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Ruling at cooling: PWR plans to continue rapid expansion

Based at Ormeau, between Brisbane and the Gold Coast, PWR Performance Products is a partner to some of the world’s biggest names in motorsport. Brent Balinski talked to the company about how it plans to continue its brisk growth in part one of our five-part Hidden Champions series.

“It probably comes down to the fact that – and this is not boasting – there’s really not another PWR in the world,” explained the company’s general manager Marshall Vann.

PWR Performance Products operates in a niche as an engineering specialist in high-performance, lightweight cooling products including radiators, oil coolers and intercoolers.

Its clients include members of a long list of auto racing codes, including in Formula One, NASCAR and World Rally Championship; as well as Porsche (in their 918 Spyder), Aston Martin (in the One-77 supercar) and even the US military, who have used PWR for retrofitted cooling equipment in army vehicles. It also sells its goods through retail channels.

PWR was established in 1997 by Paul Weel, a former V8 Supercar driver, and his father Kees (who also co-founded K & J Thermal Products with wife Judy).

According to Vann, the company has grown on average, year-on-year, at 20 per cent for the last four years. Demand has been stoked by greatly increased exports, with the UK and Europe big drivers in the last two years.

“When I started, exports were 45 per cent of sales and are now 82 per cent, so that’s in four-and-a-half years,” explained Vann, who came from outside the business to assist in systematising and corporatising the family-owned operation as it moved into a higher gear. In that time PWR’s headcount has also increased from 45 to 85.

The company’s overseas sales achievements saw them named Australian Exporter of The Year (Small to Medium Manufacturer category) and Prime Minister’s Exporter of The Year in 2012.

PWR moved into its current home, a 7,000 square-metre, $10 million, purpose-built site at Ormeau, Queensland in 2008.

The facility also has a “full commercial kitchen,” explained Vann, and workers are served three meals a day

The integrated operation (almost everything is made on-site) includes design, an atmosphere-controlled brazing furnace for custom-creating radiator cores, a CNC machine shop, fabrication cells, and unique testing facilities, including a $1 million, 30-metre wind tunnel.

“That is capable of testing water, oil, charge air – we’re capable of testing multiple loops in a single test,” sales engineering Matthew Bryson told Manufacturers’ Monthly of the wind tunnel.

“So we can simulate very closely the conditions of our products as intended to be installed, coupled with the test data we’re obviously recording.”

Manufacturing everything on site is another advantage in the demanding world of top-level auto racing. Vann mentioned this in relation to a competitor in the US, C & R Racing.

“They’re a fabrication shop,” he told Manufacturers’ Monthly.

“They’re very good at fabricating, but they’re buying the cores for the radiator from somewhere else.”

Vital to the company’s success has been its manufacturing approach, which is highly flexible as well as highly integrated.

“The way that the business started was about being able to deal with short volume runs, whether it be one or whether it be ten [items in an order], or, now, we can be doing thousands,” said Bryson.

“It’s [also] the attitude of the people, but it’s about the process and the equipment that we put in place that means we’re more efficient at making small runs to a high quality and with short lead times.”

The business also offers itself as an engineering partner to its customers, rather than just a company that cranks out product.

Solutions are tailored to each racing customer’s desired outcome, of which a racing team will have a fairly detailed idea.

It’s not just about heat exchange, but “total vehicle development,” explained Bryson.

“Because a large amount of the product that we produce is air-cooled, our product and how the product is installed in the car, how it consumes air is of vital importance to the vehicle’s aerodynamic efficiency,” he said.

“And we can develop our cores and change characteristics such that we can either be producing downforce or reducing drag.”

PWR has developed systems to cope with urgent requests, and according to Vann, if pushed, the operation can respond to an urgent order made by a NASCAR team on Monday (US time) and have the order, via UPS, with the team “at 10:30 am the following Monday.”

Custom-made. Shipped halfway around the world. In a week…

“That’s pushing the envelope to make sure that happens, but that’s certainly something we do,” he said.

PWR currently provides cooling solutions for nine-tenths of the NASCAR and more than half of the Formula One teams. These results have been achieved rapidly: NASCAR deals only began in 2008, and the first prototype for Red Bull’s Formula One team delivered in late-2009.

The company believes it has the potential to keep growing at the current rate, and the reserve ability to handle this.

Barring peaks, PWR is only a single-shift operation.

“And most of what you’d consider to be the key elements of our process are probably only operating at somewhere near 30 to 40 per cent of their total capacity,” said Bryson.

Citing “different audiences” opening up in OEM and elsewhere, Vann believes that PWR will continue to expand at its current pace.

“Who knows what the future holds, but we certainly can’t see any reason why it won’t continue growing around similar rates,” he said.


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