so the quality of our people can make or break the relationships that we have with our customers, our suppliers, and the staff that we have on-site.” Milspec has been recognised at regional and national levels as an employer of choice, winning both Employer of the Year and Trainer of the Year awards on a variety of occasions. “That is all about putting some pride back into the people that we have working with us, and making sure that we have the best people we possibly can have in our organisation in order to drive ourselves forward.”
David views Milspec’s relationships with industry associations as indispensable, particularly in regards to the networking capabilities that they provide. “We all know somebody, and we all know different people with different attributes,” he says, “and you can bring different attributes together into an industry association, where you are then able to collaborate on projects that are bigger than the two organisations put together.” In the defense sector, increased collaboration amongst suppliers has been necessitated by the efforts of major clients to reduce the number of suppliers in their supply base. “By being part of an organisation where these like-minded companies come together, the opportunities for getting those bigger projects over the line are far greater.”
Before engaging with a supplier, Milspec first ensures that the business in question operates within a stringent set of parameters. “There’s a criteria that we need to be met, because if our supplier lets us down, we let our customer down,” David says. “We have very good relationships with many of our suppliers, and while some of our suppliers aren’t the cheapest, they are the most reliable, and at the end of the day it is the service that they deliver to us that either makes or breaks it for us.”
Milspec’s customer base is made up of two broad cross-sections, both of which rely on government spending at the local, state, or federal level, both in the defense and the infrastructure sector. “We operate in a niche, because it is almost impossible to compete against low-cost countries,” David says. We have picked defense and infrastructure because they are things that often happen on the ground here, and if the government is unable to stimulate the economy in an area over which they have direct influence, then our country’s ability to provide for itself could be lost.” David speculates that upon losing the ability to build its own rail systems and railroads and communication systems, which in turn support its defense networks, Australia could find itself at the mercy of international corporations, or worse yet, find itself incapable of defending against an opposing military force. “I think it is important that manufacturing is kept strong;” he says. “We might not be able to build our electronic goods cost effectively, but there’s a certain amount of in-country capability that is essential to our own security, and we should be fostering that.” Mr Cooper also feels that diversification is critical in order for the sector to build and maintain forward momentum within Australia. “I’ve seen hundreds of companies fall over because they were specialists at one particular item, and there will be many more that will fail when the car companies close,” he says. “There are a lot of defense companies that have failed because of the current slowdown in defense spending; If you don’t diversify, if you don’t have something that will offset the low in the cycle of whatever business you’re in, you might just fall over.”
David Cooper and his wife, Wendy, have worked side by side since Milspec’s initial establishment. “I come from an engineering background, and she comes from a finance and welfare background,” he says. “She brings insight to Milspec that, as an engineer, I just find hard to understand.” After 13 years of shouldering the majority of the company’s management responsibilities between each other, David and Wendy recently made the decision to revise Milspec’s leadership model, through the implementation of an advisory board and a General Manager. “It was all about having a fresh set of eyes with a fresh set of ideas for how we should take our organisation to the next level,” Mr Cooper says. “It hasn’t been easy handing your baby over to someone else, but it’s been an important step for our organisation to take that next step in it’s great cycle, it has also given us the opportunity to perhaps take a bit of a backward step, have a look around, and experience the world from a broader perspective, giving us the opportunity to work on the business rather than in it.”