Centenary Bulletin 6 – Engineering Development, The 50’s and 60’s
August 29, 2018
From the end of World War 2, Norman G Clark worked hard to get into the engineering business, and eventually took, what was then, a major step. It purchased some primitive machinery and housed it in a 20′ x 20′ annex to the chemical store in the Latrobe Street building.
The equipment was hopelessly inadequate, and it is still a matter of wonder that so many good products were manufactured, and the quality was so high. The reason of course was Arch Herrod, who had been Chief Engineer at Dyecraft Ltd, prior to joining Norman G Clark. Arch was a brilliant practical engineer, and he had to be – as the only decent machine tool we had was a Cincinnati Universal Milling Machine, which preformed some wondrous feats of machining.
Norman G Clark was very much a hands on company, and through chemicals and ZBF Silk Bolting Cloth, it was talking with the right people in the infant silk screen printing business.
NGC sold bolting cloth to Lucas in Ballarat. It was a beautiful product, which in those days, was hand woven in Swiss farmhouses during the winter months. Making a printing screen was difficult, as the problem was to evenly tension the fabric. Printers were very lucky if they could produce quality prints, because every screen they made would be of different tension, making registration of multi-colour prints almost impossible. An even tension across the screen is essential to obtain good quality printing.
In Europe, where screen printing was well developed, there were stretching machines, but these were primitive. The ones that came to Australia were not much better than the primitive local machines. During a visit to Lucas in Ballarat, where they were getting a lot of screen stretching problems, Rod Rexton of Lucas, and John Clark lunched at length. It was ultimately decided that “NGC will build a stretching machine that works” (great excitement) and “there will be an order for the machine on delivery”.
Driving back to Melbourne, the idea developed, and John had the design of a stretcher to consider by next morning. As was traditional, he spent most of the day drawing his design in chalk on the workshop floor, and went far enough to recognise that the thing he was designing could not work.
Next morning, he had another go and Arch Herrod said, “why don’t we use a roller to hold the fabric instead of the clip arrangement?”
The screening fabric is very strong, but it would not stand abuse, and if they had used a Stenter type clip to hold the fabric for tensioning, it would have simply cut the fabric when the tension was applied.
The roller clamp was a bit hard to accept, but after a lot of argument, Arch made his point, and they decided to go with the roller concept.
In practice Arch’s clamp was brilliantly successful, and no matter how much load was applied, the fabric was never damaged. They added a very simple tensioning device which was also very accurate. There was one of these stretching assemblies about every 5 inches around the perimeter of the fabric to be stretched.
All this was happening in the early 1950’s, at a time when metal sections were very hard to obtain. As they needed strong rails to take the load of heavy tensioning, which had to be slotted to carry the stretching assemblies, they finally decided to make their own sections.
The first Norman G Clark stretching machine took about 2 months to build after the idea was first conceived, and they subsequently built another 7 machines. This meant that nearly every screen printer in Australia had a Norman G Clark stretching machine, which at the time, was the best in the world.
Although there were never any design drawings, and only a few photographs, they never had any quality problems. They never sold any spare parts, as the machines were very strong, and there was nothing to wear. Somewhere there may be at least one of these machines around somewhere to this day.
After the stretching machine, it was logical that they should manufacture screen frames. They made them from 1½” square metal tube and guaranteed a flat screen at all times. NGC’s arc welding was first class, and as a result, they obtained a big slice of the local screen frame business.
Because they really knew what was required in printing, NGC got into building and fitting table rails and register systems for semi automatic screen printing carriages. They also developed their own printing carriage, but it was too expensive. It was too fancy, being liberally fitted with micrometer adjustments in all directions, but which made it easy to register the printing screen in the carriage.
About this time Norman G Clark sold a Stenter to Associated Textile Printers, and as arranged, John Clark and Mr Oppenheim (the customer) spent the Christmas and New Year holidays installing the machine. It was about 60 feet long and arrived in dozens of boxes, with absolutely no instructions as to which part went where.
Trial and error indeed, but they put it together and finished with the most hi-tech Stenter in Australia in its day.
‘Hi-tech’ meant a combination of pin/clip chain which was beautifully designed and a very impressive fabric guiding system, however, the input and output unwind and rolling system were very crude. Probably that was because the customer had specified roll to roll processing on 4″ diameter wooden tubes with 1¼” square drives.
So that’s what he got, and it was a masterpiece of frustration to see this beautiful machine standing still for most of its possible operating time, with delicate fabrics being cooked in the dryer, while people struggled to change input and output rolls of fabric.
Norman G Clark thought they could do better and developed it’s Safety Chuck (Batch Spear Holder) system. In its basic form they fitted the prototypes to the machine, and although it didn’t solve the problem, it improved it so much that ATP managed to live comfortably with this new drive and delivery arrangement for their machine. NGC had already developed an accumulator arrangement, with a roll over roll changer, that would have allowed the machine to run at full speed when changing rolls, but never built it. They were, however, intrigued to sell a high-performance machine some 10 years later, with what was basically their roll changer, and it worked like a charm.
A German company (Boshert) were sufficiently impressed with the NGC Batch Spear Holder to copy the idea and fit it to their machines. Because of low volumes, Norman G Clark’s products were, unfortunately, too expensive in the relatively small Australian market. Norman G Clark certainly missed out on the export possibilities, but even today it still sells German Safety Chucks to compliment other industrial products.
MIMIK LTD – Ontario Canada
The Canadian Trade Commissioner contacted NGC one day in 1960 and asked, “We have a Canadian Company seeking an Australian distributor for a very high-quality machine tool attachment, which is already extensively used in North America – are you interested?”.
The answer was “Yes”, and they placed an order for a Mimik Tracer, which was installed on one of the company’s centre lathes as a production unit.
The Mimik was very well designed, beautifully made, and featured a very powerful 360-degree hydraulic control valve which was the basis of the system.
The Mimik was designed to mount on a machine tool post. Almost any contour could be machined from a template that was fitted in a holder on the machine frame. A sensor attached to the valve moved the cutting tool in or out as the lathe moved forward or backward under the influence of the lead screw.
It is very interesting, 50 years later, to recall some of the things that were made with Mimik on some very primitive machinery. The repeatability of the system, and the quality of machining, was much better than could ever have been achieved on the same lathe manually.
Certainly, CNC Equipment today can do a better and quicker job, but many companies used Mimik Tracers to produce good quality product with low quality operators. For 25 years NGC sold many Mimiks successfully in the Australian engineering industry. Complicated components like bowling balls, tow balls and ball valves were machined with Mimik, and there were many installations on large vertical turret lathes where very complicated work pieces were produced.
Technology eventually caught up with Mimik. In its own manufacturing operations, NGC replaced its tracers firstly, with peg board machines, and eventually, with the current generation CNC controlled machines.
NGC had a very happy relationship with Mimik and its President, Linc Magor. They were very good people and a very co-operative and competent suppliers.
The product is still being sold and serviced in Australia by Reg Shanhan, who was originally NGC’s Machine Shop Manager, and later it’s Mimik salesman. There is no doubt the product is still every bit as good as it ever was, and there are still machine shops that could benefit from using the Mimik technology.
Charles Walker & Company – UK – textile leathers
This was a very old company from the Midlands, and for years Norman G Clark had a very good association with them and sold a lot of their product. Their Managing Director was Rowland Walker. He was a very nice man, a very good salesman and a regular visitor to Australia, which we always enjoyed immensely.
Charles Walker specialised in the manufacture of textile leathers, and they had a vast selection of styles and designs that were standard items on many British and European looms and spinning frames. The array was completely bewildering, and we rarely heard Rowland admit that the item being discussed was not known to his company. The customer would get an ‘on the spot’ quotation, and if he placed an order, the precise part would duly appear and would fit the machine without any doubt.
Drytester GMBH – Switzerland
In the 1960’s when researching and producing all sorts of accessories for textile finishing machines, NGC came across a Swiss product that was capable of accurately identifying the moisture content of textile fibres, and could be set up to control drying machines, so that the correct drying conditions could be applied to each type of fibre.
Overdrying was undesirable, but very common. It meant that the diameter of individual fibres would be reduced, and although it would recover by normal natural moisture regain, in the process it would suffer instability and damage would be done to the fabric.
Underdrying was just as bad, and basically produced the same result for the opposite reason.
As an example, consider woven cotton fabric that has been scoured, and possibly dyed, and should be dried after a standard finishing process to a width of 54 inches. Drying would probably be in a Stenter. This is a hot air-drying chamber with the fabric held at a desired width on pins, or clips, fitted to width adjustable chains each side of the machine.
Cotton has an average moisture regain of 15%, and the perfect finish is to leave that amount of moisture in the fibre with the fabric held at the desired width, whilst being transported through the machine at neutral longitudinal tension. This ideal state is hard to achieve on a very crude machine, and the problem is compounded by the operator having to guess whether it is adequately dry or not.
This was all before Drytester came along, but with Drytester, you knew exactly whether the fabric was dry or not. Drytester technology, however, was complex for Australian textile standards of the day.
Most machine operators erred on the overdrying side, as it was much easier to pick wet fabric rather than dry fabric, and most fabric that came out of the dryers was usually too dry. The Stenter made sure that it was 54 inches wide. However, once out of the machine and cooled down, the natural regain process started, and the fabric width started to change. In extreme situations it became a second quality product.
The fabric designer had in mind a special fabric with so many threads per inch of fabric width running the length of the fabric, and so many threads per inch of length. The finished fabric was to be 54 inches wide, and if it was, it would probably be a great fabric, but if it were narrower or wider in “on the shelf” form, something had gone wrong.
Now, because they could control tension, fabric guiding and dryer temperature control, with Drytester you could say to a machine operator “OK, that fabric is overdry – speed up the feed speed until we get into the normal range on the indicator”. You could then guarantee that the fabric delivered from the machine was in excellent condition.
The system worked using static electricity detection and was amazingly accurate. NGC soon had a unit fitted to almost every modern machine in Australia and contributed considerably to fabric quality in the modern processing plants.
It is still a mystery as to who was responsible for an interesting, but uneconomical, project which was the Go-Cart era. Rod Rexton, from Lucas, who was one of NGC’s very good engineering customers, certainly promoted the idea.
He made it all sound legal by suggesting that NGC make at least one vehicle and donate it to the underprivileged children of Ballarat, of which worthy cause he was a patron.
The NGC contribution was not very competitive, as it was over-engineered and very heavy. They were encouraged to make another, which won a few races, when the idea of a “twin engine” model was floated.
The problem was that it needed counter rotating engines. Rexton said he would organise the required parts, and after discussion with Norton Villiers, the engine manufacturer in Ballarat, they had a left and right-hand rotation engine which were mounted into the” Formula 1” cart. The direct drive arrangement to the wheels meant that it tended to want to go straight ahead and as such, was not easy to drive. The cart had to be pushed to start, but it was, once going, very fast.
Rexton had been the test driver from the beginning of the enterprise. The Formula 1 model was delivered to him, and he took it to the Baxter Park Speedway near Frankston for a trial run.
The first run was impressive, with very high speed being achieved in a straight line – but when turning around, both engines stopped. Rexton’s attempted restart was tried by scootering along with one foot on the seat. This worked as the engine fired, and he jumped aboard. But then the first engine stopped, and he was thrown over the steering wheel onto the road ahead. Instantaneously, the second engine fired, and the machine then ran over him, damaging clothing and removing skin!
Those that viewed the operation said it was spectacular, but concluded that they were no longer rich enough to continue this operation. They, therefore, sold off all the prototypes, parts, engines, etc and went looking for something better to do.
Volkswagen Australia assembled their famous “Beetle” at Clayton, in Melbourne, from 1954 to 1976, sourcing many components locally. Norman G Clark was the supplier to VW of two important parts, that is the engine dipstick and the accelerator link, which required some rather unique two-tone painting in green and black.
Every Australian Beetle had these two Norman G Clark parts. A twenty-ton press was purchased and located in the basement at Latrobe Street to make these parts. No doubt, much to the delight of the office staff above, it produced parts for many years before falling silent with the move to the Brunswick premises in 1964.
Another very interesting idea was car seat belts. Prior to 1970, seat belts were not compulsory. However, in 1962, John Clark had seen the need coming and he started developing a belt, based on a coupling, like the boy scout belt with a twist lock. Using the large press left over from the VW exercise, he was able to manufacture the metal components, and with imported nylon webbing, the NGC Seat Belt was born.
It soon became apparent that the design had limitations. While quite easy to put on and adjust, it was hard to release, and in a situation where a driver may have been in a rolled car, almost impossible to undo.
The NGC Mark II belt was better, with a moulded plastic case – but while effective, it was not very user friendly and hard to put on.
The final belt, the Mark III, was similar to the type of belt used in today’s airliners. Simple, effective, and while the Norman G Clark version was over engineered and expensive, the idea became the industry standard for many years.
It was eventually superseded by today’s click and lock retractable inertial reel models.
Another of John’s bright ideas, which never really caught on, but which was simple, unique and really worked, was his boat trailer towbar extension. Kananook Creek, at Frankston, was the launching site for a lot of fishing and pleasure craft. The launching ramp was a source of great entertainment for many, since the low tide launch caused many would-be mariners to lose their boat, trailer or car (and often all three) in the ink black creek water.
John devised a tow bar extension which added fifteen feet of reach into the deeper water of the creek, without coming close to getting the car wet. He had a second tube welded under his boat trailer, and on arrival at the ramp would unhitch the trailer, drive forward 15 feet, pull out the extension, re-hook onto the original tow ball, and drive back into the creek. Easy and dry, and a great disappointment for the hundreds gathered expecting a disaster.
The less said here the better, but the “Clark-Alcorso” men’s aerosol deodorant was not a run-a-way success. During the early 60’s aerosols were considered very modern. Men’s cosmetics and deodorants were less so.
Bowed Rollers – F E Lupton & Company – UK
This company were stainless steel fabricators, and made dye vats, drying jiggers and associated accessories, such as curved roller expanders which were used in open width fabric drying on their jigs.
NGC did not have a market for its dye house machinery in Australia, as Browns in Geelong made similar equipment. It did import some of its expanders for local use, but found them to be very heavy, and inadequate, from a tension control aspect.
NGC then made a deal with Luptons to buy only the rubber sleave and set about developing a local version of the roller expander.
Initially, NGC made the curved bar roller type, but later developed a better version of the regular slat expander, which featured very low-tension requirements, using a well-designed system of plastic rollers.
At the time, they also had access to very special plastic (Pactene), with very low friction features. It was used for the internal spools, and by experimenting with different face contours (which were machined with Mimik), produced a roller expander that was very low in friction. Also, if it was spun by hand it would rotate freely for a number of turns. The UK version would stop immediately the turning force was removed.
Eventually, NGC asked Dunlop Australia to produce a rubber tube with a larger diameter, and a very thin wall thickness. After one or two problems with hot water and tube flexibility, they got their act together and produced an extremely low-tension roller expander. They sold quite a number to the textile and the developing plastics industries.
NGC Bowed Rollers were a huge success, however, they were expensive and ultimately cheaper copies appeared on the market. The ‘Rolls Royce’ NGC version became uneconomic.
Pactene – Mannesman GMBH
When Norman G Clark got into the Reed making business, and became associated with Schmidt Manufacturing Company, USA, they discovered they had a unique engineering plastic.
Sourced from Mannesman in Germany, and marketed in Australia under the NGC brand name of PACTENE, it soon found uses in a wide range of industries. Pactene had a low co-efficient of friction, and exceptional impact and wear resistance amongst its many properties. Only available in rod or sheet form, Pactene was imported as white rod and green sheets.
The Victorian State Electricity Commission in the Latrobe Valley, would buy tons of “green Pactene” as scrapper blades. These would be cut to size to suit the various conveyors in the open cut brown coal mines in the valley. This was a quite lucrative business until cheaper, and lower grade substitutes, became available.
Pactene was an Ultra High Molecular Weight Polyethylene material, which could not be flow moulded. It was supplied in sheets or rods and produced by compression moulding. Performance Plastics of Bacup, UK, also supplied some interesting extruded sections of UHMWPE, but the market was limited, and not very profitable.
Pactene was a unique engineering plastic which had properties suitable for many applications in the textile industry. Its main claim to fame, as an engineering plastic, was that it had ZERO moisture absorption. Nylon, in similar applications, was unstable, and when machined as a bush, would alter dimensionally, almost welding itself to the shaft, or whatever it was supporting. Pactene didn’t do that, as it could be machined to the required size, with the assurance that it would stay on size, and that made it valuable as a bearing material.
Wagner GMBH – West Germany
The Wagner spray gun was imported initially by NGC as a textile cleaning gun. Eventually it became much more than a textile accessory, and it really was a revolutionary cleaning system for finished textiles.
In practically every textile mill in Australia, there was a final inspection of finished fabric. This almost certainly showed up dirt and grease spots, which required cleaning. Many and varied were the procedures applied for such repairs.
Almost everyone will have had a need to clean a fabric, or a furnishing fabric or a carpet, which had been soiled with oil or something else, and will have been unhappy with the result, as all you would have achieved was to spread a stain in a halo effect around the original area.
Many textile mills used a regular compressed air spray gun to blast cleaning fluid through the fabric. If they were lucky, an acceptable clean was achieved, but if not, the result was very bad, and the cloth was unacceptably damaged.
Compressed air spray guns rely on a large flow of high pressure air, to carry the material to be sprayed through an atomising nozzle, and the spray emerged with a large volume of air which dried some of the spray material on the way to the job. This created all sorts of problems, particularly in the hands of less than skilful operators.
The Wagner system was quite different, as the propellant for the material was not air, but very high frequency hydraulic pressure. It was described as an AIRLESS spray gun, and was trade named the Mistral. It had none of the shortcomings of the regular air operated gun, and was a tremendous performer as a textile cleaning gun. NGC sold a considerable number of units in a very short time.
NGC was so impressed with the cleaning gun, that it asked Wagner if it could be used to spray paint. The reply was that paint spraying was their main business, and the cleaning gun simply a variation of the paint version.
Consequently, NGC purchased a batch of paint guns and sold them almost immediately. The only problem was a nasty letter from the Mistral Fans solicitor, pointing out that Mistral was a registered trade name, and if we continued to use the name it was going to cost us a packet for infringement.
Therefore, Mistral became Mistless, and eventually it simply became Wagner.
As a painting system, compressed air spray guns are hard to operate efficiently. They required considerable skill to produce a satisfactory result, and it is easy to make a nasty mess when trying to develop skill.
The problem that applied to a compressed air cleaning gun was very much more exaggerated when spray painting. The air blast has the effect of drying and half drying some of the atomised paint before it reaches the item to be painted. Also, the dried and half dried material is bonded to the surface by the properly atomised paint. The effect after drying was like a sheet of sand paper.
The Wagner gun was different, as it produced no intermediate drying effect, and the paint from the nozzle was fully atomised. With a bit of practice, most operators could produce a very professional paint finish, which in most situations required no subsequent rubbing down to produce a highly acceptable result.
Norman G Clark sold thousands of Wagner guns for cleaning and painting. The product was extremely good, and had a very long field life if it received reasonable care. During the years NGC marketed the product, they operated mainly in the commercial arena. Subsequently, the Wagner gun became a very big seller in the retail trade through organisations such as McEwans and other big hardware outlets. Soon Wagner opened its own operation in Australia, and are still a significant supplier to both retail and commercial sections of the trade. The product is still the best of its type in the world.
Montgomerie Reid – Company UK
Introduction to this supplier came from an article in Textile World magazine. In 1954 NGC negotiated an agency arrangement and imported a selection of their electric forklift units.
What was attractive about their equipment was the vehicle dimensions. The machines were designed, not so much for high lift capacity, but for their ability to operate in rather small areas. At the time NGC set up its arrangement with them, they were the smallest ride-on forklift trucks available.
The one-ton machine was the best in the range and was simply a scaled down version of a large conventional forklift. It could, however, be driven through a standard doorway, and easily manoeuvred in the narrow aisles normally encountered in textile weaving and spinning mills.
It certainly was not a toy, and was a genuine high-performance machine, with excellent stability and good lift capacity.
The batteries were part of the rear counter weight, and the one-ton model had the capability of operating for up to twelve hours on a fully-charged battery.
NGC sold several of these machines before it started to realise it was not alone in the small electric market. Crown were just getting underway with their range and although they were not offering ride on models, they were offering very good lift capacity – and even better manoeuvrability, than the Montgomerie Reid models. Unfortunately, they were also a lot cheaper, and were about to start Australian manufacture. NGC got smart, sold off its stock and retired from the small forklift truck business. Pity, because it was looking like a very good thing.