A unique path for Australian manufacturing

The future of Australian manufacturing will be diverse and complex, driven by digital infrastructure, mass customisation and the need to better understand supply chains and respond faster to dynamic markets.

As the manufacturing landscape shifts in response to new economic and social pressures, Australia is looking for an answer to the question: What does the future look like for Australian manufacturing?

By virtue of my role as the Director of the Future Manufacturing National Research Flagship at CSIRO, I am often confronted by this question. Many commentators and peers expect a simple answer, but that would be underestimating the complexity and diversity of manufacturing, both in terms of challenges and opportunities.

The recent work undertaken by the Prime Minister’s Manufacturing Task Force and other commentary is beginning to create a picture of what the future could (or ought) to look like for manufacturing in this country.

Irrespective of the wide-ranging views on what alternate futures for manufacturing might look like, Australian manufacturers need to be competitive in global markets and be highly productive and sustainable in their business operations. Manufacturing firms also need to capture the opportunities offered by Australia’s comparative advantage in natural resources in minerals and agriculture, as well as emerging markets for products and services that support more sustainable living in transport, construction, energy, health and well-being.

As part of its contribution to the task force, CSIRO has done an analysis of global mega-trends and identified a number of drivers that are already shaping the future of manufacturing in Australia. They include the rise of a new digitally-driven infrastructure, a move towards mass customisation, an emphasis on sustainability and the need to produce more from less.

Over the next decade, success factors that will influence the competitiveness of Australian manufacturing firms will include the need for faster discovery and development to respond more quickly to dynamic markets, advanced design to create much more competitive and sustainable products, improved collaboration across our innovation system to maximise the exchange and transfer of knowledge, an increase in our ability to leverage our national broadband infrastructure, and encouraging a better understanding of supply chains.

Another key success factor will be our ability to develop, adapt, adopt and integrate the right enabling technologies that provide a competitive advantage for Australian manufacturing firms.

There are number of potential game changers in terms of enabling technologies and advanced capabilities. This includes additive manufacturing, assistive automation, advanced design and smart information systems.

Globally we have seen a major shift towards technology-led manufacturing focused on large scale industrial automation. In countries such as Germany, production lines are increasingly dominated by automated processes and robotics. More recently, China has embarked on a large-scale industrial automation program. However, we need to think about how such technological leaps work for Australia. We have our own unique manufacturing DNA, made up of tens of thousands of SMEs. This is very different to some other industrialised countries, where there are many more large scale manufacturing enterprises. Australian SMEs often find it difficult to embrace industrial automation because of cost and the risk of disruption to their production.

However, there may be other paths to large scale industrial automation. Simple repetitive tasks have largely been addressed by automation (robotics) in manufacturing environments. However, there are many complex tasks that still require human involvement; it may be these technologies that "assist” (rather than replace) human processes that may become more prominent in Australia. The emerging field of assistive automation may play an important role in the future of Australian manufacturing.

Additive manufacturing is a method of fabrication by layers that translates digital design information into prototype or production parts. Currently used mainly in prototyping, additive techniques are increasingly seen as effective for manufacturing highly complex parts and devices that are costly to make by conventional means. Manufacturers can potentially deliver more niche, high value, customised products and be competitive even by producing low volumes. This is important as Australian manufacturers operate in a relatively high-cost environment, and generally cannot compete by generating economies of scale. In the Australian context, the availability of high-speed broadband will also greatly assist the adoption of this digitally-enabled technology. However, much still needs to be done to adapt these relatively new additive processes to make them robust and cost-effective for mainstream manufacturing.

Design will become increasingly important part of the manufacturing value chain. Better design can lead to products with superior functionality and sustainability. For manufacturing firms, making the transition from pure production to being more service based, design thinking could also play an increasingly important role in innovation.

There is emerging evidence, particularly in northern European countries, that the adoption of design-led innovation is directly linked to increasing firm competitiveness. A number of European and Asian countries are looking to (or have already incorporated) discrete design-focused settings into their broader economic policies. In Australia, awareness of the potential application of design-based innovation is still in its infancy and will require both coordination and investment.

The application of Smart Information Systems has the potential to lift productivity, competitiveness and safety. For example, Smart Information Systems that provide a high degree of situational awareness can provide a much higher degree of automation for the remote control of equipment used to handle complex and potentially hazardous tasks. Smart Information Systems that are highly scalable and interoperable across various media also provide the platform for intelligent collaboration networks that can assist in helping firms and research organisations innovate through more effective sharing of information.

There is no doubt that Australian manufacturing will need to take its own path to innovation and maintaining its competitiveness. Global influences will play their part, but Australia’s unique manufacturing DNA, natural resource endowment and increasingly strong communication infrastructure will help shape a uniquely Australian manufacturing future.

Dr Swee Mak is the director of CSIRO’s Future Manufacturing National Research Flagship.

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