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The Manufacturing Innovation Precinct is beginning to come together, and is looking for those with a “can-do” attitude to help it be as useful to as many companies as possible. Brent Balinski talked to chairman Albert Goller about what’s behind the program.
First cab off the rank
A network of up to 10 industry innovation precincts was one of the three planks of the federal government’s Industry Innovation Statement, announced in February in response to the much-discussed difficulties facing manufacturing.
“We have worked over this policy in close consultation with the manufacturing industry in particular over the last 12 months,” said then-industry minister Greg Combet during the announcement at Boeing in Port Melbourne.
“It is a policy change that manufacturers in particular have sought and argued for.”
Australian companies suffer a special set of challenges from their environment, argues the precinct’s chairman, Albert Goller.
Goller, the former chairman and managing director of Siemens in Australia and New Zealand, is at the head of the effort to connect industry with researchers. He has spent the last four months identifying manufacturing’s major challenges, concluding that Australia’s situation is unique due to what he calls the three Ds, which have led to three Cs.
“When you look into the Australian landscape and compare Australia from a manufacturing point of view with other counties or other regions like Europe if you take that as a region or North America or Asia, what you find out is that we have what I would call the three Ds, almost natural disadvantages,” he told Manufacturers’ Monthly.
The three Ds are diversity across industries, huge distances – both across the country and to other markets – and density – he gives the example of about 70 chemical companies here compared to maybe 7,000 in North America – as well as cost, competitiveness and culture are key difficulties the sector faces.
The business-led Manufacturing Industry Innovation Precinct – along with a precinct for food – was the first hub in the network, and opened its headquarters at Monash University’s Clayton campus in May, and held its first board meeting on June 13. The precinct is seeking members to help it form its vision as META, or Manufacturing Excellence Taskforce Australia.
Bringing innovators together
The advantage of an innovation precinct is usually given in terms of density, roughly proximity to success leading to more success. Government press releases point to the potential for manufacturers coming together to accumulate scale, with the catchphrase “building critical mass” usually accompanying.
Clustering innovators together has its obvious virtues, with California’s Silicon Valley maybe the most common example of the benefits of doing so.
Critics sometimes argue that this can’t be created artificially, and attempts to do so will fail. The federal opposition is skeptical of the benefits of a Manufacturing Innovation Precinct.
“It’s worth noting that some of the best industrial precincts around the world, including Silicon Valley and Australia’s biomedical research precinct in Parkville, Melbourne, have developed organically and their establishment and growth, in the early period, was driven almost entirely by the private sector,” shadow industry minister Sophie Mirabella told Manufacturers’ Monthly.
The opposition claims the network of precincts is a re-announcement by the government.
“The reality is that none of the other planned precincts and centres have become operational in the three years since they were first spruiked,” said Mirabella.
Not a lobby group
Those unsupportive of the Innovation Precinct would also say that there are other efforts already in place to match industry with researchers – for example Enterprise Connect’s Researchers In Business program and the Cooperative Research Centres – as well as an abundance of groups representing manufacturers, such as the Australian Advanced Manufacturing Council, launched last month.
“We have to a certain extent an oversupply of organisations and programs that want to help an industry but never took the time to really understand what industries really need,” said Goller.
“You might say [META] sounds like a lobby group. But we are not a lobby group and we want to work with the Australian business associations as collaboration partners together. But our focus is really manufacturing and optimising manufacturing.
“And we leave it up to the business associations to do their jobs. But when it comes to manufacturing, they should refer back to us, because our members are their members to a certain extent as well, and this is really a kind of cooperation and it’s not a competition.”
Continuous collaboration between different industries, both in person and through an electronic portal, is part of the cooperation within META. Other services that will feature include advice from high-level researchers on topics such as supply and value-chain optimisation.
Are you one of the can-do guys?
META offers three tiers of membership, with some of the country’s leading manufacturers in Tier A. These include Toyota, Textor, Cochlear and GlaxoSmithKline.
“The A members are really the ones that are changing the world and want to change the world. And by the way they want to attack the world and want to be export businesses,” said Goller.
“They’re can-do guys. And we want to be proactive in helping META, because we are META.”
Goller offered that those who have joined as Tier A members were innovators, often “hidden champions”, and were not happy to sit around carping about the high dollar or industrial relations issues, but were focussed on getting on with it and being successful.
“What is important is the leadership, their kind of can-do and questioning the status quo, and their openness towards innovation,” said Goller.
“If you have these three elements in the leader of a company, the owner of a company, I want to have access to them. Because with them now we can combine with the universities and bring them together with new ideas.”
The Innovation Precinct, headquartered at Monash’s New Horizons centre, is supported by as much as $4 million a year in funding, according to the university.
The centre’s funding comes from the $504.5 million allocated to the Innovation Precinct network, funded by changes to R&D tax concessions for companies with annual revenues greater than $20 billion.
The Coalition has committed itself to reversing the R&D tax changes, as Mirabella has written on this website. It would also end funding for the Innovation Precinct network. (Read more about it here.)
All the same, Goller is hopeful that the precinct can continue to take shape, regardless of who the next government is, and is hopeful that certain goals can be reached by the year’s end. There is also an aim of providing similar hubs for manufacturers in Sydney, Adelaide, Perth and Brisbane.
“We aim to have a good, sound number of A members, helping us to shape META, that we are structuring our services in a way that are really adaptable for small and medium enterprises, that we have maybe one or two collaboration projects to accelerate collaboration and demonstrate what can be done,” said Goller.
“And that most of the manufacturers in Australia would at least have heard of META and know what it is.”
The deadline to become a member of META is July 1. For more information and for a membership and partnership form, click here.