Smashing Time

FGS (Fethers)

Perhaps even more significant, though, is the way this Melbourne-based company is moving ahead with investments in manufacturing and related activities that many other companies have moved away from, to outsource them instead.

Managing Director David Hunt has been at FGS (Fethers) for less than two years but has set in train a whole raft of revisions to the company, which has a long and proud history; these moves stem largely from his experience in the aerospace and automotive industries. He believes he can be more effective at servicing professional customers – and more profitable at the same time – by bringing processes back in-house, gaining full control over every stage of those processes and at the same time, applying modern technology and management techniques to streamline them.

The results are speaking for themselves; FGS (Fethers), which until five years ago specialised only in glass hardware (fittings, hinges and associated items such as handles for glass doors), can now supply the glass as well, much of it made at a state-of-the-art factory in Melbourne.

The company’s product and service proposition covers any frameless application in both domestic and commercial applications, from frameless showers and pool fences to moveable walls, commercial door entries and structural assemblies. The glass processing plant in Melbourne enables FGS (Fethers) to offer custom-manufactured panels for all sorts of applications with short lead times. This sector, says David, is growing massively. “While some people are happy with cheap and cheerful product and will make standard panels fit, a lot more people want processed glass so the job can be millimetre-perfect.”

A current favourite is painted glass for splashbacks. Designers like them because they get away from the conventional tile-and-grout finish that gets tired and dirty over time no matter what the maintenance. Painted splashbacks can fit the decor precisely – FGS (Fethers) has a range of 30 standard colours but can match any sample and pearlescent or sparkle finishes are also available. In addition, a hotel installing a thousand showers might consider glass splashback instead of tile as a step up in hygiene, necessitating far less time for cleaning. With a fully automated paint spraying line and fast drying oven, the company’s leading edge technology makes it well suited to high volume painted work.

“Something like a splashback is difficult to import because not until the stone work goes in can you accurately measure up, and by that stage you’ll want the product within a week or so,” David explains. FGS (Fethers) provides the certainty of seven working days job delivery for any solid or metallic colour from the published ranges of the major paint suppliers. Incidentally, the painted splashbacks are usually made from Starphire, a special low-iron glass from PPG, imported from the US, which avoids the usual greenish tint inherent in standard ‘clear’ glass.

Another product proving extremely popular is a kind of mirrored glass for kitchens. “They are not true mirrors but like a bronze or grey mirror; toughened, unlike most mirrors,” says David. They make small apartments look bigger, too. “Installing splashbacks close to gas burners in a kitchen requires that the surface temperature of any nearby combustible surface does not exceed 65 degrees above ambient. Use of standard mirror in these situations does not comply with gas regulations, however FGS’ TuffMirror product achieves an extremely reflective mirror finish but is a toughened product that is ideal to use in kitchen splashbacks.” People are beginning to experiment with ways of using these new techniques and effects and some are already putting special designs on a splashback – a favourite footy team, for example.

David’s background made it almost inevitable he would bring with him to FGS (Fethers) such techniques as lean management and modern quality systems, “all of which is a little bit different to most others in this industry. It will take this business to a whole new level over the next year or so.” Major changes have been made in the IT sphere as well. “We used to outsource our IT. But now we have totally rewritten the way we run the glass factory and we have done some quite unique things.” On the factory floor are large TV monitors at each station that display the state of play – capacity planning and how much work is coming to each stage of the process. “The staff know if they are in front or behind.” There is also an advanced system to ensure the workload is balanced and the work flow avoids peaks and troughs. The results have been amazing, David adds – delivery times have fallen and customer satisfaction is climbing.

At a time when so much of Australia’s manufacturing capacity has been hamstrung by high dollar values and wage costs, many companies have given up the apparently unequal struggle and have settled for importing goods sourced frequently in the far east. David is scornful of this practice. “Many of the people in this industry nowadays are just moving boxes – buying an item overseas and just selling it locally.” He is convinced that taking control of more of the overall production process leads to greater efficiencies; a case in point is R&D. “What we are trying to do now is to become the first hardware company in Australia with its own NATA accredited test laboratory,” says David. “We will do a lot more testing on our products locally so we can better control the quality of our products.”

No question, FGS (Fethers) does source many products overseas, but it is increasing, rather than decreasing its involvement and control over the business. The company has its own office and warehouse in China, where carefully selected manufacturers produce parts in conditions closely monitored by FGS(Fethers)’ own staff. “It’s one of the lessons I have learned from aerospace, that we will be working with a lot more of our overseas suppliers to improve their quality even more, their quality processes and procedures.” FGS (Fethers) will intervene to help them with every aspect of the design and manufacturing operations. “We are already designing and manufacturing quality-check fixtures and gauges to ensure products coming in are of the highest quality. We also have a QC controller in China who is checking products as they come into the warehouse as well as carrying out surveillance visits to the suppliers’ factories. And we are starting to batch sample products as they come into our warehouse here as well.”

David is enthusiastic about the test lab and its potential for inspecting the quality of important items such as hinges, which can be cycle-checked. Structural items such as spider fittings can be tested and signed off, and items for balustrading can be tested for deflection and wind load. “The next step, over the next few months, is that we are starting to design our own products rather than rely on it being done in China or elsewhere.”

He acknowledges that most of industry is moving toward less, rather than more, engagement with the manufacturing process, but stresses it is good for the bottom line as well as for quality and customer service. Testing products at an outside NATA-accredited lab is not cheap; having it in-house means no limits on the amount of such testing. “FGS (Fethers) has always been seen as being at the high end of the frameless hardware market and I believe this has to be our point of difference,” shares David. “I don’t want to be another box-mover.” Anyone can sell hardware, “but I want to offer more to our customers than anyone else does and make sure that the products they are getting can function properly and have been checked in every aspect, the quality is second to none, and they perform as they should; I don’t want any surprises. It is something of a different approach but there are ways of doing it that are not expensive. I don’t want it to be easy to copy what we are doing. I want it to be special.”

Employing the right people with the right skills is vital, adds David. He is doing just that, with the aim of increasing FGS (Fethers)’ presence beyond its current coverage (glass and hardware in Victoria, hardware only in the other states). “We have plans and aspirations to grow the glass processing side of the business. This one-stop approach works very well. Customers like it.”

Home Automation

Call it ‘domotics,’ and you are likely to receive a blank stare, but refer to it as ‘smart home’ or ‘home automation,’ and you will get a nod of acknowledgement. For the past few years, consumers have heard the word ‘smart’ attached to countless products and services, from food and drink to snacks like popcorn and mobile phones, which no one seems to refer to as a ‘cellphone’ anymore. Yet what, exactly, constitutes ‘smart’?

January 17, 2019, 6:10 AM AEDT