Crack the champagne: Hawke’s Bay engineering innovator turns 50

Beginning in a parked-up caravan and old potato storage shed in Lyndhurst Road; We Can Precision Engineering is now a smart-operating Kiwi business and in June celebrated 50 years’ of engineering innovation.

Like many small businesses in New Zealand, We Can started with passion, hard work and a belief from its founder, Lindsey Hill, that he could do what he loved, designing and building machines.

Having completed his apprenticeship as a fitter and turner at Wattie’s in 1955, Hill worked for 10 years in the USA and Australia, designing for international engineering company FMC. He returned to Hawke’s Bay in 1970, set up a workshop, got back on the tools, living in a caravan on site while working in an old shed in Lyndhurst Road, Hastings. His first jobs were to design and make machines to support the market gardeners in Hawke’s Bay, developing machines such as onion toppers, and vege-washers. He quickly built his reputation as a clever, innovative engineer with a ‘We Can’ attitude.

Hill officially founded We Can Engineering in June 1971 with $7,000 in his ‘pocket’ and a passion for mechanical engineering and, clearly, problem solving.

“He built We Can to become an innovative precision engineering business servicing the food production, packaging and canning businesses in Hawke’s Bay and New Zealand,” says managing director of We Can Engineering, Rickie Pike.

With a solicitor’s loan, Hill moved to the current site at Wilson Rd, Hastings, giving him a house to live in while he built a shed next door. He then began building up his machines with every spare dollar. Every machine bought seems to have a story, from buying his first manual lathe off someone who had found it buried under a woolshed to hide from the possible invasion in WWII, to the Bridgeport machining centre he bought one morning in Auckland after convincing his friend to fly him up from Bridge Pa to check it out. After flying back, he grabbed a trailer and another friend, drove back to Auckland later in the day, loaded it up and drove it back that night. Hill was indeed a man on a mission.

Leveraging his Australian experience in canning lines, Hill’s first big contract was with Leopard Breweries and its canning line, conveyors and de-palletisers. From there, Hill continued building the business, working with companies that still feature in Hawkes Bay’s food manufacturing landscape – asparagus canning lines, a boning room for Richmond’s, pinetree seedling lifters for the burgeoning forestry industry, red beet sprayers, the Unilever pea line, Wattie’s work, and more.

“The number of projects completed over these years was extensive and, in many cases, industry leading and transformative,” says the company’s marketing manager, Sally Pike.

Sally says that Hill had only one motto in the early days: ‘If they didn’t pay, they went to the back of the queue’.

Hill’s caravan on site at Lyndhurst Road workshop 1970

Instead of buying a computerised numerical control (CNC) automated machining centre off the floor, in 1987 he went about creating his own. Using an old tape reading machine, a controller and a Cincinnati Mill, We Can integrated and created its own CNC machine. This was then used to make the tooling for the now iconic PLIX meat trays, the newly automated machine paid for itself.

“We Can became synonymous with innovation and living the name Lindsey had given it. Possibly the most well-known local product was designed for Chris Pask and his winery in Omahu Road. Hill developed the Dodgamo mower, winner of a Designmark award, and made and sold extensively to orchardists over many years,” says Rickie

Hill retired in 2004, staying on as a consultant to oversee the transition and the business has now been owned by Rickie for the last 16 years. Just like Hill, Rickie and We Can’s focus continues to be working with innovative start-ups, established companies in food and packaging industries, precision components, materials and products that require highly skilled engineers and leading technology. The only change has been the addition of ‘Precision’ to the name – “to better represent our greatest value and what we continue to be recognised for,” says Rickie.

“A highlight for the team last summer was working with INEOS Team UK on their America’s Cup challenge, with parts arriving to be machined and turned around overnight to get back to base and on the boat for the next race. These races were then being filmed with camera set ups on helicopters and boats, featuring gimble parts also made by us and designed by Shotover Camera Systems, another highly valued and innovative We Can customer,” says Rickie.

But just as importantly, adds Rickie, parts that Hill designed back in the 70s, 80s and 90s are still produced daily for local companies such as Kraft Heinz (Watties), McCains, Hydralada, and New Zealand and Australian meat and canning plants.

“A business like this must have a highly skilled and stable workforce to achieve such longevity,” says Rickie. “We Can’s first apprentice was taken on in 1978, a young man named Keith Mclean, now our longest serving staff member and current factory manager. This very first apprenticeship began We Can’s long commitment to training the future engineers of Hawke’s Bay”.

Both Rickie, and Hill before him, believe in the responsibility to identify, grow, and support the company’s own skilled workforce. We Can is currently training five apprentices, almost a quarter of its workforce, and has consistently been one of the highest apprentice training companies in Hawke’s Bay. In another first, We Can’s Erin Tong was the first female finalist in ATNZ’s apprentice of the year awards in 2020. The company has trained 19 apprentices since 2004, all under the guiding hand of Keith Mclean, We Can’s very first apprentice.

Engineering technology has changed rapidly, and Rickie has ensured that We Can has led the way locally. “The first local 5 axis machine was installed in 2007, our EDM wire cut machine, still the only one of its kind in the region, purchased in 2012, and our load assistant robot installed in 2018. The company was ISO accredited in 2016 and our CMM measuring machine now allows us to guarantee the quality of our work to the highest standards”.

“Innovation and leadership in our industry is still just as important as it was for Hill. With a staff of 22 and many of our old apprentices now scattered amongst our customer base, We Can has, and continues to have, a lasting impact on the industries it services.

“There are not many companies that can boast 50 years of business, nearly all on the same site and with one of the same staff members for over 40 of those years. On Friday 25th June, we celebrated this milestone with Hill and our staff, past and present, customers and suppliers. Our history is worth celebrating, even as we look to the future with advancing technology, a fast-changing manufacturing environment and all at a unique time in history. Rickie certainly plans for We Can to still be leading the way in precision engineering in Hawke’s Bay for many years to come.”

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