If anyone deserves the title of New Zealand’s ‘Robotman’, it’s Peter Carbines. His association with industrial robotics goes back to 1984/85 when, as a marine engineer, he left the sea, successfully applied for a robotics job at Northrop in Auckland – and later moved on to GEC.
“The robots kept following me around, wherever I went,” recalls Peter, when I catch up with him at his Portage Road premises in Auckland’s New Lynn. “Then, when GEC was about to quit New Zealand, I thought why not start a company? So I did. Carbines Engineering was incorporated
Peter remembers running into Bill Rowling in Taupo at the time, who asked why he was starting a company in the depressed economy following the sharemarket crash.
“I replied if a company can survive in this environment, it has got to have some substance behind it. His deputy Bob Tizard, who was also there, thought it was a hell of a joke. I simply took that on board as a positive response, and we’ve never looked back since!”
Electrical contracting initially subsidised the robotics work, but eventually the robot sales numbers rose so high they had to give away the electrical work.
“Initially I would ship the robots direct to site for assembly and commissioning,” recalls Peter. “I have to hand it to some of my early customers though, because they had to buy my robots over the kitchen table – that shows incredible confidence,” he laughs.
Peter points to the elderly red Motoman L10WA robot by his main entrance as being representative of the early robots he sold in this country. He recalls his very first installation – an L3 model robot with RG6000 controller for wheel manufacturer Rex Consolidated. “It was feeding three presses – making reel drums, bearings and cups that used to go into the end of the newspaper reels.”
Today Carbines Engineering supplies Yaskawa Motoman and Daihen OTC robot and welding systems across many applications. Welding is a major task for his robots – Peter estimates that his company has supplied around 95 percent of the welding robots currently operating in New Zealand.
However, over the years the company has installed many robots specifically for performing repair work – Carbines is one of the few companies specialising in this field. “One of the most unusual applications we’ve been involved with is the ‘walking robots’ at a smelter in Newcastle,” says Peter. “The robots, designed and built here, weigh 2.2-tonne and are on wheels. They lift themselves up, drive themselves around and then lock themselves into the concrete floor. The whole thing weighs around four tonne and those robots are still ‘walking around’ today.”
Longevity is a key feature of robotics, he adds, pointing out that the world’s robot manufacturers are committed to providing long-term support. “I’ve just imported $35,000 worth of spare parts from Motoman, for example, which should cover the next five or six years just in New Zealand.”
Peter notes that one of the biggest differences when comparing today’s robots with the early models is the degree of diagnostics that’s possible.
“Nowadays the computers design the boards, the computers run the boards and the only way you can fault find them is by using the appropriate computer and jig system. So it has become a throwaway industry. I used to be able to take an individual transistor off a board and test it. Not any more.”
Peter admits the decision to expand into overseas markets has been the making of Carbines Engineering – and it largely came about through word of mouth.
It all started through an association with the Tiwai Point aluminium smelter in the South Island, where Carbines was responsible for the machines that repair the electrical anodes for the smelters. “Our robots do all the welding. Instead of taking 45 minutes in a manual process and having suspect quality – the robots can do the job efficiently in eight minutes,” he says. “Most importantly, for the sake of plant continuity, the anodes are actually repaired on the chain – they’re never taken off site.”
So how did this lead to specialising in aluminium smelter projects and sales in countries as far away as Egypt, Qatar and Argentina? Peter says much of his company’s offshore success was due to an international aluminium trade expo they exhibited at, under their own steam, in Essen Germany in 2004. “We were the only people there with a working system; everybody else just had photographs, desk, booze and coffee! I also deliberately removed certain parts from our show jig,” he recalls, “because there were competitor spies everywhere with cameras. We had a bit of
“We benefited from word of mouth – multi-national company end-user engineers talking amongst themselves. We were also prepared to go the extra mile for clients and had a policy of ‘never saying ‘no’ for the first 20 minutes’ – to quote the famous words of US steel magnate JP Morgan. As a general rule, work that’s not commercially viable for a major multi-national company is perfectly viable for a smaller ‘ma and pa’ company like us.
“We had to remember that R&D work for such projects can be risky if you don’t take precautions. R&D has killed many small engineering firms when costs get out of control. So we do our entire R&D in-house and keep expenses to a minimum.”
Peter recalls one Canadian company that liked what it saw at Tiwai Point. “The next thing we were building machinery for smelters in Canada and the US. As it turned out they wanted to buy the rights to build the machinery, but I declined their offer because I wanted to keep Kiwi jobs.”
Communication is a major challenge on overseas projects, says Peter. “We’re usually a sub-contractor to a contractor. This means we must be careful only to deal with our immediate customer, the contractor, and avoid being drawn into any end user disputes.
“There is usually a desire for the end user to try and deal direct with us for support and spares for our equipment, and avoid the mark-ups the main contractor might levy. This is always an issue once commissioning is completed.”
It always helps to accept your place in the project food chain too. “As a sub-contractor we are dictated to, to some extent. You’re always playing to someone’s tune, that’s just the way it is,” says Peter. “You’ve got to learn to live with it, and learn that dealing with other people can sometimes be complicated.”
Peter says their ‘never say no in the first 20 minutes’ philosophy has stood them in good stead – helping to take on “out there” projects that other, larger, companies would rather avoid. He shows me photographs of one such overseas project they’re about to embark on.
I don’t quite follow his explanation, but it sure sounds challenging.
Almost a million
Peter Carbines has clocked many airpoints in his quest to gain more overseas business. At one stage he says he had just under a million. He has plenty of interesting stories to tell too – like sleeping on the floor of Cairo airport for three days during the recent revolution, while on his way to the Egyptalum smelter north of Luxor. Or the container load of machinery lost en-route back to New Zealand from the Essen show – only to surface six months later in Singapore.
Nowadays he keeps up with the play with more through technology such as email and his iPhone. The latter, he says, “has totally replaced my laptop when travelling and saved my bacon on a number of occasions”. He has also engaged a new marketing manager to take over responsibility for overseas sales, and plans to see the inside of air terminals much less frequently.
As to the future, Peter says they are now looking to service new manufacturing sectors, particularly those facing increased competition from China, and predicts there will be a continuing need to look offshore for new business. “Home markets are somewhat limited for specialised equipment such as ours.” The Carbines brand will be marketed more vigorously, and they’ll continue to operate a “lean and mean” ship in order to stay on top.
So what have been the stand-out moments for Peter after countless projects completed?
“The best part is without doubt when the commissioning is over and our machines run better than other parts of an overall contract. That is extremely satisfying.
“Egypt was one of the most environmentally challenging plants we’ve ever come across, and to actually see the robots up and running in that tough environment was absolutely great. Standing back I thought, this has got to be worth all the effort.”
Peter Carbines: email@example.com