Spain’s Grupo Alibérico makes Australia its regional hub for high-tech manufacturing

July 2015

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Alucoil Composites has become a pioneer of aluminium composites in Asia-Pacific after the company opened the region’s first made-to-order, panel-manufacturing plant in Campbellfield, Victoria in 2015.

Today, Alucoil Composites – owned by parent company Grupo Alibérico – is displacing lower-quality imports from the Australian market, stimulating fresh demand, and planning an export service to Southeast Asia.

Founded in 1987 by engineer Clemente González Soler, Grupo Alibérico, is one of Spain’s premier aluminium-manufacturing companies.

Headquartered in Madrid, Spain, the company employs 1,200 people and owns 35 specialist aluminium companies. Grupo Alibérico processes more than 100,000 tonnes of aluminium per year and exports to over 60 countries.

These high-quality aluminium composite panels, built-to-order are popular in the construction industry, where they are used for facades and signage. They are also used in high-speed trains and passenger vessels Alucoil Composites maintains manufacturing plants in Spain, Brazil, Morocco and the United States, and has built a successful export business using the brand name, ‘Larson’.

However, with no factory in the Asia-Pacific region and faced with extended shipping times, the company found its market share in the region was growing too slowly.

González, who is also the Chief Executive of Alucoil Composites, said the biggest barrier to expansion in Asia was the seven-to-eight week shipping time.

‘Premium buyers want fast turnaround times. There was no manufacturer of high-grade aluminium composites in the region, and in Australia, 50 per cent of our market was met by lower-quality products from Northeast Asia,’ said González.

‘High-quality, made-to-order manufacturing is a service industry, but the only way we could improve our service was to reduce turnaround times.

‘One option was to open a factory in Asia. Another was to build a factory in Australia,’ said González.

As the Larson brand gains global traction, González estimates the market for high-grade panels in Australia alone is potentially worth A$48–50 million per year.

The lure of highly-skilled workers

For Alucoil Composites, the deciding factor in its investment decision was the competitiveness of the technically skilled Australian labour.

‘Australian labour is certainly expensive compared to other countries in Asia-Pacific, but if the job requires technology skills and the ability to make high-value products to order, then Australian labour is very competitive,’ he said.

‘The opportunity to provide customers with a fast turnaround time and a great service meant we decided to set up in Australia.’

In 2014, executives from Austrade and the Victorian State Government helped Alucoil Composites review potential sites. A disused Ford car factory in Campbellfield, near Melbourne proved ideal.

‘What we particularly liked about Melbourne was the mixed industrial manufacturing and logistics hub in the area around Campbellfield,’ said González.

‘The Victorian Government were very proactive and had a genuinely “open mind”, so that we were able to move very fast. They helped us to identify suitable properties, and then gave us the advice we needed to put in an offer for the Ford site.

‘Also, officials helped us to understand local regulations and utilities supply. This meant we were able to quickly convert the old factory to the power supplies we needed to make aluminium composites.’

Rapid start for manufacturing operations

Within a few months, Alucoil Composites’ new factory commenced operations. Construction staff installed the aluminium composites-making machines in mid-December, and Alucoil Composites engineers arrived from Spain to train 10 Australian specialist workers.

Trial production started in early 2015, with full production beginning on schedule in May. The Australian factory quickly gained fresh kudos from its Spanish parent.

‘In March, we secured the rights to use the “Australian Made” trademark, which will differentiate us in the market. And in May we began making a new generation of fire-resistant panels, bringing a new product standard to the Australian market,’ said González.

Today, the Campbellfield factory is producing fire-retardant composite aluminium panels. With demand rising, González is confident of plans to expand the Melbourne factory and increase the workforce to 40.

‘Right now, we can deliver any size of panel to any one of 30 different quality specifications and deliver it to an Australian customer within just two weeks. With this level of service, we can displace lower-quality imported panels from a large part of the Australian market.’

The Australian construction industry, in particular, has proved highly responsive. According to González, the rapid availability of bespoke panels is stimulating demand, and increasing architects’ appetite for a material that helps them create high-finish, landmark buildings.

Officials from Austrade are also helping the company to enter new markets. They have helped Alucoil Composites executives make contact with Australia’s internationally-successful fast-ferry construction sector. The ability to quickly source made-to-order composite panels enables naval architects to reduce weight in critical areas of the hull and improve design flexibility.  

A springboard for exports to Asia

In mid-2015, Alucoil Composites scored its first export success—to New Zealand. According to González, the second stage in his Asia-Pacific strategy is to stimulate demand in the Pacific Islands region, and then begin exporting to Southeast Asia in 2017–2018.

‘In two to three years, we anticipate supplying Indonesian customers from Australia, instead of shipping panels from Spain,’ said González.

González also believes that having a manufacturing facility in Australia will become more important as Asia-Pacific markets mature.

‘We think that as Asian economies rise, Australia’s links to Asian markets will help companies like mine to establish good commercial relations. In terms of high-technology, service-intensive manufacturing, Australia is a springboard into Asia,’ added González.