James Abbott, Managing Director and owner, Challenge Engineering

Australian Manufacturing Forum member James Abbott tells us about managing Challenge Engineering, what staying competitive looks like, and some of the skills issues his industry faces.

What is your job and who is your company?

My job is that of Managing Director, and I also own the company. Challenge Engineering is primarily a CNC machining business based in Sydney. We machine volume runs of parts for various industries including: rail, mining, equipment manufacturing, construction, traffic control, heavy vehicles.

These parts are made from a variety of materials such as: aluminium, stainless steel, cast iron, brass, mild and high intensive steel, hollow bar and plastic.

What does your role involve and how does it fit into the business?

I am definitely a hands-on leader. Having started this business from scratch, I am typically involved in programming the machines and checking quality. Customer care is very important to me. I liaise personally with our customers, many of which I have long standing relationships with.

I also take on other management functions i.e. quality control (ISO 9001:2015), financial management, and quoting. One of my priorities is to coach and mentor my team. I want to ensure they are also delivering great customer service and quality.

What does your company do well? What are your capabilities? Who are your clients?

Of course, I think that we do many things well. We have a variety of CNC machines and so have a range of turning and milling capabilities. We are organised, professional and specialise in manufacturing CNC machined parts. Challenge Engineering has many and varied clients. From large multinational transportation companies to local equipment manufacturers. We are fortunate that many industries require our services.

What does your career path look like? Are there any highlights and/or awards along the way that you’re proud of?

My career path started in engineering design, then veered into sales but then back into mechanical engineering. This is what I enjoy the most. Along the way I completed my Bachelor of Business, majoring in Operations Management. I’m proud of surviving the tough challenges of starting a business from scratch, particularly through the GFC. However, starting a business, a University degree, and a family at the same time was not the greatest idea I ever had.

What’s a typical day at work look like?

I get in early and ensure the team has the machines programmed and operating. Run a quality check, review the schedule for the day, check on the ordering of materials and speak to my customers. I will then undertake scheduling, the ordering of materials and quoting. In amongst all this I will work on factory floor efficiencies and the training of my junior staff members. I also try to dedicate time each week to working on the business rather than just in the business. One of my biggest challenges.

What are some tools/techniques/tactics you use to do your job?

  •       Customer Service – always have the customer’s requirements front of mind. Work with them to find solutions and do what we say we will do.
  •       Lean Manufacturing – we aim to continuously reduce wastage and increase efficiency.
  •       Business Planning – we set annual and quarterly financial, quality, efficiency and marketing goals. We then hold short weekly meetings and more intense monthly meetings to track these goals. Keeping it simple, we review: what we are doing well and need to continue doing, what we need to do better, and how our financials are tracking.
  •       Focus – keep improving what we do best (i.e. CNC machining) and ignore the white noise.  
  •       Consistent Marketing – we publish a lot of industry related articles via our Blog and Monthly Newsletter. Better informed customers make for more successful businesses.  It’s a partnership.
  •       People Development – alongside our experienced staff, we employ young qualified machinists and systematically build up their skills.
  •       Quality – ISO 9001:2015 – a series of requirements we use to guide our business.
  •       Continuous Improvement – we review new technologies in line with efficiencies and quality.
  •       Data Analytics – what you don’t measure you can’t manage.

Is there an issue in Australian manufacturing that’s not getting enough attention at the moment? Why is it important?

The biggest issue facing manufacturing today is the lack of skilled tradespeople. This is especially the case where CNC programmers and operators are concerned. TAFE  does a great job introducing young tradespeople to the sophisticated world of CNC programming, but they can only do so much. The tooling suppliers had some great initiatives when it came to using the variety of tooling and inserts on offer,  but it’s been a long time since I’ve seen anything on offer from the big three tooling suppliers.

It is a sellers’ market which drives up the cost of labour which in turn makes it difficult for Australian manufacturing to remain competitive. There is a lack of forward planning . It is a critically important issue.

What do you get out of your involvement with the Australian Manufacturing Forum?

The Australian Manufacturing Forum keeps me up to date with industry news and offers industry events.


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