A vision for Australia’s manufacturing future

Two Australian businesses of different backgrounds are collaborating to make spectacles from recycled plastic. Steven Impey reports.


As early as 2007, Western Sydney car badge manufacturer, Astor Industries, was warned that it should begin its move away from the automotive sector.

At the time, company CEO Neil Henderson explains that the impending closure of the Australian car-manufacturing industry – still 10 years away – was too big to fathom, and the warnings went largely unnoticed.

As the years rolled by, and business began to wane, the company, based in the industrial district of Lakemba, was on the brink of closure.

Now, in addition to its continued service to the imported car market – following the closure of the Australian automotive assembly sector last October – Astor Industries is benefitting from an ingenious piece of business, which saw it collaborate with an unexpected ally.

“At the time, Holden had already come to us and said that we needed to start diversifying and that they would help us,” Henderson told Manufacturers’ Monthly.

“I don’t think the management, at the time, believed them; and then, all of a sudden, the work stopped.”

In April 2015, a deal arrived just in time to join Astor Industries with Dresden Optics, a spectacles designer based in both Sydney and Melbourne, which introduced the concept of making glasses from recycled plastic.


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“We needed to think outside the square and to be more flexible,” Henderson continued. “We don’t necessarily have a world-class facility but what we do have is a world-class process.

“Our specifications match anybody in the world and, the fact we were winning global quality excellence awards from General Motors, I was sure we would be good enough for the local market.”

At its factory, where badges were once designed and made for every car manufacturer based in Australia – including Holden, Mitsubishi, Ford, and Toyota – huge investment went into new technology during a transition to additional sectors.

“I have always said that we are injection moulders and decorators, who make badges,” Henderson said.

“So, if you need an injection moulder to make something, the chances are we can make it – if you need something painted, the chances are we can do it.

“The process is still the same – it’s a generic process – but it is also about being flexible enough to take on something new,” he added.

Adopting change

The automotive sector will stay core to the Astor Industries business, Henderson explains. However, there was no doubt that change was necessary to continue production at the plant.

The company invested more than $500,000 into new injection moulding machines robotics to help diversify its business, and has helped assist Dresden Optics’ innovative design.

That was followed up by a further $200,000 in ancillary equipment, and the company has recently invested close to $100,000 into digital print technology for its arts team.

The transition is opening new markets, too. Following the move to Astor Industries, Dresden Optics is entering the value chain in India, as well as North and South America.

“We are seeing more companies taking on that collaborative model,” said Michael Sharpe, director for the Advanced Manufacturing Growth Centre.

“Dresden working with Astor Industries is a great story and shows how a traditional automotive manufacturer can work with a start-up, to share that experience to come up with a world-beating product.

“It is fantastic to see Australia remains an innovative country and that our manufacturers are proving the system right, by being able to adapt and to change.”

As part of a federal government campaign, the manufacture of glasses using recycled plastic means the venture is aiding the effort to clean Australia’s beaches and waters.

“The environmental side of it is huge, too,” Sharpe continued. “We all know about plastics and how we need to be able to recycle that in an effective way.

“As well as wearing its on your face, being able to track where the plastic has come from is also part of the marketing plan for Dresden.

“It really is our mantra at the Advanced Manufacturing Growth Centre around competing on value, not on cost. The value being extracted from Dresden and Astor Industries working together is enormous.”

2030 vision

Senator Michaelia Cash, minister for Innovation and Jobs, visited the Astor Industries factory on Tuesday morning, where she gave her backing to a recently published study from Innovation and Science Australia (ISA), which outlines its strategic plan for future innovation.

The report, which is called Australia 2030: Prosperity through Innovation, calls for “ambitious national missions” to strengthen the country’s journey to becoming an innovation nation.

“This is an example of innovation at its absolute best,” Senator Cash said of the collaboration between Astor Industries and Dresden Optics. “You have a company that was involved in the automotive manufacturing industry – and still is – but had the capacity to do more.

“You also have Dresden Optics, a company that came up with an idea; and, between the two companies, they now work together to create glasses made out of recycled plastic.

“This is what innovation is all about – recognising an opportunity and putting the processes in place to realise that opportunity, grow your business and, ultimately, create more jobs.”

 

The ISA paper also calls for a feasibility study to address the threat coral bleaching poses to the Great Barrier Reef. The Federal Government this month pledged $60 million towards preserving the reef, which is worth $6.4 billion to Australia’s national economy and supports 64,000 jobs.

“Looking towards 2030, innovation will be integral to the expansion and international competitiveness of Australia’s economy,” said Bill Ferris, ISA chairman.

“Given Australia’s ageing population, the real challenge is unlikely to be a shortage of jobs, but rather a shortage of workers appropriately skilled to fill those jobs.”

Australia can expect to become a leading innovation nation by 2030, according to Ferris, securing sustainable prosperity if its recommendations are addressed.

ISA also recommends that Australia seek to become the healthiest nation on Earth through the integration of genomics and precision medicine capabilities into the Australian health system.

Meeting customer demands

Astor Industries shifts up to 20 tons of different materials annually, going further by using surplus trims and cuts to make other industrial components.

“The question for us is: what does the customer want?” said Dresden Optics CEO, Bruce Jeffreys, who is also the co-founder of the car-sharing service, GoGet. “And the customer wants digital platforms and convenience, especially when it comes to eyewear.

“We think we can build a platform for our products which means that, if a customer loses a part [to their product], it can be replaced really easily and all comes down to convenience and practicality.”

And that has been the key to their new collaborative business model, Jeffreys explains, to keep the customer at the centre of their efforts.

“It is critical, and collaboration is really the only way because we don’t have the manufacturing base [in Australia] for people to go it alone,” he continued.

“It is easy to say the word ‘collaboration’ whereas, in practice, it is actually very hard to do. It means you have to be very open, transparent, and trusting.

“We are not becoming advanced manufacturers for the sake of it – we are doing it because that is what the customer expects.”