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Gisborne Company's Thrilling Achievement

Thrilling achievement takes Gisborne company to the world

A Gisborne company is attracting world wide attention to its innovative processing technologies that turn pieces of fibre into structural material stronger and lighter than steel.

Backed by the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology, family owned Pultron Composites in Gisborne took on a major technical and financial risk to develop a new manufacturing process which is giving it a foot in the door to new export markets.

Pultron has achieved what others around the world have tried but failed to master. The process uses microwave technology to make composite products that replace steel, such as structural rods for the construction industry. This material is non-corrosive, has insulating properties and a high strength to weight ratio.

The novel curing process involved almost two years of research and development at Pultron's laboratories, almost $500,000 from the Foundation through its Technology for Business Growth (TBG) scheme and much more in company cash, time and resources.

Pultron General Manager, Jasper Holdsworth, who is 32, says the company is looking to secure new opportunities for Pultron, using the technology in Dubai, where the company has based one of its staff.

"Dubai is quickly emerging as a key market for Pultron because the company's non-corrosive construction products withstand the effects of Dubai's coastal environment," he says.

Pultron is New Zealand's largest pultrusion manufacturer, producing structural materials using resins and reinforcing fibres which are pulled through a die and cured into various shapes using heat. Conventional pultrusion processing involves heating from the outside of the material to the inside, similar to baking goods in a conventional oven. The process is slower and can cause cracking in large pieces, affecting finished quality. The new microwave technology heats in a more uniform manner, eliminates cracking and speeds up production.

"The project was technically difficult and there were technical risks involved but the Government funding pushed us to the edge to achieve it. It would have been hard to justify spending $1 million on blue sky development with no guaranteed returns, but receiving half the project funding from the Foundation made the difference," says Mr Holdsworth.

"We were pushing into the unknown and it was useful to have the second opinion of another party. They bought into what we were doing, asked searching questions and helped us to look at the project from a different perspective - and that adds value to the business," he said.

Pultron is now considering using the new technology to manufacture new products that were previously difficult to make using conventional pultrusion processes and the speed on some manufacturing lines is now significantly faster. This adds to efficiency, reduces costs and allows higher product margins. Mr Holdsworth says an indirect benefit is the high international credibility of Pultron which is now seen as a company that can tackle technically difficult projects.

Bronwen and Peter Holdsworth started the business in 1982, making electric fence posts for the farming industry. Pultron now makes more than 100 different products, whereas most pultrusion companies make only one product, and its market is 70 percent export.

Pultron's product range includes sail battens and booms, fibreglass car aerials, pins for retaining walls on hillsides along highways, ladder sections and rock bolts for wall and roof supports in mines, tunnels and retaining walls. It also makes rebars which are used as a concrete reinforcement in harsh environments where corrosion can dramatically limit the lifespan of steel. Pultron also created springs for a trampoline that was one of six finalists in the USA Most Innovative Sporting Equipment Award two years ago, and made the Pacific Grass Wind sculpture near Wellington airport.

The company has always invested heavily into research and development, and intends increasing its research budget again next year. It designs and builds its own machines and tooling equipment and has alliances with research institutes and universities.

The company is forging a reputation as an entrepreneurial engineer. Founder and father, Peter, is an engineer, and son Jasper has an electrical engineering degree from Canterbury and a Master of Finance degree from McQuarrie University in Australia. One sister has a PhD in physics, another works for Microsoft in Seattle and the youngest Holdsworth is an engineering graduate.

The Gisborne base presents no greater barrier than that faced by other New Zealand exporters. Overheads are lower but it is harder to find scientific and engineering staff with international experience.

"But when they come, they love the place. It's like a league of nations here with staff from Iraq, Germany, UK, Ireland, Switzerland and South Africa," says Jasper Holdsworth

Pultron is considering overseas joint ventures as a means of building new markets but the company's headquarters will remain in Gisborne, if Jasper Holdsworth has his way.

"The surf just isn't as good anywhere else."


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