From Petone to the world

Categories: Engineering and science.

A Petone factory that looks like an overcrowded garage houses world-leading technology which puts holes in exhaust pipes fitted to cars and motorbikes the world over.

Sanpro Industries, a business owned by the Sanderson family, sells about ten of its tube perforating machines each year to automotive manufacturing companies. Each machine is worth about $250,000.

The Sanpro TPM (tube perforating machine) does one thing very well. It punches holes in a piece of metal tube better,
faster, and more cleanly than any other machine in any other part of the world.

The diameter of the tube can vary from a couple of inches, (about five centimetres) to six inches (about 15 centimetres). The machine takes about forty seconds for each drilling operation.

Amazing as it may seem, no one elsewhere has bothered to make a better or faster machine; and hardly anyone in New Zealand seems to know much about Sanpro either.

Sanpro were a finalist in this year’s Wellington Gold Awards for industry, services and exports, but they didn’t win their category. They’ve been in awards shows before, winning recognition but not amassing trophies.

Not that that seems to bother any of the Sanderson clan. Managing Director Malcolm Sanderson began his working life as a fitter and turner in Petone, he says his tube perforating machines now make parts which are used on about 70% of the world’s cars. How does he know this?

“What we have been able to do is to get our machines into the automotive technical centres: Faurecia, a French
automotive parts manufacturer, and Tenneco, which is an offshoot of Tennessee Oil

“They supply 70% of the world market for under-car components (which covers brakes, mufflers, exhausts and suspension)
so if our parts are in their supply chain we are reaching 70% of the world’s cars. That’s the logic as it was explained to
me;’ says Malcolm.

The company story is an instructive tale of Kiwi ingenuity, of responding to opportunities, of luck and fortunate circumstances, and of persistence.

“I started the company in 1978 making mufflers in a foundry in Petone. Addison Mckee, the biggest company in the exhaust muffler business, started to make machines like this tube perforating machine. Over ten years they spent about half a million dollars without success, and then their accountants pulled the plug.

“I am not an accountant. I was determined to get things right. I wasn’t concerned about the cost, so I just kept on going. I don’t know how much we spent. I didn’t keep count.

“Alistair Syme (a leading figure in the New Zealand automotive industry at the time) came to me with an order.

I had six weeks to do the first order and I had to build the machine first. You could say it was pretty unique.

“Later on Southward Engineering were looking at a similar system and paid me for the licence to build their own machine;’ Malcolm says.

So how did Sanpro Industries get known?

“That was when I was making phone calls overseas that produced nothing. In 1995 I went to FabTech, which was an automotive trade show held in Cincinnati.

“There I was told to go to another show in Chicago in October the same year. I took a machine with me, and sold it to some motorcycle exhaust guys and then chased the sports car aftermarket:’

His persistence paid off.

“In the early days I spoke to metallurgists in the United States and told them what we wanted. They said to expect 40,000 holes from one three-inch (7.6-centimetre) punch. We are now getting 150,000 holes from the one punch. Our machines are so much more attractive to customers.”

The YouTube video ( YEnABAbyGg8) shows how the tube perforating machine works. A cylindrical metal tube is inserted. An operator punches in the instructions and the machine whirrs and whirls.

Seconds later the tube is pushed back out, with the requisite number of perfectly drilled holes, no variation in size, no residue, and no shards or metal shavings hanging loose from the holes. You can run your finger over any part of the holes and not feel the slightest blemish, or pick up any spots or dots of metal dust. That’s the way it is designed, and the tube is now ready to become part of an exhaust system.

“All the machines have inbuilt Wi-Fi and computer systems. We can repair and if necessary run the machines from Petone. On one occasion we noticed that a machine installed in a Wisconsin company wasn’t working. We wondered why, and then we worked out it was lunchtime over there.”

When a machine is sold, a member of the team goes along to install it, and to train staff.

“We are building tube perforating machines and tooling equipment. It’s precision engineering, not heavy engineering.
The key is the tooling – it has to be accurate. We have the longest-lasting tooling equipment in the industry.”

Why doesn’t someone else copy and improve it? Malcolm says it could be done.

“We are in a market that sails under the radar. It’s not a business with a high volume of sales. We sell eight to 10
machines a year, although we have just got a joint venture going in China.

“The machine could be copied, but we are constantly improving it (it can now handle tube up to 6 inches (15.24cm) in diameter, for instance).

“We have been a name in the industry since 1995. Our customers are looking for reliability. We provide that. We are trading on reputation and brand name as well as leading-edge technology.

We are vigilant about keeping alongside the big companies to service and support their machines and their needs.”

Despite the company’s success, Malcolm says “We still have a daily fight to stay in business.”

There are plenty of challenges. Scale is one.

“Quality is another.”

The biggest challenge will be increasing production and moving from a cottage industry to a more sophisticated system of manufacturing in response to expected big orders.

“Tenneco is on the cusp of ordering big. We have the building blocks in place, but another big thing is funding the
developments we need to make.”

Sanpro is still a family-owned business and Malcolm intends that it should stay that way.

“Two sons and one daughter – all in the business. They are pretty keen, they do the travel now.”

So where in ten years’ time?

“Better systems for manufacturing the machines will be in place. Right now we are looking to get space next door to
give more room for proper assembly line-style layout. Getting the products documented and digitising the stock. We’re
working with a business coach to help set goals, priorities and to get things done.”

In his spare time Malcolm sails.

“I own a 58-foot launch which I keep at the marina. I use it to go to the Sounds or Nelson. It’s not for fishing, more for
social stuff – taking a group of friends out on the water for Guy Fawkes Night for instance.”

Malcolm started his working life as a fitter and turner.

“Did my apprenticeship and went to block courses at the tech in Getz Street, Petone.”

Nearly forty years later he’s still working in Petone, but now he sells to and supplies the world.