Michael Lester doesn’t shy away from a challenge. He builds a team of fellow innovators and comes up with tensioned fabric solutions.
“We’re always innovating,” says Michael Lester, managing director of MakMax Australia Pty. Ltd. in Brisbane, Australia, a world-renowned company building custom membrane structures and manufacturing a range of shade products. “We’ve always got new products in our minds and are working to bring them to market.”
Lester’s introduction to working with tensioned fabric structures came while he was still studying for his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from the University of Queensland and working as a consulting engineer. He was brought in to work on an approximately 1,000-square-meter canopy for the World Expo 88, held in Brisbane. “After looking at how to do that work, I checked out subcontracting options and decided instead to learn as much as I could and engineer it myself,” he says. “That pretty much shaped the rest of my career.” (The structure was relocated to Biloela in central Queensland after the expo, and is still in use.)
Lester eventually became a partner in the consultancy, which he sold out of in 1997 to buy into Shade Structures Pacific. In 2000 that company became a subsidiary of Amherst, N.Y.-based Birdair Inc. In 2005 ownership passed directly to the Taiyo Kogyo Corp. based in Tokyo and Osaka, Japan. “That’s been a very fruitful relationship for me because Taiyo Kogyo Group is the largest tension structure organization in the world, and they’re also very collegiate in their treatment of the various companies and subsidiaries around the world, and with that comes access to skills from all the countries [in that group],” Lester says.
Define the challenges
MakMax projects range from standard umbrellas of 2 to 3 square meters to its biggest project at the moment, Perth Stadium in Burswood, Western Australia—a multipurpose 35,000-square-meter PTFE venue. Lester and his team of engineers, project managers and construction experts embrace the challenges that come with each new project in tender and kick-off meetings where a free-flowing exchange of ideas is the expectation.
“Each project has its challenges, and the very first challenge is to work out what those challenges are,” he says. “Being able to do that comes from experience and knowledge and having a really good team that can build the projects in their heads, so they can anticipate what problems might arrive and take steps to solve those problems before starting any of the real design.”
People ask me all the time what I look for in a person when I’m interviewing them. And the answer is: I’m looking for something they do in the real world that indicates a joy of working with their hands creating things. It might be sailing or building model planes or racing cars—anything that indicates a manual, creative bent in which they’re putting their mind to creating physical things.
The design challenge that Perth Stadium presented included not only its large scale but also some novelties with potentially incompatible materials, which drove Lester and his team to innovate a purpose-designed extrusion in order to avoid the use of side-welded closures on the project. “I had been thinking about the problem for years and had in mind a detail that I had used many years ago on a project in Hong Kong,” Lester says. “What we came up with for this case was an extension of that solution.”
The technical solution that MakMax developed for the extrusions was not only effective, it also saved a significant amount of labor during installation, and was what won the company the project, Lester says.
Lester’s team is also working on the Queensland State Velodrome for the 2018 Commonwealth Games to be held on the Gold Coast near Brisbane. The original architecture called for a steel roof, but the contractor that won the project had worked with MakMax in the past and preferred fabric over steel, so MakMax won the project as an alternate. “Fabric was a very suitable material for this three-dimensional roof shape because fabric follows the curves better,” Lester says.
The particular challenge with this project had to do with providing drainage control with the low-gradient roof. “We used a few of our old details to come up with a solution that allows free drainage of the roof without funneling the water into internal roof gutters,” Lester says. “So we not only avoided the expense of internal roof gutters, but we managed to keep the pure form of the roof that the architect designed.”
With projects such as the Velodrome and Perth Stadium, in which the MakMax team is developing new products, Lester maintains a high level of involvement, especially during the initial stages. “I go to a lot of the initial meetings, not to keep them on track, but to make sure I know that our team is looking after all the details, because while those types of projects are opportunities—they’re dangerous opportunities,” he says. “Things can go wrong.”
He also points out that developing new products and bringing them to market is an expensive endeavor. “You’ve got to develop a new product, and then there are the prototype costs and design costs,” Lester says. “And unfortunately those costs can’t be covered on the very first version of the project.”
A new way to use fabric
Even more exciting to Lester is a partnership his company has with the University of Queensland, developing a revolutionary new product for solar- and geothermal-power generation. MakMax developed the first prototype last year and is now in the process of commercializing it. “We have, of course, enormous solar resources but a lot of geothermal resources as well,” Lester says. “This is particularly exciting because it is really suitable for medium-scale distributed power generation, and to my knowledge it’s a new application of fabric to an area that hasn’t been developed before.”
Lester credits his company’s in-house design capabilities as one of the components to its success. “Some other companies might have a junior engineer or someone like that involved, but we’ve got the full team—architects, engineers, drafters,” he says. “The advantage is that we can better understand the design and cost issues associated with either a tender or project in hand and that just gives us a better ability to deliver on clients’ expectations.”
There is a drawback, however, Lester admits; but the tradeoff is worth it. The downside of having an in-house design team is that it’s a fixed cost that the business has to carry “and we are less flexible because of that,” he says.
Building an innovative team
Building a team that is willing and eager to find creative solutions to fabrication challenges is something Lester also excels at, and that starts with the hiring process. “People ask me all the time what I look for in a person when I’m interviewing them,” he says. “And the answer is: I’m looking for something they do in the real world that indicates a joy of working with their hands creating things. It might be sailing or building model planes or racing cars—anything that indicates a manual, creative bent in which they’re putting their mind to creating physical things.
“It’s probably the greatest indicator of aptitude—and far greater than university results.”
For what will be the largest fabric installation in Australia to date, MakMax Australia designed a distinctive roof structure for Perth Stadium. Under construction across the Swan River from Perth’s central business district, the 35,000-square-foot PTFE roof will cover a 60,000-seat multipurpose sports and entertainment venue. The structure incorporates lightweight material, located to the underside of the trusses, which cantilever toward the center of the bowl and provide a clean soffit to the roof plane.
To avoid the installation expense of using side-welded closures, which require the use of heat sealers and operators on the roof to close the panel joints, Michael Lester and the MakMax design team developed purpose-designed extrusions for the task. “The solution essentially consists of a friction grip spline fixing the fabric closure into an aluminum extrusion with a seal strip over it,” Lester says. “We used something similar for a project in Hong Kong many years ago, and it has worked without problems for the last 15 years.”
Construction of Perth Stadium and the surrounding Sports Precinct began in December 2014 and is scheduled for completion by the end of 2017.
5 Top Tips
for meeting a project's challenges
- The first challenge is to work out what the project’s challenges are.
- Encourage free exchange of ideas and solutions among the design team.
- Group-design and engineer the project with installation in mind. Cost overruns during the installation phase are among the major challenges on large projects.
- After working out what can go wrong, adjust the details and installation methods to suit.
- Make sure to have all the parameters sorted before finalizing the design.
What is the most significant business challenge you face currently?
Competitors who misrepresent their abilities and price. The industry has reached a sort of mature phase. The selling price of dollars per square meter of fabric structure has not changed all that much during my career. They’re becoming cheaper and cheaper, which is why the fabric industry is growing in square meters but not so much in dollar value. That puts a lot of pressure on our margins and we have to keep on doing things more and more efficiently.
How do you measure a project’s success?
What is really important to me is how our business systems revolve around quality. Much of this comes from the Japanese management style. We are ISO 1001 certified but everything that requires of us—have a goal and measure everything so you know when you’re successful—we would do anyway because it makes good business sense. If you do things right your customers will come back to you. There are so many reasons why following that quality assurance process in business is always going to be successful.