By Eric Peterson | Jun 15, 2015
Military Bridge Building Boats
Founded: 2014 (Birdon Australia dates to 1977)
A subsidiary of Birdon Australia, a marine engineering firm in Port Macquarie, New South Wales, Birdon America landed a $260 million contract to provide the U.S. Army with more than 300 Bridge Erection Boats (BEBs) in March 2014.
BEBs provide propulsion and thrust to support temporary floating bridges, usually replacements for bridges destroyed in armed conflict, and can also be used in a ferry configuration for transportation. Such boats can be shipped by road, rail, or air.
Birdon built its prototype BEBs in Louisiana in the early 2010s,landed the contract after about two years of testing, then started looking for a permanent U.S. manufacturing facility. Houston and Seattle were considered, but landlocked Denver won out, largely because of its quality of life.
"It's an attractive place to live," says Gibbs, who was the first Australian employee to relocate to Denver in April 2014. "It's easy to attract workers."
Gibbs has been with Birdon Australia for more than 20 years and likes Denver's four-season climate and relatively mild summers. "Some people say, 'Why aren't you on the water?' "It really doesn't matter. Location isn't critical -- quality of life is."
While Ducker was living in Houston prior to the pick, he grew up in Denver, so he didn't fight the move. "We had a couple of Aussies who weren't too thrilled about Houston," he adds.
The boats Birdon has built in Denver to date have been tested at Lake Pueblo before final delivery, and the company plans to test at Chatfield Reservoir in the summer. "It's a smaller boat so Lake Pueblo has worked out great for us," says Ducker.
Its size is also conducive to shipping from Denver. "When it all comes together, we put them on the back of an Army truck and ship it off," says Birdon Director of Strategy Mark Leach.
Birdon Australia acquired Arkansas-based NAMJet in 2011 and also relocated that company to its facility in Denver in 2014. NAMJet makes innovative high-thrust water jets that propel Birdon's BEBs. The technology proved critical in Birdon landing the Army's BEB contract, and company officials say they are a good fit for a wide range of other boats.
But both Ducker and Gibbs see more opportunities beyond the Army contract. Ducker notes that the U.S. government and Marines own another 200 BEBs combined, and countries around the world have bridge-building teams as well.
The boats are built from pre-cut kits on jig stages in about seven weeks -- about 1,700 man-hours -- from start to finish, followed by finishing, painting, and final assembly. "It's a pretty tough boat, but it's not too complicated," says Gibbs, "so it's a good product to sell."
Adds Leach: "It's not being manufactured for the engineer. It's being manufactured for the soldier in the field."
As Birdon scales up to full-rate production, it anticipates hiring about 100 new employees and filling its 52,000-square-foot factory in northeast Denver by early 2017. The current output of two boats a month will jump to seven boats a month in the process.
Challenges: Raising the company's profile in a wide variety of markets. It's a two-way street, Leach says. He wants to lobby for Denver in Australia. "We're promoting Colorado there," he says. "Hopefully we can get some more Australian businesses to come here. Success follows success."
Opportunities: New markets. "While the manufacture of the BEB for the U.S. Army is a long-term project, the skills being enhanced across the workforce provide an excellent foundation to expand and diversify across the entire metal fabrication spectrum," says Gibbs, noting that the company's equipment -- including a CNC 84-inch, four-roll plate roller and a CNC five-axis waterjet -- is a good fit for numerous industries.
Needs: As Birdon ramps up to full-rate production, space and workers are the primary needs. "Finding reasonably priced manufacturing spaces in the Denver area is expected to be problematic," says Gibbs. "The need for skilled welders, fabricators, machinists, electricians, mechanics, and the like will be a priority."
He adds that the company aims to create good career paths for its new hires. "We're committed to training and education."