Internship program connects innovation with business

Putting research to work requires industry collaboration with education providers. Manufacturers’ Monthly reports.

In 2017, the Office of Innovation and Science Australia released a review of innovation in Australia. Despite finding that Australia’s knowledge creation scored an A, the nation’s grades for applying this research to industry were significantly lower: knowledge transfer received a C, while knowledge application got a F.

Attempting to raise these scores, including in the cross-over between university research and the manufacturing sector, is the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute’s national all sector, all discipline PhD internship program, Australian Postgraduate Research (APR).Intern. Providing a pathway between industry and academia, the program is also putting focus on equity in STEM with engagement of women, Indigenous Australians and disadvantaged PhD students essential to ensure skill supply.

Thanks to a recent partnership with the Innovative Manufacturing Cooperative Research Centre (IMCRC), APR.Intern’s impact on the manufacturing sector is set to deepen. Under this agreement, the program will place 23 PhD students with matched manufacturing SMEs and large corporations to confront the contemporary challenges of the manufacturing sector.

APR.Intern national business development manager, Rachel Geddes, said PhD students brought unique talents to a manufacturing workplace.

“A PhD in itself brings a set of problem solving and analytical skills, which don’t necessarily come through at an undergraduate level, so interns have the capability to see things a little differently,” said Geddes.

The partnership between APR. Intern and the IMCRC is designed to help manufacturing businesses adopt Industry 4.0 practices currently being tested and trialled in tertiary STEM faculties.

Since the partnership began at the end of March, a student has already been placed with metal 3D printing company Spee3D. As seen in the report by the Office of Innovation and Science Australia, manufacturing businesses in Australia and research institutions have historically struggled to build bridges between their respective worlds. In occupying the middle- ground between the two sectors, APR. Intern hopes this partnership will enable deeper research relationships to come to fruition.

“The program is leveraging off the IMCRC to show that there are stepping stones for a business to advance their innovation in the sector,” said Geddes.

While cost pressures and established ways of working can limit the uptake of research interns with SMEs in Australia, IMCRC funding of up to $13,000 and a 50 per cent rebate supported by the Australian Government Department of Education, through the “Supporting more women in STEM careers: Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute (AMSI) – National Research Internships Program (NRIP)”, means the expense borne by businesses in bringing in a researcher is heavily reduced.

In addition, the researchers are supported by their respective university with an academic mentor, allowing for further collaboration between higher education providers and industry in the future.

“The placement allows the business to build a collaboration with the university, gain exposure to the research field and tap into the greater academic world,” said Geddes.

In designing the collaboration between industry and researcher, APR.Intern takes a problem or challenge that an industry partner is facing and finds a suitable researcher who has expertise in that area. Geddes said, however, that potential challenges could be encountered at any point in a business, not only in production but in transportation or somewhere else that the business has not yet considered.

“For businesses, the first step is for them to call us. Often, we’ve worked in the same context and can provide examples of projects that might be very relevant to them but may not fit within the mainstream of their business,” said Geddes.

So far, across the entire APR. Intern program, placements have led to new opportunities for both the researcher and the business. Thirty five per cent of PhDs that have completed the program with NRIP funding have gone on to find employment with the business they were placed with. Eighteen per cent of these jobs were newly created roles as well, highlighting how the program has the potential to grow a business.

“It demonstrates that businesses, who may not have had that kind of skill set within their remit, are seeing the value of a researcher and they’re actually forming a position for that student after they’ve had them in- house for five months working on a  research project,” said Geddes.

Established in 2007, APR.Intern now works with a network of 31 universities across the country, aiming to lift Australia’s grades when it comes to putting research into practice in industry. Today, these efforts are paying off, and while most placements are organised by APR.Intern, some businesses are beginning to come to the program with partnerships already finalised, leaving it to play facilitator, a situation which Geddes describes as fantastic.

“We have seen a bit more of a change in terms of having businesses and academics come forward and say, ‘I’ve already got someone I’d like to go ahead with’,” said Geddes.

APR.Intern’s equity focus is also paying dividends as skill demand soars, accelerating women, Indigenous Australians and disadvantaged students into manufacturing innovation.

This in turn is having a positive impact on confidence of female STEM candidates.

“There’s endless research showing that women will often self-doubt their own capabilities if they don’t tick all the boxes on a potential opportunity; they won’t put their hands up compared to males. There’s a number of inhibitors or barriers that would otherwise limit females, particularly STEM researchers, from engaging in the industry space,” said Geddes.

To counteract this, APR.Intern has conducted awareness campaigns and shared stories of previous alumni who have gone on to great success.

“Seeing someone else who has gone through that process often encourages others to take that leap and put their hand up,” said Geddes.

Despite women only accounting for 16 per cent of the STEM workforce, female participation over the life of the NRIP Program sits at 41.2 per cent.

As the manufacturing industry adapts to the innovations that comprise Industry 4.0, establishing collaborative relationships with researchers through programs such as APR.Intern’s partnership with the IMCRC can allow businesses of all sizes to be at the leading edge of industrial innovation.