Australia’s niche champions — LSA avoids the slippery slope of commoditised manufacturing

Today in @AuManufacturing’s Australia’s niche champions series , we look at Liferaft Systems Australia, which specialises in life-saving inflatable structures found on ships all over the world. By Brent Balinski.

For close to three decades, Mike Grainger’s company has maintained its focus on doing one thing well.

From day one, and its establishment to supply another Tasmanian niche leader in marine — Incat — Liferaft Systems Australia has been concerned with marine evacuation systems. These deploy quickly in an emergency and deliver passengers safely from a ship into an inflated liferaft.

Staying stuck on low-volume, high-value products business, and not chasing everything that floats, has proven a recipe for stability.

“We don’t manufacture life rafts for fishing vessels or sailing yachts, things like that, because in recent times, those products [have been] manufactured in Asia and they are very cheap and we can’t compete.” Grainger tells @AuManufacturing.

“We’ve always wanted to be strong in the top end of the market. So that is for medium to large passenger ships, navy vessels, superyachts. And we still do.”

LSA exports around 95 per cent of what it makes, and has service agents — which it trains, certifies and audits — in 24 countries. Within Australia it employs 70 at Hobart, with about 20 local subcontractors.

“We have built a global reputation for having the finest quality in manufacturing, a product that is very, very, very reliable and easy to operate, and that’s been our competitive advantage really, from day one,” Grainger says

“We also really pride ourselves on the level of communication and service we provide to our customers all over the world. We think we’ve cornered a pretty good share of the market by having that attitude.”

LSA has contributed numerous firsts to the MES corner of the world, where it is in competition with one UK-based company and another from Scandinavia. These include a system to deliver evacuees, dry shod, into a large capacity liferaft by a slide, and manufacturing and receiving international approval for an inflatable liferaft holding more than 50 people.

A recent innovation awaiting approval is a 150-person buoyant apparatus for the US market, designed to work in sheltered waters, use a mini-slide and replace four or five smaller liferafts.

New product R&D is important at the company, but is based on a definite idea of new business. There is no invention for its own sake.

Process R&D and investment is constant though, says Grainger, citing recent delivery of a new machine to automate heating and folding of polyurethane-coated nylon into V-tape, replacing a two-person task, eight-hours-a-day, of RF welding.

“We’re always doing things like that, developing different processes to assist us in the manufacture of this product,” he adds.

“But we’ve just got to be very careful that with lifesaving equipment there can’t be any compromise on what we do, but we can find ways to make things more efficient.”

In terms of growth opportunities, Grainger says these are somewhat limited due to the small product range, but there has been more interest in recent years in MES from navies around the world. Among projects, LSA is supplying the UK’s Type 26 frigate being built by BAE Systems, and the Future Frigates in Australia which are based on the Type 26. The superyacht market has also performed well.

Grainger says there is currently enough work on the books that if it stopped taking orders tomorrow, LSA would still keep everyone occupied for two years. There is no plan to stop, of course. This is a place dedicated to doing one thing better than anybody else in the world indefinitely, and to focus and stability. It tends to attract people there for the long haul.

“Our competitors change over their management structures pretty regularly. We don’t. We’ve got four or five father-and-son teams working here. We’re seeing second-generation families coming through the business now and wanting to build inflatable liferafts and evacuation slides,” says Grainger, whose son and daughter work in LSA’s purchasing and business management operations respectively.

“So we’ve just really dedicated ourselves to not spreading ourselves too wide, but having a really good product, building it really well, and taking good care of our customers. And whilst that might sound a bit lame, it’s really stood us in good stead over the years [laughs].”

@AuManufacturing’s Australia’s niche champions series is brought to you with the support of the Innovative Manufacturing Cooperative Research Centre, and SMC Corporation.

Picture: Liferaft Systems Australia

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