The Innovative Manufacturing CRC’s time is coming to an end after six years of extraordinary work for Australian manufacturing. Manufacturers’ Monthly reviews the CRC’s journey and outlooks for the future of Australia’s manufacturing SMEs and the broader ecosystem.
Introduced by the Australian government in 1990, the Cooperative Research Centres (CRC) Program has been a success story. By bringing industry and research organisations together to collaborate, the program focuses on research applications that help solve real-world problems and improve the competitiveness, productivity and sustainability of Australian industry.
Under this umbrella, the Innovative Manufacturing CRC (IMCRC) was established. Its mission was to catalyse investment between Australian manufacturers, universities and government to deliver research and commercial outcomes for participating businesses, and more broadly, to transform Australia’s wider manufacturing and innovation ecosystem.
By purposefully investing $34 million of Commonwealth and other funding in 71 research and development (R&D) projects, IMCRC has helped to catalyse more than $230 million investment in smart manufacturing research and innovation.
Six years ago, IMCRC set out to help drive the transformation of Australian manufacturing, collaborating with 13 leading universities and the CSIRO, a number of industry partners, trade associations and state governments.
To assist Australian manufacturers transition to high-value and locally competitive manufacturing, IMCRC set up four multidisciplinary research programs, the fundamentals of which have remained the same throughout the CRC’s tenure.
The programs are: advancing additive manufacturing processes; building critical mass in robotics and assistive technologies; designing, engineering and applying new technologies for high value product development; and raising awareness and thus advancing the wider cause of Australia’s industrial transformation through industry education and advocacy.
Despite recent advancements in areas such as quantum computing and artificial intelligence, these four focus areas remain crucial for manufacturing development today, driving the translation of cutting-edge technologies and business models into industry practice.
As an organisation that set out to be specifically industry-led, IMCRC knew from the outset it had to encourage and enable a range of different businesses, including small-to-medium enterprises (SMEs), to participate in collaborative research.
David Chuter, IMCRC’s CEO and Managing Director, said, “Recognising that Australian manufacturing is made up of 90 per cent small businesses formed IMCRC’s approach to research collaboration. We knew only focusing on a handful of larger companies wouldn’t build the manufacturing capability and capacity we envisioned for Australia.
“Instead, we had to identify, support and use manufacturing exemplars to stimulate and motivate businesses to invest in research, embrace new technologies and create new business models and opportunities.”
Removing barriers for participation
To drive collaboration, one of IMCRC’s key focus areas was removing barriers for industry, and particularly SMEs, to participate in research projects with universities. Critical to this was changing the way businesses both perceived and engaged with research institutions.
“One of the first obstacles we removed was around the ownership of know-how and intellectual property. Early on, we decided that the CRC itself should not own any share or equity in new intellectual property created as part of an IMCRC project. In other words, we had no vested interest in the research other than seeing the idea brought to us being commercialised. And because we were impartial, we could come up with the right business model to ensure there were no barriers to commercialisation,” Chuter said.
“Focusing on who was best placed to commercialise intellectual property enabled a more seamless process once projects were approved. Companies could concentrate on the successful outcomes and return on their investment, and not get bogged down by costs or ownership of the intellectual property, factors that can build up a bit of tension over time.”
By creating a level playing field for industry-research collaboration and proactively addressing SMEs’ concerns about working with much larger research organisations, IMCRC has shifted the paradigm and eliminated common obstacles on the road to commercialising innovative products and services.
“80 per cent of our projects have been with Australian-owned small and medium businesses. So, if anybody tells you that SMEs can’t do innovation, can’t do R&D and don’t work with universities, I will contest that. You just need to get the business model right,” Chuter said.
A focus on milestones
Another of IMCRC’s key differentiators was its collaborative framework, which required industry and research partners to commit to, and meet, milestones that clearly measured the translation of research from proof of concept through to readiness to commercialise.
With its stage-gated design, the framework ensured only projects with real commercial potential advanced through each stage.
“By implementing a collaboration model that is transparent on the cost structure, outlines every research milestone and is time-based, deliverable and success focused, you eliminate concerns about researchers not understanding business priorities and commercial pressures. At the same time, the transparency offers manufacturers unique insights into research practices and capabilities,” Chuter said.
“Holding both industry and research partners accountable to their work builds trust. In turn, this trust leads to long-term research partnerships. We have seen a large proportion of our industry partners carry on working with universities well after their IMCRC projects are finished, which demonstrates there’s a business model that is really workable, including for SMEs.”
Looking to the future
The concept of sovereign manufacturing capability has become a hot topic in Australia, and rightfully so, as the double hit of the pandemic and geopolitical issues has exposed significant gaps in Australian manufacturing capability and capacity. Australia’s manufacturing landscape is unique and lends itself to focusing on developing industrial capability in specific, targeted sectors where the nation has a comparative advantage (including through access to local inputs and resources).
When looking to the future of manufacturing, Chuter noted, it’s important to understand where Australia is different from other developed and industrialised nations and accommodate this in its policies, strategies, and investments.
“We are a nation of SMEs predominantly, but when we compare ourselves with other countries, our definition of a small business is more like a micro business. These businesses are spread geographically across the country, both by state, but also urban versus regional. There’s a lot of manufacturing capability out in the regions that we shouldn’t overlook.
“But one of the big challenges we’ve had in Australia is that compared to other industrialised nations, we don’t have the industry structure where you have a handful of large global multinationals at the top of the supply chain that drive procurement opportunities and best practice through the supply chain.
We lost the last big industry that did this when we lost car production. This is not to say that model was perfect by any means, but companies like Toyota, General Motors and Ford were genuinely interested in developing Australian suppliers and providing opportunities – if they were good enough – to participate in their global supply chains. Without that structure, and compared to other manufacturing nations, we are missing the mechanism to improve Australian capability, productivity, and help these companies to be better than they thought they could be.
“Moving forward, consideration must be given to the uniqueness of the Australian ecosystem. We need programs that encourage local businesses to be more transformative, to significantly raise productivity and to invest in Australian design and engineering.
And these programs need to acknowledge that Australia is a nation of micro businesses and that we need to lift the capability of the owners and leaders of these micro businesses. Simply copying other nations’ approaches to research and innovation won’t lift Australia’s manufacturing capability up to where it could be.
There’s no doubt we have incredibly smart and ambitious people in Australia. When they travel abroad, they are well received for their fresh thinking and their collaboration. Unfortunately, we don’t leverage their capability here at home, and part of it is that the infrastructure to drive industry forward is missing.”
Although IMCRC concludes at the end of this year, Chuter believes it has left behind a clear framework for research collaboration and commercialising manufacturing innovation – one defined by its capacity to remove barriers for SMEs and build enduring and productive relationships between university and industry. With this structure in place, Australia can truly build its sovereign capability.
Manufacturing success stories
In 2016, IMCRC embarked on a mission to help catalyse the transformation of Australia’s manufacturing sector through collaborative investment, research impact and innovation.
Many success stories have been told in this magazine throughout the years, highlighting the brilliant minds in Australia’s manufacturing industries – here are just a few examples of this country’s innovation capability, picked from IMCRC’s portfolio of more than 70 research collaborations.
Using existing manufacturing expertise and drug testing application technology, Alcolizer, in partnership with the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), has been developing a cost-effective COVID-19 test that can detect SARS-CoV-2 virus antigens in under 15 minutes while providing the same levels of detection as a PCR test.
Being the first project to be funded through IMCRC’s activate initiative, the UTS research collaboration focused on advancing the design and testing of the rapid saliva test prototype to accelerate its commercialisation.
The test device will also be GPS- enabled and connected to cloud reporting tools, offering authorities assistance with contact tracing.
Typically, polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests are used to detect the virus, but they take several hours to deliver a result and require the assistance of trained scientists and specialised laboratory equipment.
General manager of Alcolizer, Roger Hunt, noted that the IMCRC activate project was, “The simplest and most efficient grant process we’ve been involved in.
“The IMCRC team understood the time sensitive nature of this approval process, so it was a simple process that moved along at a rapid pace.
“We were able to scale up and start transitioning the idea from a research project out to a manufacturable, commercially viable product quickly. In six months, we successfully documented all operating procedures and processes and developed a prototype along with several hundred test cartridges.”
In 2018, carbon fibre automotive wheels pioneer Carbon Revolution and Deakin University formed a $15 million research and development (R&D) partnership facilitated and part-funded by the IMCRC.
The three-and-a-half year project saw multiple streams of materials and process improvement R&D brought under the one umbrella agreement with access to Deakin’s core materials science and engineering capabilities.
According to Dr Ashley Denmead, Carbon Revolution’s Engineering & Design Director and Founder, the IMCRC project was notable for its seamless integration into Carbon Revolution’s operations as much as the innovations it delivered.
“All of the Deakin researchers employed by the project were based on site and fully integrated into our teams,” he said.
“As our R&D program was very much focused on achieving commercial outcomes, the full immersion of researchers within our engineering, development and process engineering teams worked extremely well.”
BAE Systems Maritime Australia
BAE Systems Maritime Australia’s partnership with IMCRC includes two distinct research projects for the Hunter Class Frigate Program: a research project with Flinders University that involves local small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and focuses on driving digital transformation through advanced robotics, assistive manufacturing and readiness for Industry 4.0 utilisation; and a data visualisation research project with the University of South Australia.
According to Sharon Wilson, BAE Systems Australia’s Continuous National Shipbuilding Director, the IMCRC- facilitated projects are a benchmark for industry-research collaboration.
“As a key enabler of the Government’s vision for sovereign defence capability, we have a responsibility to drive innovation in manufacturing and engage with Australian research and industry partners on that journey,” she said.
“Our engagement with our research and industry partners through the IMCRC has made a significant impression on multiple areas of our business, at both technical and non-technical levels.”
IMCRC’s investment with BAE has led to multiple SMEs engaging with BAE through the Tonsley Line Zero and Factory of the Future facility.
Urban Art projects
With funding from the IMCRC, Brisbane- based Urban Art projects (UAP) embarked on a design robotics research project in partnership with Queensland University of Technology (QUT) and RMIT University. The project not only helped UAP to achieve a greater competitive advantage through high-value product development and transformed manufacturing processes, but it was also the catalyst for establishing the Advanced Manufacturing in Robotics (ARM) Hub, where manufacturers and SMEs can explore robotics and design-led manufacturing.
According to UAP’s Founder and Managing Director, Matt Tobin, the IMCRC-facilitated research project was proof positive that the digital transformation of manufacturing is reinvigorating the sector.
“Industry 4.0 technologies such as the robotics we are integrating into our processes are changing manufacturing, and in turn changing the profile of people who are attracted to manufacturing,” he said.
The project has had a profound impact on UAP’s culture that went far beyond the project’s technological advancements.
“We knew that bringing such a disruptive technology into what was a very traditional workshop environment would require some adjustment,” he said.
“Our strategy to build trust in the project and encourage collaboration within and across teams was to empower some of our younger team members with greater input opportunities and decision making responsibilities.
“Through sharing and demonstrating their enthusiasm and passion, the impact was immediate and sparked a new energy for innovation across the whole team as we supported each other on our technological learning curve.”
The IMCRC project has driven the digital transformation of UAP, resulting in increased sales, an increase in onshore manufacturing and the addition of many new employees.
Leading global medical technology company, Stryker, partnered with RMIT University (RMIT), the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), University of Sydney, University of Melbourne and St Vincent’s Hospital in the development of a revolutionary treatment for bone cancers and tumours.
With a total value of more than $18 million in collaborative research effort catalysed by IMCRC, Stryker and its university research partners are combining 3D printing and robotic surgery to create tailored bone implants that deliver better patient outcomes.
Beyond its many technological advancements, the project includes consideration for how the treatment pathway translates effectively into a healthcare system in terms of its integration with patients, clinicians and funding models.
According to the director of Stryker’s R&D lab, the IMCRC industry collaboration model has had a significant impact on their approach to R&D globally.
“Traditionally, our innovation relationships with universities have been on a contract research basis. Our engagements with Australian universities via the IMCRC have been a game changer.” This has led to the establishment of Stryker’s R&D Lab in Brisbane, which opened this September.
futuremap – an IMCRC legacy
With futuremap®, IMCRC has designed a business diagnostic and education platform that takes a holistic approach and helps manufacturing businesses, particularly SMEs, demystify the concept of Industry 4.0 and its broader potential.
As part of a workshop or in their own time, manufacturers (business owners and executives) use futuremap to assess their current business capabilities across 13 key areas of industrial and manufacturing competitiveness. By prompting them to reflect on their business’ competencies in areas such as leadership, innovation and digital manufacturing as well as encouraging them to think ahead two years, futuremap helps them identify new areas of innovation and define their own pathways to integrate Industry 4.0 technologies across their organisation.
Since its launch in 2018, over 750 Australian manufacturing SMEs have participated in futuremap and taken their first or next step in their digital transformation journey.
“The findings we’re seeing through an independent evaluation undertaken by Swinburne Business School demonstrate that companies that have done futuremap, compared to a very carefully matched equivalent control group of similar companies that didn’t, have growth in turnover, employment, wages, investment in organisation. So we now know that an education awareness program designed to incentivise other companies, invest in Industry 4.0 and business strategies and service models and so on, has had an impact out in the market,” said David Chuter, IMCRC’s CEO and Managing Director.
Off the back of the success of the futuremap program, IMCRC, with the input of Swinburne University, is developing another program based on the same principles, but to help companies on their path to decarbonisation.
“We have focused very specifically on transformation and finding those companies who’ve got business leaders who are willing, ambitious, want to collaborate and invest in Industry 4.0 and how can we help those companies go from good to great – that’s really been our ethos,” he explained.
“What we’re seeing now is that the futuremap platform is scalable to add
in other meaningful elements and give companies pathways. We’re in the process of developing the ’Towards Net Zero’ diagnostic.
“Beyond our CRC, while we no longer fund programs, I’m very hopeful that one of the major legacies IMCRC will leave behind is the futuremap platform. We’re very hopeful that this will carry on post-IMCRC – whether that’s us supporting, or licencing, or an entity that is with another party in the ecosystem, we’d very much like to see that futuremap legacy continue because we know its value,” Chuter concluded.