Utilising universities for industrial innovation

While engaging with university research can seem intimidating for SMEs, manufacturers can now more easily draw on the depth of knowledge academics provide. Connor Pearce reports.

While researchers and manufacturers may seem to be worlds apart, the collaboration between the minds and focussed expertise of university academics, with the knowledge
and hands-on understanding of manufactures, has the potential for innovation that can benefit businesses and universities.

At times, the barriers between higher-level research and manufacturing processes can seem insurmountable. While larger corporations have their dedicated R&D departments, which can operate as dedicated research centres, SMEs and start-ups have had to ride the coat-tails of large enterprises, or wait for the trickle-down of proprietary research to reach the public domain. In addition, the large and sometimes archaic organisational structures of universities can seem opaque to outsiders. To cap it all off, researchers who have been cloistered in the world of academic publishing can have diverging priorities from manufacturers interested in adopting a single piece of innovative technology, or updating their processes to get ahead in the market.

However, a recent confluence of disparate factors have started to break down the wall between the academy and shop floor.

For universities, the traditional source of funding for research is shrinking. In the Mapping Australian Higher Education 2018 report, published by the Grattan Institute in 2018, the Commonwealth Government financed only a third of the cost of research. With research outcomes the primary method by which universities are ranked, maintaining excellence in this field means that universities have had to turn to other sources of funding.

At the other end of the equation, Australian manufacturers have had to turn to innovation as a way to stay competitive in international markets. In an environment with relatively stable input costs and high wage costs, productivity improvements have had to be found in innovation.

At an event in July at Western Sydney University’s (WSU) Werrington Launch Pad, representatives from the university, government, and industry discussed how to develop collaborative relationships.

According to André Urfer, business development manager (acting) at WSU’s Research Engagement, Development and Innovation (REDI) Business office, the stereotypical image of a university academic is starting to break down at his institution.

“Traditionally, when you think about research, researchers are sitting in offices, thinking about academically interesting problems and how to solve them. They come up with research proposals and they submit them to competitive funding bodies and hopefully they get funded,” said Urfer. “Five years ago, there was a major change in direction at WSU, and the management at the time said to the researchers, ‘In addition to submitting competitive grants to support fundamental research, you are encouraged and empowered to go out there and start building research partnerships with organisations and work on applied problems that you can provide research solutions to. Organisations can be very broad, and could include not for profits, charities, SMEs or large enterprises’.”

This was the call from upper levels of university management, and since then, governments have also taken on the role of match-maker between researchers and companies.

Ingrid Marsh, director Industry Development, NSW Treasury, outlined how in the “NSW advanced manufacturing industry development strategy”, a foundational plank of the strategy is for government to bring together academics and manufacturers.

“One of the four key areas that we are looking at with this strategy is advanced knowledge and this is where we’re passing on that knowledge between universities and industry,” said Marsh.

Making this happen has been government-funded networks that bring together universities and businesses in identified sectors. Anthony Morfa, business development manager of the NSW Smart Sensing Network (NSSN), puts it simply.

“We’re one of four Department of Industry-funded networks in the state that are here to connect the various universities in the state with industry. We’re trying to bridge the gap between universities and people who are working in industry,” said Morfa.

While Morfa is specifically working in the area of smart sensing, which involves sensors that measure the temperature, vibration and status of machines, and can interpret these data values to make decisions, the network already involves 550 experts and researchers from 110 different research institutes and centres.

“They have specialised equipment, specialised knowledge and can immediately start working on problems with techniques that may not be available to every company,” said Morfa, describing the talents of the researchers in his network.

However, making the connections between researchers and industry may be easier said than done, as John Scilly, smart manufacturing co- ordinator at WSU, highlighted.

“A lot of the clients I talk to and the business I talk to really don’t know what’s available. You’ve got to go to the government websites and start having a look and investigating it. You need to make those sorts of inquiries to see what’s available,” said Scilly.

Scilly identified a gulf between R&D facilities and small businesses and start-ups.

“Most people think if you start talking to CSIRO or any other institution, ‘Woah, too big, too expensive, why would they want to talk to me?’ We ran a couple of events to take that myth out of the concept of engaging with R&D institutions, and it’s delightful now to see the government take the baton on with this,” said Scilly.

Manufacturing and innovation today
While universities and government have begun to open up to the idea of collaborating with industry on research, manufacturers have also begun to come to the table.

National Director of Industry at the Advanced Manufacturing Growth Centre (AMGC), Michael Sharpe, outlined how manufacturing has changed in recent years to incorporate innovation as central to the business.

“Manufacturing is much more than just making stuff, and much more than production. Manufacturing in today’s world means more around research and development and unlocking the value of world-class researchers,” said Sharpe.

Combining the expertise of each sector is something that Sharpe is passionate about.

“We’ve got some of the best minds right here in Australia, and I’ve been able to take professors out of our great universities and onto the factory floor right across the country. There’s an opportunity for them to learn something because we have outstanding business people in manufacturing right across the nation,” said Sharpe.

Morfa was similarly enthusiastic about the potential of researchers when embedded with industry partners.

“The research that is taking place at these universities is second to none and what our members are actually interested in doing is connecting with industry and understanding the challenges industry face and trying to participate and support industry as much as possible,” said Morfa.

For businesses wishing to engage with researchers, the first step is to begin by talking with Morfa or a similar industry network, so that introductions can be handled by those who already have a list of available researchers.

“What we do is facilitate connections to all of our member universities in one step. It actually removes the barrier of having to go to all of the universities in the state, asking them who might be an expert in that space, trying to make an introduction yourself, trying to then find funding, and repeating the entire process again with each university,” said Morfa.

From the perspective of the NSW government, incorporating research into industry processes enables businesses to scale their business so that they can export to overseas markets.

“We’re here to support you on that area of growing your export potential and also looking at investment opportunities,” said Marsh.

However, Marsh noted that outcomes may not be straightforward, and businesses should be open to researching finding unexpected facets of their business that could
be improved. Citing one example of a business that had partnered with a university researcher, Marsh highlighted how the business was encouraged to incorporate a digital strategy as part of their business strategy. It began to look at how workforce development could lead to the business achieving its goals, outlined in its vision and mission statement.

Putting research into practice
One industry participant at the event at WSU’s Launchpad was David Fox, general manager of LA Services. The company designs and fabricates large heat exchangers, pressure vessels, piping skids and gas pipelines. In being involved with researchers from WSU, Fox saw the difference between researchers and other business consultants.

“It took some time, but it certainly pushed my thinking outwards but without a sales pitch. It wasn’t like the consulting space. They were genuinely interested in finding things to help us. Academics have a really deep knowledge of things and would say things to us that would make you think ‘Wow’.”

In Fox’s experience, utilising the expertise of the academics led to a fundamental re-evaluation of the business model of LA Services.

“We started to think, ‘Do you need to sell these things or could you lease them?’ At that point in time, we hadn’t got our heads fully around how that might work, but today we’re much clearer on how that might shift our business to different areas that we never imagined,” said Fox.

Another industry participant, JP Liew, utilised the facilities of the business incubator at WSU to allow his business to be more flexible, and respond to changes in consumer demand. Liew makes Arduino- compatible, built-in breadboards from within the Werrington Park Corporate Centre where WSU Launchpad is located.

“I’m able to make boards in any quantity I might wish, in any shapes I wish, any colours and any form factors, and have them packed right here, and shipped right from the desk here,” said Liew.

Previously, Liew had used manufacturers based in China to produce his products. However, he found that this led to high capital costs and limited flexibility, compared with his current set up at WSU.

“I can do on-demand manufacturing, starting with just one unit. There’s no capital tied up and I don’t have to communicate long distance. The most important factor is I’m able to react to change in just one day. If someone places an order today, I can supply the product tomorrow. If something is wrong, I can fix the product in one day,” said Liew.

Liew also utilised the NSW government’s TechVoucher scheme, which awards companies up to $15,000 in matched grants to partner with a research organisation and spoke of the value of collaboration.

“When government and industry work together to support start-ups; every problem has a solution,” said Liew.

What made these projects particularly successful, however, was the nature of the collaboration between industry and the selected university. As Morfa pointed out, researchers have their own set of requirements which, when properly understood, make for a positive outcome.

“The other point that’s important to keep in mind is that researchers are first and foremost researchers. You have to find a common language or a common problem and something that allows them to research and test something that’s unknown. They want to see that their graduate students can write a thesis which requires original knowledge,” said Morfa.

With this in mind, Scilly counselled attendees that not every matching will be the right one, and that manufacturers should go in with their eyes open as to the nature of the partnership.

“Don’t be frightened to shop around. There’s a sense of intimidation on the part of manufacturers around research institutions; ‘Is it impertinent to ask about how much it is going to cost me?’ No it’s not. Ask it upfront, get a quote, and make sure you get a clear understanding of the cost of the exercise going forward,” said Scilly.

With the NSW government citing research that formal collaboration between Australian businesses and universities could generate $10.6 billion a year in revenue for the partnering businesses, there is great potential for partnerships. However, this only will happen when such collaborations are built on mutual understandings.