The importance of bringing play to work


As we await the judges’ verdicts, we continue to profile some of the companies vying for a spot on @AuManufacturing’s Australia’s 50 Most Innovative Manufacturers list. Next up is NH Micro. Technical Director Josh Hacko tells Brent Balinski about why you need to spend a little time in a sandbox. 

As is often the case with in-demand contract manufacturers, NH Micro is involved in a lot of reasonably prestigious work that they can’t tell you about.

The Space Machines Company satellite, launched on a SpaceX rocket from California a couple of weeks ago and containing a collection of Australian-made cargo? It also carried parts made at NH’s factory in Sydney’s Northern Beaches region. 

But to do the right thing by their spacefaring clients, they can’t talk about them publicly. At least not yet. 

NH Micro grew out of Nicholas Hacko Watchmaker’s quest to make as much of their luxury wristwatches in-house as possible. (Click here for more on the origin story, which has its seed in the refusal of Swiss watchmakers to sell spare parts to Australian repairers.)  

That growing competence in machining tiny, complex, tight-tolerance parts evolved into a spinoff company in 2021, and jobs for a growing list of clients in “parallel precision industries”, says Josh Hacko, a fourth-generation watchmaker and Technical Director at NH Micro and Nicholas Hacko Watchmaker.

“We leverage our watchmaking knowledge to cater to complex demands on the parallel precision industry side” Hacko tells @AuManufacturing during a visit to their Brookvale workshop.

“But then the inverse happens as well, where incredibly smart engineers and people with just wealths of experience – they come to us and share their experience with us as well.”

Happily, they can talk about some of their clients.

Recent R&D on processing ceramic components led to work on ferrite shields for ANSTO’s Melbourne Synchrotron.

“…You have to use really specific tooling, very specific workholding, very specific machine preparation – the dust that gets generated during the process is super-abrasive and can destroy your machines and your workshop environment,” Hacko says. 

“We had to overcome all these challenges. And we’d done a little bit of ferrite in the past, but not in the direction that ANSTO wanted us to do it.”

Hacko says the knowhow around milling, grinding and polishing tricky engineering ceramics goes back to the practice of “play” in R&D, which came about through being a small company trying to figure things out and being okay with not always getting there right away.

Play represents about a day a week of unscheduled experimentation.

“Those points of play often generate the best ideas, because you’re not limited by anything. Just like if you were in a sandbox when you’re a kid, you don’t care if your sandcastle is really going to break. It’s just pure play,” he explains. 

“And often when it doesn’t, it’s not because you engineered it well, it’s because you were just playing around. And sometimes this is a problem, it’s an obstacle, because things do need to be engineered and they do need to be done properly. 

“But the way we started up our watch company is just central to play. We had an idea that we wanted to explore and we just did. And you just explore this idea and that idea… Often it doesn’t work, it costs you a bunch of money, but you learn something.”

There were no shortcuts being able to make a larger and larger collection of watch components on their own, with the degree of difficulty also increasing as they made their own mainplates, then bridges, then screws, and so on.

“If we tried to do this seven years ago it would’ve taken us seven years to do,” says Hacko, whose company is preparing to deliver a run of 16 of its latest series, made largely out of the Timascus titanium alloy (pictured.) Working with that material was another bit of progress, he adds.

As for what innovation means at a contract manufacturer, he sees similarities with making incredibly good coffee.

“Coffee’s been made before, but if you find a barista that makes it slightly differently and it tastes better, well, it’s still something new. And within the scope of contract manufacturing and what we do with the watches, often that revolves around process,” Hacko says. 

“Did you invest in some piece of machinery that helps you make some process better? And that’s something new. Or did you invest in the time to understand the limits of the process and really hone in on your process capability, which is this fancy industry jargon to talk about how something efficient is. It’s all something new.”  

In this episode of @AuManufacturing, Hacko tells us about the recent work with ANSTO, how devoting a little time to social media has paid off, the trickiness of finding the right skills for a precision machining operation, and more.

Episode guide

0:55 – Watchmaking and then contract manufacturing

2:34 – Went straight from high school into working for the family business.

4:08 – Launching sister business in 2021.

6:02 – Use of Linkedin in winning work.

7:05 – Recent projects for university and research organisations and the benefits of this.

8:48 – A recent ANSTO project involving ferrite and its unusual demands.

11:21 – The role of play in innovation, which is “paramount to how we operate.”

14:10 – It’s about a day a week of play at work. It’s not scheduled, though. And the results of play often help profitability.

15:45 – The role of R&D at the company and what steers it.

17:57 – The new watch currently being developed. “And if we tried to do this seven years ago it would’ve taken us seven years to do.”

22:25 – Personal definition of innovation.

24:10 – The reasons for being self-financed and not taking on debt.

26:45 – Doing business in Brookvale, an increasingly “brewery and cafe” neighbourhood, and previous plans to relocate to Mittagong.

29:05 – The enduring challenge of attracting young people into careers as toolmakers, machinists etc.

Main picture: Andrew Borriero, NH Micro’s Workshop Manager, and Josh Hacko

Further reading

Australia’s only watch manufacturer to split in two, target space industry

Media focusing on manufacturing revival – photos

like trying to breed kangaroos on top of the Swiss Alps

Site visit: the Australian watchmaker creating a movement

Australia’s 50 Most Innovative Manufacturers is an annual campaign by @AuManufacturing. It has been made possible through the generous support of MYOBCSIRO, the NSW government’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Facility, and the Commonwealth Bank. Be sure to check back at this website for regular updates, including profiles of nominees and other information.

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