Addressing Australia’s design failures

Central to the success of world-leading manufacturers like Dyson and Apple, a design emphasis is something Australian engineering lacks. Brent Balinski spoke to Deakin University’s Professor Guy Littlefair about how the university is helping to remedy this.

Missing from the local DNA

Something rarely mentioned in the recent national discussion around innovation was design.

This shouldn’t be surprising, though, as the country’s industry – it’s been argued – doesn’t always realise the importance of the concept.

At the same time, some are arguing that design is becoming more and more important for success in manufacturing, which is seeing less and less value being realised at the production stage and more and more of it created at intangible steps of the process, such as marketing and design.

The lack of emphasis is troubling, according to Professor Guy Littlefair, the Dean of Engineering at Deakin University. Engineering within Australian culture is “more aligned to science than design” he believes.

“If you look at Europe and to a certain extent if you look at the US, engineering programmes tend to have more of a design bent than they do, typically, in Australia,” he told Manufacturers’ Monthly.

Professor Littlefair came to Australia as the chair of engineering at Deakin in 2011, following a number of senior academic roles at Auckland University of Technology. He has also worked for corporates including Toyota, Rolls Royce and Airbus.

He views the local innovation profile as strong in industrial technology (for example in new materials and processes), with some expertise in industrial engineering (in particular through the automotive sector), and with sore lack of industrial design in its DNA.

With this in mind, his engineering school has designed its curriculum around what it calls “Project-Oriented Design Based Learning”, and last month officially opened its new $AUD55 million CADET facility at Waurn Ponds.

Last year it also appointed a Professor of Industrial Design, Ian Gibson, formerly of the National University of Singapore and a co-founding editor of the world-renowned Rapid Prototyping Journal.

The CADET space

Also to help correct the problem, next year the university will launch an Industrial Design degree taught out of CADET; usually this would be based at a university’s arts or architecture school.

“So my view of where engineering education needs to head really is almost a cross between product design or industrial design and engineering, and one of the catchphrases that I sometimes use is what I want to be able to do is get people to communicate in the common language of design,” said Professor Littlefair.

Conceived by Professor Littlefair and Jason Steinwedel (formerly of the Gordon Institute of TAFE, now head of Deakin’s Industrial Innovation Unit), the three-storey CADET building features $6 million in world-class technology and learning aids.

Among this is a suite of 3D printers, able to fabricate in everything from polymers to superalloys, a broad collection of other digital manufacturing equipment, and an immersive 3D virtual reality laboratory, which is the only of its kind in the southern hemisphere. There is also a high-voltage lab, as well as mechatronics and renewable energy labs.

It was designed to meet three goals. The first is to engage primary school and high school students (through outreach and other programmes) and highlight the importance and satisfaction of an engineering career. The second and third are to provide a new environment tailored to a new design-based learning curriculum, and to improve the way the university engages with industry.

“Each one of those to a certain extent is unique in its own right, but what is really unique and novel and different is the fact that if you put all of those three together so you have a continuum of primary through secondary through university and that connects with industry at the other end,” explained Professor Littlefair.

The CAVE VR lab, with haptics for maximum reality, has already proved useful in myriad settings, from midwifery training to plant installation. 

“And [process technology firm] Flavourtech is a company that we’re working with, from Griffith, in terms of helping them improve their design by using the virtual reality map,” said Professor Littlefair.

“It also potentially crosses over into the emergency services, so how can police/ambulance/fire services use that facility in terms of training their operatives, as well as crossing over into areas like plant installation.

“So if a company is deciding a one-off piece of plant that needs to be flown off and installed at the other side of the world, what we can actually do is take their design model, turn that into a virtual environment, and then actually have operatives go into that virtual environment and understand how everything goes together and anticipate what some of the problems will be before they even go onsite.”

We’ve long lacked local engineers

At the educational level, it is hoped that CADET and the new approach to education will make the relevance of an engineering career more obvious.

Australia has long suffered a shortage of local engineers (the subject of a 2011/12 senate inquiry) with a “boom-and-bust”-style cycle of infrastructure and resources project building not helping. According to Engineers Australia, local graduates number about 9,500 annually, with demand over the last few years between 15,000 and 22,000. The shortfall is made up by skilled migration

It is also hoped that the need for our firms to make their ideas attractive – to global as well as local customers – will be helped, as well as the need for our engineering graduates to finish their degrees with a more entrepreneurial mindset.

The latter is particularly valid if the country is to produce more advanced manufacturing businesses.

“If we’re serious about driving into an innovation economy we need to understand how we can leverage from those great engineering graduates that we’re sending out into the world in terms of driving innovation,” offered Professor Littlefair.

“How do we try and teach entrepreneurial skills through our engineering courses and through our design courses? If you look at all the companies that have been set up since the GFC in Australia, they’re all SMEs, they’re all in that small area, and that’s probably going to continue into the future.

“So what are the skills that we’re equipping our graduates with to be able to make them entrepreneurs in their own right? – I think that needs to be part of the debate.”

A manufacturing microcosm

Within Australia, Deakin occupies a particularly interesting place in the manufacturing industry. In the thick of the Geelong region’s shift from traditional manufacturing (see job losses at the Point Henry smelter and next year’s Ford closure) it has a lot riding on how successfully it manages the transition to more advanced production.

One of the advanced manufacturing good news stories of the last few years, composites wheels manufacturer Carbon Revolution, is based at the Waurn Ponds campus. It got started as an engineering project at the university. It was joined on the campus’s “carbon cluster” recently by Quickstep’s automotive division and R&D centre.

At the heart of this cluster is Deakin’s Carbon Nexus R&D facility, opened last year and offering world-class capabilities in composites. This is one of several efforts to boost manufacturing, including the establishment of the first Advanced Manufacturing Growth Centre hub, for Advanced Materials and Composites.

The necessary shift to high-technology manufacturing in Geelong was “exciting”, said Professor Littlefair, and Deakin can rightfully claim a bit of leadership in that area. The region was also “a bit of a microcosm” of manufacturing for the whole of the country.

“The other thing I think is important to say is the approach universities are taking in assisting the region in this transformation isn’t just about providing technology; it’s about also understanding how that technology translates into jobs,” he added.

“And if you look at Carbon Revolution, for instance, the establishment of their factory has led to jobs which otherwise would not have been there.”



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