Flying Machine founder and principal Matthew Andrew. Source: Supplied
On the surface, the prospects for the “Made in Australia” tag look bleak. We are counting down to our last Ford Falcons and Holden Commodores, and our next submarine fleet could be made in Japan rather than Adelaide.
The federal government has signalled it’s sink or swim time for local manufacturing as corporate welfare is curtailed.
But amid the doom and gloom, it’s possible Australian manufacturing may surge again if it steers itself into a vastly different future where goods are made to order in small batches, new materials and processes are cooked up in labs hundreds of times faster than in the past, and techniques such as industrial-grade 3D printing are fully exploited.
Processes such as additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing, are making small-run goods available at prices and with a speed to market impossible a decade ago. Additive manufacturing also makes hi-tech cottage industries — such as tiny custom bicycle maker Flying Machine in Perth, Western Australia — possible.
Flying Machine makes premium titanium-frame bikes that are a custom fit for the buyer. The bikes’ dimensions and frame geometry are tailored to each customer by joining up the frame tubes with one-off titanium lugs printed on an electron beam melting machine at the CSIRO.
“It’s a 3D printer that prints in titanium,” says Flying Machine principal Matthew Andrew.
“Additive manufacturing is the more correct terminology. It melts consecutive layers of powder on top of each other to make the three-dimensional shape.
“We were looking for a way of achieving what we wanted to do for a cost that was viable.”
Andrew first learned about CSIRO’s EBM additive manufacturing machine when he heard a radio report about how the national researcher had made a custom horseshoe for a racehorse with a damaged hoof. “They scanned its hoof and made a perfectly fitting horseshoe for it,” he says.
Andrew has talked to overseas suppliers about making the custom titanium lugs but has been put off by the cost.
When he heard about how little the special horseshoe had cost to make he got in touch with CSIRO, which now make the parts for Flying Machine on its EBM printer at a market price. There are laser powered printers that do a similar job, but Andrew says the power of the electron beam builds deeper layers, making the printing process faster and cheaper.
The Flying Machine custom fit bike has been available for a few months and has already attracted orders from as far away as Finland.
On a larger scale — as Ford, Holden and Toyota ready themselves to cease manufacturing cars in Australia — a hi-tech automotive start-up in Ford’s home base of Geelong, Victoria is making carbon fibre wheels that are not only stronger than traditional alloy wheels but much lighter, leading to handling improvements by reducing unsprung vehicle weight and better fuel economy.
Carbon Revolution makes carbon fibre wheels that are about half the weight of equivalent alloy wheels in an advanced manufacturing process.
While Flying Machine and Carbon Revolution use leadingedge industrial technology to make new things for global markets, much of Australian manufacturing is stuck in the digital dark ages, according to a CSIRO discussion paper released this week.
The iManufacturing — Is Australia Ready? discussion paper lists a number of hidden costs for local industry and warns of a lack of digital connection.
While manufacturing information technology tools such as enterprise resource planning software is widely used among local SMEs, moving that data across the supply chain is often problematic rather than automatic and requires human intervention.
For one SME consulted by the paper’s authors, having to intervene to unclog ERP pipes cost up to 14 per cent of profit.
“Many businesses we have talked to were not aware that this is a ‘real’ cost, but rather just accepted it as an inevitable part of doing business,” the study says.
Australian manufacturing appears somewhat unprepared for dealing with global electronic supply chains. Citing ABS data from a 2011-12 study, the paper says only 39 per cent of very small local manufacturers are set up to receive orders over the internet, rising to 81 per cent for businesses with more than 200 employees.
Meanwhile, a major disruption to local manufacturing is on its way. Globally, manufacturers are moving away from just making widgets to providing services and software that go with the physical goods, such as the vast app ecosystems that float around modern smartphones and tablets.
Western countries such as Germany, France and the US are already investing heavily in so-called Industry 4.0 research programs that seek to optimise cloud computing and “internet of things” approaches to manufacturing. Rapid, bespoke manufacturing for different markets such as consumers in emerging markets is also forging ahead.
The paper recommends a number of steps such as further research into digital supply chains, adopting open enterprise data exchange standards and alerting SMEs to the potential of producing services that complement manufactured goods. CSIRO is also promoting its leading-edge manufacturing labs.
“We really want industry to come in and try out new techniques and build innovation in their businesses,” says Cathy Foley, the science leader for CSIRO’s Manufacturing Flagship.
CSIRO was going to build a Factory of the Future complex in Clayton, Victoria to champion the new wave of manufacturing technology, but has recently changed its plans and axed the building.
The move comes amid funding and staffing uncertainty at CSIRO after the Abbott government announced in the May budget that CSIRO funding would be cut by $111 million over four years.
The proposed Factory of the Future has been renamed Australia’s Centre for Additive Innovation and its operations will be carried out at the Clayton facility.
“The main difference is that we are not building a building because we thought it would take too long … and we have had to make some difficult decisions where we have had to say we are moving out of this and moving into that,” says Foley.
Refurbishing the existing facility means the Centre for Additive Innovation will be able to get to work faster, she says.
This story was first published in The Australian.