Three $150k robots replaced 60 welders

Three $150k robots replaced 60 welders: how Cox Industries keeps making mowers in Queensland

Published 09 September 2015 14:40, Updated 10 September 2015 14:52

Cox Industries managing director and co-owner Ken McColl says one of his best calls was buying three robotic welders.

Ride-on lawn mower manufacturer Cox Industries might only employ 60 people today from 160 a decade ago, and has suffered three break-even years because it hasn’t rained enough, but co-owner Ken McColl says the Australian economy still can’t afford businesses like his to disappear.

“We have 400 separate suppliers, almost all of them local small businesses,” McColl tells BRW from Cox’s 20,000 sqm factory headquarters at Acacia Ridge, Queensland.

“From the makers of a specialist washer, to the electricians and plumbers and maintenance people here at the factory. I’m not even counting our bank, insurer or sandwich shop around the corner. People need to think about that when they’re comparing a Cox mower to an import.”

Founded in 1954 by inventor Owen Cox, the mower brand might have “cleared half of Australia” but it’s outsold here now by American-made imports, with John Deere, Husqvarna and MTD considered by McColl his three main competitors.

“We’re at a disadvantage of scale. They’re all mass-produced where a solid year for us is selling 5000 units,” says McColl.

However retaining manufacturing in Australia allows Cox, whose 20-odd models are each updated every five years, to test and build to local conditions.

“We’re going to be $500 to $800 more expensive than an import of comparable size and horsepower, so someone moving on to their lifestyle acreage for the first time might not look at us,” McColl says.

“What we rely on is them coming back to the dealer two years later, realising they need something that can cut those tough native grasses, that isn’t worried by rocks and stones and tree stumps, and will last forever. Our spare parts business still gets calls from people wanting replacement parts for our 1970s models.”

That Cox is still vaguely competitive on price is down to a decision by McColl in 2005 to invest in robotics.

“We used to have 60 manual welders in here, blokes with the mask on and the welding torch. Today we’ve got one, who welds on our experimental stuff and does odd jobs.”

The reason is that McColl progressively imported three robotic welders, costing around $150,000 each.

“There’s added costs like the jig, where you assemble all the component parts for the robot to come along and weld. One where we do chassies might be $60,000. But on our roboticised applications we now need one person for every nine that we used to, so they paid for themselves very quickly.”

Rapid prototyping enabled by the latest CAD machines and 3D printers at Cox’s engineering department have also boosted efficiency.

Another factor that’s brightened the outlook for Cox, which turned over $15 million in 2014/15, is the Australian dollar’s rapid fall.

“No engines get made in Australia, so we have to import Briggs & Strattons from the US and $1.10 was good for that. But what 70 cents does to our competition’s retail price helps us a lot more,” McColl says.

That’s because even a structurally lower currency is unlikely to turn Cox into an exporter.

“You can only fit 12 mowers into a shipping container, and to get that to the northern hemisphere out of an Australian port you’re looking at $2000-$3000,” he says.

“Proportionally it’s a huge cost. The importers seem to be able to do it a lot more efficiently in to an Australian port, of course.”

Another cause for optimism is increased rainfall across Australia, after three relatively dry seasons. McColl reports ride-on mower sales always spike after extended periods of rainfall, and the company’s marketing trumpets its mowers’ ability to “cut long wet grass at a single pass”.


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