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Prime Mover Magazine


Raising the bar

Raising the bar

Melbourne-based engineering firm, Abcor, is looking to take bullbar manufacturing to new heights of sophistication with automated production. In 2017 the company secured a contract for the exclusive supply of genuine accessory bars for Isuzu N and F Series trucks. Paul Matthei found out more.

Steadily evolving, the customisation and improved integration of design elements have been hallmarks of global truck production for decades.

While many features of truck design are universal in that the vehicle, in its basic form, is largely suitable for many markets, some aspects are rather more region specific.

Such is the case with the humble bullbar, which is something of an Aussie institution, born out of the necessity to protect the front end of vehicles from damage caused by the unfortunate but inevitable meeting of machine and marsupial on country roads.

While initial designs were rudimentary and perhaps less than visually alluring, as time went on the aesthetic appeal of blending the bullbar with the lines of the vehicle was brought into sharper focus, resulting in an accessory that not only protects the vehicle but also adds to the overall attractiveness of the package.

However, since the major truck manufacturers are based in northern hemisphere countries where bullbars are generally not considered necessary, the design and manufacture of them has largely remained a local aftermarket effort encompassing a number of players vying for the business of the various truck manufacturers.

Yet one company, Abcor, has taken bullbar manufacturing to the next level, entering into an agreement with Isuzu Japan via their Japan-based genuine accessory division ICL Company Limited to design, manufacture and supply unique bullbars specifically for Isuzu N and F Series trucks.

The company left no stone unturned in its quest to secure the contract, proving to Isuzu Japan and ICL that it was capable of meeting the incredibly high standards demanded.

The upshot was that the bars produced by Abcor are actually certified as genuine Isuzu parts. 

Founded in 1971 as Preston General Engineering, Abcor has a strong focus on world-leading design in addition to top-shelf engineering and manufacturing skills. The company employs more than 300 people across automotive, truck and defence divisions.



In 2017 Abcor was awarded a five-year supplier contract with Isuzu to produce the high-tech bull bars for the Australian and New Zealand markets, with potential to export to other Isuzu markets globally.

The deal represents the culmination of a long and detailed development program of more than two years duration involving collaboration between Abcor, Isuzu Australia, ICL and Isuzu Japan.

“The partnership approach was important for both Isuzu and us,” says Abcor Director, John Kaias. “Our engineers worked side-by-side with Isuzu engineers in Japan to ensure the product design, manufacture and performance were outstanding. To do this our engineers travelled to Japan on three separate occasions. It was vital to integrate the bullbar performance and styling with the truck and for the final product to be endorsed by Isuzu Japan as a genuine part.”

To fulfil the contract, Abcor invested heavily in new equipment at its multi-million dollar automated production facility in the suburb of Campbellfield north of Melbourne and employed an additional 22 staff.

New tooling for the highly specialised manufacturing and assembly line was supplied by a local automotive toolmaker providing work for other Victorian businesses in the struggling automotive industry.

“Bullbars are a highly specialised accessory and must meet stringent design rules,” Kaias says. “Our production utilises the latest world-leading manufacturing techniques including robotic welding and polishing to produce these world class bullbars.”

The company has made a sizeable investment in both personnel and tooling according to Dawie Aker, Abcor Chief Executive Officer, who outlines the painstaking procedures that comprise the embryonic design stage right through to the finer details of the finished product for Isuzu.

“After our company had been selected our engineering team worked closely with Isuzu Japan’s engineering team to finesse both the styling and the mechanical interface with the vehicle,” he explains. 

“In terms of airbag deployment and crash integrity the vehicle must perform exactly the same after bullbar fitment as before. The results are determined using Finite Element Analysis (FEA) as well as physical crash testing.”

Critically, Dawie says that the design criteria called for the main section of the bar to be a one-piece pressing rather than the traditional extruded channel.

Furthermore, the upper section of the bar including the uprights would be fabricated separately and bolted to the lower bar.

The benefit of this method of construction is that in the event of damage either section can be replaced individually.

Additionally, if a full-blown bullbar is not needed, the main bar without the top section can be installed as a traditional bumper bar.
   
“We developed this design that is stamped from a single sheet of aluminium – 5.0mm for the N Series and 8.0mm for the F Series – using a 1,000 tonne press and a very large two-stage die,” Dawie says.

“The tooling is very expensive for that sized product, however, in order to achieve the required strength – which is well in excess of any fabricated bar – this was the direction we needed to take. As far as we know there is no other bullbar or bumper section produced this way anywhere in the world.”

When it came to the top section of the bar, there was a similarly stringent design and testing process that effectively ensured peak levels of form and function while dispelling any doubts as to whether a bolted together bar would be as strong as a  one-piece item.
 
“The two-piece design is more expensive to produce due to the extra materials and hardware bolts but a design criterion of Isuzu Japan and Isuzu Australia was that this product is a genuine accessory that needed to be substantially different from aftermarket offerings.

“Early in the piece there was some discussion surrounding the performance or strength of the bolted joint compared with a welded joint,” Dawie says.

“But subsequent testing proved that it was the same if not better than a welded joint.”

One of the biggest challenges involved with mass-production fabrication is keeping each unit dimensionally accurate. With manual welding this is virtually impossible to achieve as minor discrepancies caused by natural human erring along with the ‘pulling’ or distortion that occurs due to the heat of welding inevitably leads to slight differences in tolerances.

There is also the chance of slight variations in raw materials that can affect the dimensions of the finished product.

Given it is mass-producing a genuine Isuzu accessory, which is regarded as integral to the vehicle, Abcor has to ensure each unit is identical and the only way to achieve this is through robotic welding.

“We invested over $5million in production technology including robotic welding, linishing and polishing machines along with a very complex assembly process to ensure zero-tolerance repeatability,” Dawie says.

“Because of this we could take a bar off a truck in Perth and install it on the same model truck in Japan and it would fit perfectly”

“This is the first bullbar in the truck industry that has had the seed planted, fertilised and grown from the parent company and we are very proud of this achievement, as are ICL and Isuzu in Japan and Australia.”

While accuracy of build is the main benefit of the automated processes, Dawie explains that it also dramatically improves the company’s ability to meet production targets due to the diminished reliance on human resources to get the job done. He says the number of times the bars are touched by human hands in the production process is minimal.

“We’ve chosen the automated manufacturing path to achieve consistency in the product but also sustainable manufacturing capability,” he says.

“When you rely on manual labour and three people are off sick but you still need to pump out a certain number of bars per day, it just doesn’t work.”

For Abcor, the ground-breaking journey of automated bullbar manufacturing started nearly four years ago.

While it involved a massive capital outlay and significant changes to personnel training and numbers, the end result is that the company has achieved the lofty goal of being able to mass-produce the products with the certainty that each unit meets the stringent requirements of ICL as well as Isuzu Japan and Australia, and is therefore classified as a fully integrated genuine part.

The process has involved melding the company’s core strengths of technical engineering product development and production technology to achieve an outcome that would not otherwise have been possible.

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