City engineers build for world market

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These are busy times for a Waikato company that manufactures bespoke machines, including a just-completed one that will mass produce a skin care range made from hoki skins to meet growing international demand for the product.

Stafford Engineering built the electrospinning machine nicknamed “The Iguana”, which manufactures ActivLayr, a skin care product made by West Auckland nanofibre producer Revolution Fibres.

The machine uses high voltage to convert liquid collagen from hoki skin into nanofibres which are then layered onto a backing fabric. At 7m long, it is one of the largest machines of its kind in the world.

The Iguana is among an ever-growing range of machines which Stafford designs and builds on site, for both overseas and New Zealand customers.

The company, which has been in Hamilton more than 30 years, has worked extensively in the dairy industry as well as attracting local and international clients from the food processing and packaging industry.

Roger Evans, Stafford co-founder, says the company has found a niche in supplying bespoke machines like The Iguana.

Offering both design and manufacture is a major point of difference for the Frankton firm.

“What we’ve found over the years is there are not a lot of companies that offer that type of package, right from design through manufacturing, assembly, testing and commissioning,” says managing director Kaleb James.

“And we like to think the quality of what we produce is up there.”

That has seen the firm grow considerably since Kaleb joined it 22 years ago.

“When I started with this business it might have been 15 people in a very small building in Colombo St. These days we’re 60 people and we’re full to capacity here on this site,” he says.

“We started a night shift this year with half a dozen people to try to take some of the load out of the workshop and to extend those operating hours to try to keep up with demand.”

The Aztec Place workshop is humming with activity during a Waikato Business News visit.

“This business started off as a machine shop which is now this end of the business,” says Kaleb above the noise of machinery at one end of the large building. “Then we added a whole heap of fabrication capability, which is pretty much everything at the other end, and in the middle is where it all comes together and gets assembled and tested.”

Currently in the middle, a large powder mixing machine is nearing completion, destined for China. It has two paddle shafts and can mix 1000 litres of powder in just 30 seconds. The machines are common in dairy plants and recently Stafford sent two larger ones to Canada. The biggest they’ve built could handle 6000 litres. Elsewhere in the workshop, a machine for the healthcare industry is being finished, and testing is being carried out on a large machine destined for the US meat industry.

In the engineering office, project engineer Ben Fleetwood, who was lead designer on The Iguana, calls up a 3D model of it on his computer. The machine was as big as the room he is working in and had 9000 components.

“It’s quite a sizable machine,” Ben says. “There were definitely challenges we came up against.” Chief among those was the very high voltage they were dealing with, about 90 kilovolts, which is far above the 11kV norm. Among other things, they had to eliminate the potential electrocution hazard.

For Ben, it was a three-month full-time designing job followed by involvement in the manufacture, with the entire process being completed in six months.

The Frankton-based company had already done work for Revolution Fibres, starting three years ago with the manufacturing of belts for electrospinning machines, which was followed two years ago by a smaller “pilot” machine used by a research facility in the US.

Nanofibres – measuring between 100-500 nanometres in width (a human hair is 50,000 nm wide) – can create vast changes in mechanical strength, reactivity, and, in the case of skin care, absorbency.

Revolution Fibres operations manager Brent Tucker says while the company has been producing nanofibre for almost a decade, the Iguana enables a greatly increased production capacity to meet demand for ActivLayr both locally and internationally.

“The Iguana is a fantastic collaboration between the best Kiwi minds from the science and engineering worlds. It allows Revolution Fibres to increase production to meet demand, but it also means we can grow the production of ActivLayr in New Zealand,” he says.

As well as serving the local market, Stafford’s export business includes two major customers in Australia, and it has just opened a sales office in Sydney.

“One of the things that helps us is that we have a mixture of local and export customers. Being able to walk onto that international stage gives our customers confidence that we know what we’re doing,” Kaleb says.

And while the pressure is coming on space, the firm has no intention of walking away from its roots in Frankton. “It’s convenient,” says Kaleb. “There are plenty of people who move to the north of Hamilton but we’re not particularly motivated to follow that trend.”

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