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Strength in numbers for McConnell Seats

McConnell’s rich history in the transport seating market is growing with recent investments in its people, machinery and upcoming products
McConnell factory image of staff and plant

Since Jim McConnell first founded McConnell Seats in 1952, the Australian transport business has focused on growing its capabilities.

For more than 60 years, the family company became a seating powerhouse for buses and coaches around the country.

By the time the second generation, led by Denis McConnell, relinquished ownership to the APM Automotive Group in 2014, McConnell had developed a reputation for durable and safe seats that made it an integral member of the industry.

A decade after this acquisition, McConnell is only continuing to grow. Currently, the brand’s evolution is occurring in numerous spheres, ranging from staff to machinery, and even to an exciting new model on the horizon.

“McConnell Seats Australia continues to invest in its people, innovation, technology and machinery,” McConnell general manager James Lowe told ABC.

“On the people side, we’ve strengthened our engineering team and have looked at upskilling our current staff to accommodate for our latest innovations.”

When McConnell was acquired 10 years ago, the brand had only the one engineer working across its bus, rail and tram markets. In recent years, McConnell has invested in its engineering team, with six staff now part of the growing Australian team. The new-look engineering team is led by engineering manager Brent Arnel who is based at McConnell’s new Perth site, directing the crew of seven in total to work in the product development, industrial design and product engineering spheres.

It’s a completely different approach to running workplaces from how McConnell was traditionally ran out of its Melbourne and Sydney site for the past 70 years, but Lowe says the approach is the new way forward for the seating giant.

“What we’ve learnt through COVID is that workplace flexibility can work – you’ve got to have trust in your people,” he says.

“It allows the whole business to be flexible, with multiple sites improving simultaneously. With three manufacturing sites now established across Australia, we’re employing nearly 100 people around the country.

“We know we aren’t the largest employer in the world, but it’s significant to be supporting nearly 100 families.”

McConnell seating factory worker image
Lowe says updated machinery will only create more jobs at the seating manufacturer. Image: Prime Creative Media

This personnel expansion means McConnell is now supplying seats for the bus market in Queensland, with Darcy Grant running the sales side of the business in the state as part of a truly national sales team.

For existing staff, McConnell is also enrolling workers in Certificate IV in competitive systems and practices to continue upskilling their capabilities. The training, delivered by Leadership Management Australia, is set to prepare McConnell workers for the next wave of seating technology.

This isn’t the only area that McConnell is evolving in – the seating manufacturer is also investing in its technology and machinery to continue staying ahead of the curve. This includes $1.5 million spent on building new production lines at the brand’s home in Broadmeadows, Victoria, with the polyurethane line now uplifting McConnell’s production capabilities.

A 12-bay carousel is capable of housing 24 moulds, opening the door for higher productivity and increased expertise in the technology.

“We’re fully self-sufficient when it comes to moulding our own foam, giving us continuity of supply and savings when it comes to material costs,” Lowe says.

“When it comes to the logistics side, there’s no double or triple handling of products – we’re in control of the entire process now.”

The updated technology is also aiding in seat development, allowing the McConnell team to closely work with the seat to finetune models and complete comfort testing in-house on new foams.

While the seating manufacturer is still recovering its production line from the COVID pandemic, Lowe is confident these innovations are allowing McConnell to make major strides forward.

“Essentially we’re two years behind where we should be due to COVID, but the machinery is up and running now and we’re at full tilt,” Lowe says.

“We now should be able to produce more than 400 foam pads per day, which is significant volume for us.”

Usually, the introduction of more advanced and autonomous technology signals a decreasing number of jobs. At McConnell, Lowe has ensured the latest innovations, like the polyurethane line, is actually opening opportunities for more workers to join the company.

“The polyurethane line requires a whole new skillset for us, so we’ve created five full-time equivalent jobs involved with the line,” he says.

McConnell manufacturer technology in action
New technology is helping take McConnell to the next level. Image: Prime Creative Media

“While we continue upskilling our staff to learn to run the machinery, we’re also bringing in another specialist to help with ongoing machine maintenance.

“If Industry 4.0 changes a process, we’re looking to redeploy our experienced employees rather than lose them altogether.”

All of these new positions and machines will be put to the test in the year ahead as McConnell escalates its efforts to produce and release its next generation seat design. Lowe says the project is “progressing really well”, with McConnell planning to unveil the product at this year’s National Bus & Coach Show before beginning to fulfil orders early next year.

“Our current range has been in the market for 20 years, so it’s proven the test of time,” Lowe says.

“It’s still a very solid product, but it does need a facelift and we recognise that, so we’re working hard to introduce the next generation design.”

Working with parent company APM, McConnell is looking to optimise the model and continue saving weight on the seat while remaining compliant with all necessary regulations.

When it’s released, the seat will be ably supported by an extensive Australasian aftersales network that includes sales managers that cover the majority of Australia and a New Zealand presence.

While the new seat model may not be what many in the market have historically expected from McConnell, Lowe is emphatic that more than 70 years of innovation will lead to a complete package that will leave bus and coach operators satisfied.

“It’ll be a very contemporary style of seat and is a significant departure from what we’ve currently got in our product range,” Lowe says.

“It’s currently our main focus and we want to continue meeting industry expectations. Once it’s released, our aim is to have the best support network of any seating supplier in Australia.

“Our customers are everything to us and we’re looking forward to setting ourselves up for an exciting and productive future in the industry.”

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