Dandenong manufacturer AW Bell blazes trail in defence, aerospace industry

Sam Bell, CEO of AW Bell in the centre with the Hon Philip Dalidakis, Victorian Minister for Small Business Innovation and Trade and Her Excellency the Honourable Linda Dessau, AC Governor of Victoria

A third-generation Victorian manufacturer is supplying key components for the global F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

AW Bell is a supplier of metal parts with advanced mechanical properties to the defence, aerospace and biomedical sectors. We cast molten metal into moulds in our foundry, and then machine, polish and assemble the castings in-house, and deliver finished components to our customers.

The company was started in 1952 by my grandfather as a supplier to the automotive industry. As you can imagine, the business has changed a lot over the years; we consistently look for new trends in our industry and strive to constantly evolve the business.

Just under five years ago now, we developed a specialised casting process together with the CSIRO, to produce extremely high-quality aluminium castings with a very fine grain structure and extremely high mechanical properties (strength).

This capability gave us a key differentiator to our competition and allowed us to gain a foot in the door of our international customers, allowing us to prove to the rest of the world that we could deliver on quality, service and pricing. On the back of this capability, we have been able to open up other key markets for the other metals we manufacture at AW Bell.

Exports take off

We have two business arms: AW Bell Foundry and AW Bell Machinery. Our machinery division designs and manufactures standard and bespoke equipment for the foundry industry, which we have sold worldwide since 1988.

On the casting side, 90 per cent of our product has historically been sold to local customers. Over the last seven years we’ve been working hard to change that, and this year I expect around 40 percent of our castings will be exported worldwide.

The biggest growth area for us has been in the defence industry and primarily around the F-35 (Joint Strike Fighter) program. Northrop Grumman is one of our key customers in this program. We supply them with high complexity and precise cast housings for one of key differentiating systems—the EODAS. It is used to give the F-35 pilot his spherical heads-up display inside his helmet which also integrates with the aircraft’s targeting and defence systems.

I was fortunate enough to talk to the two pilots who flew our first two F-35s here to Australia for the Avalon Airshow and they confirmed that this is system is a total game changer for the industry.

A W Bell also supplies a range of castings such as engine roller components and decoy flare housings to other Australian companies such as MarandLevett and BAE Australia—which are all utilised on the F-35 program.

Scout armoured vehicle

Apart from the F-35 program, AW Bell are looking forward to future work on the Land 400 armoured fighting vehicle project. Through the government’s support of Australian industry involvement in this program, we have opened up opportunities within BAE and Rheinmetall. On the back of this, we are now supplying castings directly into Rheinmetall Germany for their armoured vehicles.

Manufacturing hub

We employ around 80 staff. Dandenong South (in Melbourne) is a major manufacturing hub, so it’s the best place in Australia for finding the kind of people we need. It also means a lot of our suppliers are close by.

Our business is always changing and evolving, so we’re constantly trying to upskill our staff whenever we can. I find the local universities are increasingly focused on what industry wants out of their graduates. AW Bell has done a lot of work with local universities, giving them feedback on the design of their syllabuses to ensure that both the student and ourselves get the key skills we need.

Supportive government

The Victorian State Government has provided a lot of support over the years, especially in terms of finding overseas opportunities. They have fantastic people, locally and internationally looking for and supporting Victorian businesses such as ours, in identifying and capturing new business opportunities. We work very closely with staff from their Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources Department, like Bev Little, George Di Scala and Karen Loughran. Their support of AW Bell here and abroad has helped us become the business we are today.

The Victorian Government’s backing of events like the Avalon Airshow and industry groups —such as the Victorian Defence Alliances—has provided Victorian businesses with key platforms to showcase their capabilities to potential customers, both local and international. To achieve this exposure on our own would be almost impossible.

The most important and exciting impact by both the federal and state governments has been towards requiring more local content on local projects. I really hope that continues to grow as it’s a fantastic boost for the future of manufacturing in the state, ensuring key skills and trades survive and ultimately  ensure there are jobs for not only our kids but for the generations to come.

Sam Bell
CEO of AW Bell