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Techlam - Case Study

Managing Director Brett Middleton
Managing Director Brett Middleton

It’s your classic Kiwi story about improvisation, innovation and humble beginnings.

Techlam is a New Zealand owned and operated company based in Levin, with projects spanning the Southern hemisphere.

The company is celebrating 30 years in November 2022 and started from humble beginnings. Andrew Hamilton was a builder who went out on his own in the early 90s, and in 1992 started making internal archways for houses, using customised curved wood. Working with his son Brett, their first office was in a double garage in Green Ave, Levin.

The business grew in size and product range, and currently occupies a massive space just back from the centre of town. As the years passed, Brett took over the reins and is now the Managing Director at Techlam. Andrew still maintains an active role in the business, working with equipment upgrades and staff development (an area they are both passionate about).

Brett affectionately remembers that the first tablesaw they had was an old skillsaw, screwed onto a sheet of customwood. He also remembers celebrating when they collected their first 10 litre bucket of sawdust. Now they send 20 container-loads filled with sawdust out the gate every day.

Over time they started making replica work for older houses – filagrees, fretwork and period fitments. Then it was curved window reveals for aluminium windows. But no matter what they were working with, it was always laminating from the word “go”. It just ended up evolving on a much larger scale.

Now they have a large manufacturing plant in Levin (which is where Head Office is based) and an office in Christchurch and Auckland. It’s been quite a journey along the way, and their little 2 man operation in a double garage now employs 55 people.

In recognition of their growth, achievements and innovation, Techlam recently received won the 2022 Construction & Trades Award, and the Innovation Award at the Electra Business and Innovation Awards 2022.

Their main workforce is based in Horowhenua but ranges from Palmerston North to Kapiti. One of their biggest issues is getting skilled staff, or even people who want to come and learn on the job. That’s part of the reason why Brett is so heavily invested in Get-Go, because he sees it as part of the solution for the future.

Brett is the Chair of the Get-Go reference group, which is comprised of a team of industry experts from Horowhenua. This group is where Get-Go management report back on achievements, discuss general direction-setting, and receive ideas and feedback on industry requirements – facilitating a channel of communication between schools and industry. He’s investing time into Get-Go because he believes that it is part of the solution to alleviate staff shortages, however he knows it will be a long, slow journey to get there.

Brett says Techlam is a great place to work because the team work collaboratively to create amazing, engineered timber structures. They have a focus on “laminated teamwork” - this is very similar to the idea of the very products they create, taking something that is weak and bonding it together to create strength, and the glue that bonds everything together is their culture.

Techlam team, Levin
Techlam team, Levin

The range of jobs within Techlam is varied, with many roles now utilising significant computer skills and the range of employment is really changing as technology advances. They take groups of students on tours and have been an active participant in Get-Go’s Futures Day. He sees it as yet another way to sow the seeds in local students’ minds about the kind of careers that are right here on their doorstep.

Environmental sustainability is another key focus for Techlam and they pride themselves on being up there with the best of the global community. Sustainability is a constant feature all the way through the development of their products. Because they are manufacturing products out of timber they’re using sustainable material. (All radiata forestry in NZ is sustainable – for every tree that gets cut down, 2-3 more are planted in its place.)

Techlam has created wastage programmes which ensures all by-products and adhesives are disposed of without any impact on the environment and any off-cut timber is converted into energy for heating.   They are also working on a sustainable manufacturing project (partnering with another company) to reduce waste even further by turning it into recycled projects.

MD Brett Middleton and Hon Stuart Nash at funding announcement, Levin
MD Brett Middleton and Hon Stuart Nash at funding announcement, Levin

Techlam recently received funding from Government as part of the Strategic Regional Partnership Fund, where Government directly invests in regional businesses that are focussed on productivity, resilience and sustainability. The funding (a loan) will be used to purchase equipment that will further reduce waste to landfill further. As phase 1 of this project, Techlam have purchased an e-grading machine which allows them to grade timber themselves, easing stock shortages. This has reduced manufacturing landfill by up to 25%.  

The next stage of their project includes new docking & finger jointing line and CNC processing machinery for our prefabricated project work. The CNC is the first of its kind in NZ and will allow them to do world-class prefabrication.

The funding proposal submission was assisted by Catriona McKay, CE of The Horowhenua Company (the organisation that also has the contract for Get-Go). Brett says “Catriona really helped us along the way, she attended meetings with us and it was really good. We worked with Catriona and a consultant from Wellington which was really supportive and of course we ended up with an really great outcome.”  

He says in terms of environmental care, from a sustainability perspective they have done a lot of work in that space, and have some exciting partnership plans which are being looked at currently.  

In other exciting developments, Brett says Waka Kotahi have recently mandated that road bridges will be made using timber beams. They are about to build a trial, and all going well it looks like they’ll be manufacturing all the bridges for O2NL (Otaki to North of Levin’s new highway). He says it’s a big change but building with laminated timber beams has so many advantages – for example a truck can carry only one concrete beam onsite, but can carry four laminated ones.

Their main product - Glulam – has a strength to weight ratio better than steel. And it has the added advantage that if there’s a fire, it won’t collapse (which steel does), it just chars the outside. Why isn’t it more widely used? Brett says for 2 reasons - perception and supply. Techlam is one of only 2 companies in Aotearoa making the product on a large scale.

One problem they don’t have is lack of demand for product. As at October 2022 they have no capacity until November 2023.

Some of their more specialist projects have been created for churches, schools and Marae. Over the last 12 months they have worked on 8 Marae around Aotearoa. The most recent was in Murehiku, Invercargill. It was challenging ( mainly because of bad weather) but exciting in terms of design and creation.

The Marae is a stunning architectural design, and one of the main features are the glulam beams on the side of the building which reference the backbone of a while.  

Murehiku Marae, Invercargill
Murehiku Marae, Invercargill

When Hon. Stuart Nash came to Horowhenua to announce the funding, Brett says he had been at the Marae the day before and got to see the product in real life.

So what does the future hold?

Brett is focussed on continuing the environmental sustainability, further product development and innovative projects. They’re currently working in places like Seychelles and Hong Kong, as well as throughout New Zealand, Australia and the Pacific.

He’s passionate about keeping his employees happy and wants to continue and enhance their engagement with students and graduates so they understand the changing workplace and the different kinds of roles that exist. Get-Go will continue to form a major part of this. He says we need people focussed on the trades in the same way we need oxygen. And he believes in the development of the Horowhenua community, mobilising people and making projects happen.

Techlam is a Get-Go Employer who regularly advertise roles online, one of the hosts for Futures Day and Brett Hamilton is the Chair of the Get-Go Reference Group.