Industry mourn: Mechanical, engineering and rollforming “genius”

Recently a very special member of the engineering fraternity passed away…. this is an industry’s ode to ‘Gus’.

In 1993, Angus (Gus) A.J. Robertson started his rollforming business Angus Robertson Mechanical (ARM) in rural Eyrewell on a farm with shingle road access in the car garage. Things progressed quickly with demand for our quality machines as his reputation and skills grew as did the staff numbers.

Angus (Gus) A.J Robertson passes away.

A couple of years later he took over an old implement shed before building a fitting and fabrication factories. In those days all manual mills and lathes were used to produce rollforming machines to tight tolerances and specifications. The site grew, as did services and a sealed road to the gate. The Mt Thomas internet connection boosted connectivity but cell phone reception remains a hassle.

The area of Eyrewell grew quickly alongside the business, and many 50-acre blocks have now been split up into 10 acre lots. Trucks come and go on a daily basis dropping of steel or picking up any of the various machines for delivery around the country or the world.

Gus philosophy was clear: keep it simple and make it work. He believed that “if you make machines that make customers money they will come back and order more.” Orders grew as did the complexity of operations. He was a tough but fair boss who was practical and pragmatic with his approach. He would ensure that his design engineers did their own calculations first (and research the work of others second) before embarking on the design process. Gus preferred to draw 2D; he was a prolific designer with an eye for detail. He had a love of learning but never got his head around 3D drawing.

Gus spoke with pride when he ordered his first CNC lathe, which vastly improved the speed of production. A CNC mill followed soon after. Every purchase was clearly thought out to improve production and the quality of rollformers built. Now, ARM’s modest factories have three CNC mills and three CNC lathes along with NC, cylindrical and surface grinders, wire-cutting, manual mills and lathes that are used less as the years go on.

He loved machines from an early age and always wanted to know how they worked and behaved, a passion that he honed throughout his 80 years. Customers would come to Gus with a problem, seeking a mechanical solution that would be reliable and perform for the long term. He would provide that with enthusiasm to get it right for the client big or small. He didn’t believe in patents but would vigorously defend his intellectual property of designs and never provide drawings believing that it was more productive to innovate and keep ahead of the field that way.

One of Gus’ highlights was the purchase of an old German Naxos-Union cylindrical grinder in 1995. It was built in Germany in 1939 and commissioned in 1941, so it fought against us, and it is still as reliable and accurate as any grinder made today.

As technology advanced so did the demand for precision cutting from the shears that we made. Wire cutters were purchased to make the job of cutting precision shears easier. Surface grinding to get tool steel straight and true is essential to AGM’s business, as is an eye for detail. Something he installed in all apprentices and tradesmen alike.

The need for automation and control followed technological advances. A friend from the DSIR, (where Gus used to be chief engineer) used to write software for AGM, and still does. We have taken on mechatronics engineers to integrate safety with machine controls as the industry’s safety needs grew. Controlling, programming and automation remain a core focus of the ideology Gus created. AGM were the first to offer hands-free coil loading rollformers to keep operators safe.

Gus celebrated the fact that Angus Robertson Mechanical machines were New Zealand made and produced on site. He aimed to produce as much as possible in-house and use minimal brought in components. He cut gears, mill, lathe and grind everything on site. AGM still gets most heat treatment for long run nitriding completed off site and castings are made in Canterbury, as is chroming and powder coating. This means that when we support our local industry in a time when increasingly more is imported from China. He truly believed that AGM needed to be at the forefront of innovation so he developed a world first: balloon shafts for slitting steel to lock knives. He also created the first purlin mill made from one sheet with a kind of Pittsburgh lock seam into a rectangular box purling 540X125mm.

This Kiwi farmer and mechanical engineer would approach problems with a can-do attitude that was instilled in his generation. This attitude is still reflected in the designers and tradesmen taught at ARM. Believing in these skills to be essential in the Kiwi workforce he trained almost all his staff, taking them through apprenticeships so these skills would not be lost. He would often give kids that schooling system had lost faith in a chance, and he would make bloody good tradesmen out of them. ARM has lost a lot of staff over the years to life overseas, but they often return to work for ARM. Gus would boast that he was training three of the five mechanical apprentices in the South Island in the 1990s.

Gus’ son, Seamus Robertson, came home four years ago to take over the business, ensure the legacy continues and to assist him through the painful process of prostrate cancer treatment. Gus was very happily married for 51 years, but his wife passed shortly before Seamus’ return. Gus was stoic whilst upset but continued to devote his time to rollformers up to the day he died on May 25, 2020.

Research and development are a cornerstone of Gus’ philosophy, something that has continued with Seamus. ARM in association with NZ Steel have developed a laser-based solution to burn back the edge of the Dridex coating roofing. Dridex is a anti-condensation fleece that is applied to the underside of roofing material. By burning back the edge of the sheet, the chance of water wicking back is eliminated. This is just one example of the many innovations that ARM is renowned for in the roofing industry. Often ARM gets projects that have a significant technical stretch that competitors would struggle to deliver upon.

Gus leaves a long legacy in the rollforming community. He was a long-standing sponsor of the Metal Roofing Manufacturers Association. Rollforming machines made when he worked at Ward Engineering (1961to1971) are still in production, as is every machine that he made in the last 27 years at various sites around New Zealand, Australia and South East Asia and as far afield as Ghana and Algeria.

Angus Robertson Mechanical continues today with the same attention to detail and quality engineering that Gus lived for whilst being industry leaders in innovation and safety. Continued research and development benefits clients across the Southern Hemisphere and maintains our world leading reputation for mechanical engineering excellence and industry-leading, coil-processing solutions. Gus’ humour and occasional wobbly will be missed. New Zealand has lost a great mechanical engineer but his legacy lives on. Our business and country are greater for that.