Earlier this month, the Innovative Manufacturing Cooperative Research Centre (IMCRC) opened its two-day Australian Manufacturing Innovation Showcase at The Timber Yard in Port Melbourne. Manufacturers’ Monthly attended the event and spoke with three Australian innovation success stories.
On display were the innovative outcomes of over 40 collaborative manufacturing research and development (R&D) projects between ambitious Australian businesses and research organisations, including 13 leading universities and the CSIRO.
With support and co-funding from IMCRC, each project explores advanced technologies such as additive manufacturing, robotics, data analytics and augmented and virtual reality to deliver transformative business models, products and services.
David Kaplan, managing director and CEO
In collaboration with Swinburne University of Technology, SleepCorp’s project aims to set up a novel Virtual Manufacturing System (VMS) that connects robotics-based machinery to a digital twin allowing for a faster and more flexible manufacturing approach to address changing customer requirements while maintaining cost competitiveness.
Can you tell us about Sleep Corp’s Virtual Manufacturing System, and how you conceptualised this project?
I’ve been in the manufacturing business for over 42 years. And I was still running it pretty much in the old system. But it was becoming very, very difficult to remain competitive, especially with the cost of labor in Australia. And there’s so many impediments to running a manufacturing business, especially in home textiles.
At the future map I attended, I learned and heard about industry 4.0., and I came back to my team and said, “Guys, we’ve got to change everything – we’re going to change our thought processes.” So, we reinvested and put in a new ERP system into our business.
After putting in NetSuite, we got an invitation from the IMCRC to put on a presentation and we were fortunate enough to be accepted. We had worked with Swinburne University beforehand and this time, they worked on a digital twin. They designed our whole factory in virtual reality. And we realised that within our premises, it wasn’t going to work. So, we had to actually move premises and build a new factory. We found a new place where we could build the factory from the ground up and build it to spec, designing it exactly how we wanted from the beginning to end.
Can you explain how this sewing machine works and the challenges it addresses?
In the past, we had a whole load of separate sewing machines. You would have to have an elasticator that you would put the skirt of the mattress protector in, and then you put the elastic on. And then, you’d have to have another machine that you’d use to stitch the actual base fabric onto that. Another machine would do all the labelling.
That machine does it all together and was designed for us specifically. So, you still have one person operating the machine, but it’s all done in one, which makes it more efficient. Before, we had to lay up layer upon layer, cut them, and then bring all the different components together and then have to sort them. This machine cuts the panel, brings that one piece to the machinist and the machinist then sews it in.
Now, the computer knows which machine to take it to. If they’re making a single bed size or a double or a queen – the computer knows which machine that should go to. That’s all done with RFID chips and each of the labels has an RFID chip in it. We’ll get to the point where we’ll be able to scan the warehouse to see what stock we have. When we package it into boxes, you’ll know what’s in the box when you scan a box.
We’ve also automated our warehouse. Instead of having maybe 20 people running around the warehouse picking and packing, what we’ve got now is a shelving system with robots. The robots are telling the computer information like, the average picking done every day. On Mondays, for example, the robots know what clients would like to order. So, it tells the computers what stock is required in the system to fulfill that order. And it’ll tell the staff what they should get into the system ready, and what will be required to be picked. Then, the whole shelf comes to them and it’s telling them you need to pick these pieces and that shelf moves away and the next one comes. So, instead of people running around, the shelves are running around automatically.
Stanley Thomson, CEO and Marcio Casagranda, head of business development
Rotating suspended loads is still a manual process, with workers using ropes, known as taglines, to orientate suspended loads into the correct positions. Verton is transforming this process with smart technology that allow suspended loads to be managed remotely and with precision.
What is the Verton remote control load management system?
One of the biggest challenges for a crane is maintaining control of the load while it is suspended. Today, people come very close to the load and physically touch it, push it or grab a tagline to pull it. That means you have people in the vicinity of the load, which is where accidents and fatalities actually happen.
The whole idea with the remote control, load orientation technology, was to take people away from the danger zone. With our technology, most loads can be orientated using the remote control and the operator can be 20,50 100 200 meters away. This eliminates the risk of people getting injured and as we deploy this equipment, and we got more and more people using it, we notice there is a significant improvement in not only safety, but efficiency as well. Depending on the type of load are the type of job, the efficiency gains are 10,15, 20 all the way to 400 per cent.
How did the collaboration with IMCRC and the Queensland University of Technology come about?
Initially, very early in the process of the project, we needed some really in-depth scientific research to actually validate the mathematical model, because the physics of it is quite complicated. We knew enough to build toy models and start the process, but we wanted to say, if we make a real size product is actually going to work. So we had already worked with QUT and then when the we got involved with the IMCRC, of which QUT were already part of their network, so we were able to continue that relationship. We started with one or two and there’s probably five or six different researchers that work with us. As Ian and David mentioned in their speech, there’s been a lot of change in the way that universities work with industry partners. It hasn’t been just us, it was the way the CRC was able to influence and change the way universities approached industry. Because there’s a major change from a commercial business point of view where we are trying to make money and a researcher completing their pHd, it hasn’t always worked, but QUT were very good.
What was one thing which stood out from your experience with the IMCRC collaboration?
I think one of the biggest things that came out of the all the good experiences with IMCRC was its flexibility. When we started, we had five different streams to explore and assess what made the most sense. Quickly we realised that two or three of them didn’t make much sense or the return on investment will take too long, so we decided to focus our energy and resources in one or two streams. IMCRC was quite flexible in accommodating that and that actually delivered the results that we have today. The model was easy to work with and shift things around. We were able to find a different application for the technology we had developed and take advantage of that, turning it into more of a commercial product.
Sylvia Tulloch, director and Sara Couperthwaite, professor – green manufacturing and resource transformation at QUT
As global demand for the chemically inert ceramic material, high purity alumina (HPA) rises, Lava Blue is using machine learning and automated manufacturing techniques to transform the way it is produced. The high-value material is critical for the production of many household technology items such as LED lighting, electronic displays, semiconductors, lithium ion and aluminium batteries.
In collaboration with the Queensland University of Technology (QUT), and with the support of IMCRC funding, Lava Blue’s research is focused on developing a resilient, agile and highly competitive manufacturing process to transform kaolin, an aluminium-bearing clay, into HPA.
Can you explain your journey with refining high purity alumina? When did it begin and why?
The traditional way of making high purity alumina is very costly and also very energy intensive. None of it is made in Australia, some in Europe and the majority of it is made in China.
So we approached QUT and said we could develop a process to go straight from this cheap material that we can mine and turn it into this very high value material. So take something that’s worth $75 a tonne and turn it into something that is $25,000 a tonne. We started doing some experimental work, and we discovered this great new program called the IMCRC to really take it forward.
When mineral processing was first being developed over 100 – 150 years ago, people did not use hydrochloric acid because hydrochloric acid attacks steel, which is what the vessels were all being made out of. This is despite it being very attractive in many ways, for example, the recovery of it in terms of the circular economy is easier than many other assets. But they didn’t do it. So all of these supply chains were set up using other materials. 50 years ago, we invented plastics and plastics are not attacked for hydrochloric acid, and tantalum and new metal was found, and it’s not attacked by hydrochloric acid. So the reasons for making those decisions so long ago, aren’t valid in today’s world. And so we said, let’s see what we can do to set up a whole new industrial process using hydrochloric acid, HCL processing.
How has collaboration with the IMCRC helped your project?
When we heard about the IMCRC we wanted to not only prove that it works, but optimise it further. And that’s where we needed to introduce the concepts of inline monitoring so that we could get much better process control over it, so that we could optimise both in terms of recovery of the aluminium, but also minimising waste.
And the other thing that we’ve been able to do with the real time monitoring is build predictive models. So when we do get a new feedstock or product in the front end, we can start to actually predict the purity of the product that we’re going to get. And that’s really what the IMCRC was about, it was taking that sort of laboratory process, building it at scale, which is what the mini plant is doing, but adding all those smarts through a network of sensors, so that we can actually predict and model what’s going to happen at every stage of that process.
What are the possibilities for this research over say, the next decade?
What we’re trying to build is a whole Australian industry, as we don’t want it to be just us doing things. We want to make it broad across the Australian industry. If you have a single company doing a single industry thing, you don’t have all the benefits of being able to get staff who have been trained in different companies. There’s all sorts of benefits by having half a dozen companies all making the same sort of things in a country.
We think that this hydrochloric acid processing is actually much broader. One of the things that’s become obvious more recently, is that one of the other acids that’s used a lot in mineral processing is sulfuric acid, which is mostly derived from petroleum and coal mining. So once we stop petroleum and coal mining, there’s going to be a shortage of sulfuric acid. Whereas, with hydrochloric acid, there is a lot of chlorine in the sea. We think it will be faster than gradual, and will have to find other alternatives to do a whole bunch of things that have been driven by the changes we’re making to adjust to climate change.