Can we still make things? – the future of manufacturing

In this month’s edition of Voice, Annie Rahilly and Zoe Nikakis ask engineering experts what manufacturing in Australia will look like in the future. The answer is firmly: hi-tech, collaborative and innvotion-based.

Australia, and Victoria in particular, have long been places that make things. From the massive Ford plant in Geelong to Ardmona tomatoes and SPC canned peaches, to boutique clothing operations like Queensland’s Black Milk, manufacturing and the encouragement to ‘buy Australian’ has always been part of the nation’s cultural identity.

It’s an expensive way to be proudly Australian though, and the costs are increasingly making Australian manufacturing unviable.

Dr Colin Burvill from the University of Melbourne’s Department of Mechanical Engineering says the future of Australian manufacturing, and engineering more broadly, relies strongly in what he calls “continuous innovation”.

“Innovation, invention and the associated design skills that enable practical realisation are crucial to retaining local manufacturing,” he says.

“We are losing the major automotives from Victoria and while this is problematic, the concern should be for the workforces. In particular, the highly trained people whose skills should not be lost, whether those skills are used directly in other industries or to assist the training of the next generation.

Paul Minty from the Melbourne School of Engineering (MSE) says a competitive manufacturing sector is still viable.

“Two people may buy the same machine but one asks, how can I make this machine operate better? How can I optimise its performance? This is innovation. Having an idea and realising it.

“Australia has a full range of such innovation skills to offer. At MSE, staff build the machines, apply them to manufacture and understand how the equipment will work.

“In the quest to improve quality, manufacturers can increase volume and shorten the time to market. In my associations with industry, I have seen how clever manufacturers invest in upgrading machinery and tools to increase batch runs that result in products being made quicker and cheaper,” he says.

“By going back to the essence of engineering, small businesses can adopt new tools and technology with positive results. Engaging with new research is key to this continuous improvement.”

Dr Alan Smith is the senior manufacturing lecturer in Mechanical Engineering. He agrees there is an imperative for engineers, and particularly the future engineers he teaches, to change and adapt throughout their careers.

“As engineers, invention is part of what we do and it is all wrapped in disciplines and systems,” he says.

“We must retain our expertise to keep improvement going through product innovation, invention and design.”

To change the ways engineers and manufacturers innovate and invent new methods, first the way in which they are taught must change.

This future, where students must be innovators and inventors as well as specialists in specific disciplines, is one the University of Melbourne is actively pursuing by changing the ways in which it teaches students.

Successful innovation and invention also means supporting different ways of undertaking research projects.

At Melbourne, research innovation, not just in manufacturing but also across sustainability and resilience challenges and other complex global problems is increasingly being explored by collaborative teams of experts from across different faculties.

Where once a project may have been solely engineering’s territory, to be truly innovative now requires multi-disciplinary teams comprising experts from faculties as diverse as Information and Computer Technology, Science and Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences.

The University is in many ways supporting this new way of working on multi-disciplinary projects, and the teams required to undertake them, including by creating a new facility designed from the ground up for this purpose.

The project, known as the Carlton Connect Initiative, will help accelerate the transition to the economy of the future, says Project Director Charlie Day.

“Victoria is moving from a product-based economy to a knowledge-based economy,” he says.

“The sustainability challenges around issues such as water, energy, food and liveable cities are areas in which we have globally-recognised strengths, and we need to think about how to build on those.

“We are planning to co-locate academics with industry and government experts to work collaboratively to drive innovation in these fields.”

Mr Day says to successfully nurture these future innovators, partners are needed to help with the translation of ideas into reality.

“If we get this right now, it will create the opportunities for the new businesses that will underpin our future prosperity,” he says.

“Companies must not be afraid to engage with engineers; they can learn from being on the ground in industry gaining practical experience and industry can learn from engineers about problem-solving.”

Mr Day says implementing an equal exchange system between universities and industry is a plan worth considering.

“The benefits are positive as overseas programs have demonstrated,” he says.

“But research and industry need to be matched. Industry doesn’t need raw scientific research but research that connects with them. Better links are needed.”

One of the great developments in manufacturing in the past few years, 3D printing, was a result of industry-engineering alliances, and has already resulted in advanced manufacturing practices.

“Academics are forced to focus 15 years into the future. Industry is forced to look at next week’s problem, Mr Day says.

“Structurally we need to look half way.”

The article, “Can we still make things’, by Annie Rahilly and Zoe Nikakis, first appeared in Voice, Volume 10 Number 4, April 14 – May 11 2014.