Benefits flow from Australia/China JVs

Collaboration with China across a wide range of industries is paying dividends for a growing number of Australian manufacturers. Hartley Henderson reports.

Collaboration between Australian and Chinese science and technology researchers are producing significant mutual benefits.

According to Austrade’s chief economist, Tim Harcourt, there is a strong escalation in collaborative R&D projects with China, particularly in areas such as cleaner automotive technology, advanced textiles, and solar energy.

"This is all part of the continuing globalisation of manufacturing and the development of global supply chains. Australia provides a lot of design excellence and can pick up a range of skill shortages in China," Harcourt told Manufacturers’ Monthly.

"Australia is now more than a two-speed economy, which is evidenced by a design and construction boom as well as the mining boom. 

"We can provide a lot of professional services know-how, while China provides a very large market.

"It is worth undertaking large joint investment projects if economies of scale and demand are there to drive it," Harcourt said.

Automotive projects

At the inaugural summit of the China Australia Alliance for New Energy Vehicle Innovation, held in Shanghai in October 2010, a number of potential collaborative projects were identified in the fields of vehicle electrification, light weighting, and alternative fuels.

A key aim of the Alliance is to provide a bridge to enable collaboration on automotive research between organisations and industry in China and Australia with a view to developing new, fuel efficient, lower emission vehicle technologies. 

The CSIRO’s Barrie Finnin says the Alliance is a partnership similar to a CRC in Australia, with strong involvement of a range of participants from both countries including relevant government departments, manufacturers, and research organisations such as the CSIRO and the China Automotive Engineering Research Institute.

"Collaborative research provides a means of gaining access to the rapidly growing automotive market in China. 

"China is rapidly developing R&D capability and Australia is able to collaborate in key areas with strong scientific backing," Finnin said.

"Australia has excellent technical capabilities in a range of areas such as batteries for hybrid vehicles, and the development of next generation power trains.

"There are 123 vehicle manufacturers in China and we are currently working with 9 of those. 

"Products are often developed in Australia and manufactured in China, so the CSIRO works with companies to find ways to manufacture products that influence designs. 

"Also, it’s aimed at helping Australian tier suppliers gain a position in the supply chain to vehicle manufacturers in the rapidly developing market of China."

Finnin says this includes consulting with Alliance partners, such as Australian and Chinese component manufacturers, to address their needs which in turn can mean arranging for people to be trained in working with new technology in China. 

"Historically, Australia missed the boat in Japan and Korea by not introducing initiatives such as the Alliance, so we were determined that this would not happen in regard to our relationship with China.

"A growing number of Australian companies have recognised that China is the biggest automotive market in the world and that there are substantial benefits in gaining access to that market," he said.

"There has been a massive global shift in the automotive industry which has seen China’s ranking go from number 7 five years ago to the number one vehicle producing country in the world," Finnin said.

Win-win opportunities

From a design and engineering base in Australia, automotive components manufacturer Futuris is quickly growing into the emerging markets of China. The company currently has some 350 employees in China, 60 of which are engaged in technical roles. 

Futuris’ executive, strategy and communications, David Chuter, believes it is critical to build strong ongoing business partnerships because global vehicle producers want design partners that are quick, innovative, reliable and responsive to change.

"There is a significant amount of automotive experience in Australia, and China values our know-how and intellectual property in this area. 

"As a result, we have established Futuris in China with a view to building a Chinese business there with the best know-how that we can bring from Australia," Chuter said. 

"In Shanghai, Futuris has established a business development and procurement office together with a design and technology centre.

"In addition, we have a 20,000m2 manufacturing facility in Wuhu, Anhui Province, adjacent to Chery Automobile, supplying automotive seating to Chery as well as low cost product to Futuris in Australia.

"At Hefei, also in Anhui Province, we have a factory to supply seating to JAC, and at Changsha in Hunan Province, our manufacturing facility produces specialist window regulators.

"In addition, our Global Operations team currently is establishing three new manufacturing facilities, all in regional areas: Dalian (Liaoning), Mianyang (Sichuan), and Dongying (Shangdong). 

"The aim is to expand our manufacturing operations in China to ultimately include not just seating but other interior trim products," he said.

Chuter points out that vehicle manufacturers in China have almost unlimited scope for future growth.

"Here in Australia we have limited domestic growth, and exports have not really come back since the GFC. 

"The answer is to export our design capabilities and technical knowledge and use these skills to win supply contracts in China," he said.

"For example, Chery is now building around 700,000 cars per year and, through developing a strong partnership with them, we now supply seating for several of their vehicle models. 

"Good win/win opportunities can be created by sharing our intellectual property and in return receiving long term production contracts.

"The recent ratification by China of its twelfth Five Year Plan reiterates commitment to the automotive industry. 

"China can be expected to lead the global industry with strong future growth, with a particular focus on clean energy vehicles," Chuter said.

Advanced solar facility

Following establishment of the Victoria-Suntech Advanced Solar Facility (VSASF) at Swinburne University of Technology (SUT) in Melbourne, China’s Suntech Power Holdings is working on a $12 million collaborative project to develop revolutionary nanoplasmonic solar cell technology invented at SUT.

Nanomaterials, which are notable for their extremely small size, have a wide range of applications including advanced manufacturing and telecommunications. 

They also have the potential to greatly improve the efficiency of solar energy harvesting and storage, and are seen as key materials in the next generation of solar cells.

VSASF’s director, Professor Min Gu, explains that the facility has a cluster of world-class nanophotonics equipment with the capacity to conduct nanostructure fabrication and nanomaterials synthesis, and produce cutting-edge NanoPlas solar cells featuring both high efficiency and low cost.

"As a result of cross-disciplinary collaboration, VSASF is capable of producing tailored nanomaterials with optimised material selection, size, shape and density for use in the production of NanoPlas solar cells. 

"Importantly, NanoPlas will be compatible with existing solar cell technology, which means that existing capabilities in Victoria can be built on, rather than rendering them obsolete," he said. 

According to VSASF’s senior research fellow, Dr. Baohua Jia, the Facility offers a wide range of photovoltaic solar cell fabrication, nanomaterials and nanostructure integration facilities. Both silicon wafer solar cells and thin film solar cells can be investigated with these facilities.

Suntech is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of solar panels, so the partnership at VSASF allows Australia to access world-class solar cell fabrication facilities in China.

"The extensive R&D experience of VSASF staff combined with Suntech’s world-leading manufacturing technology offers a promising future for NanoPlas and ensures that this innovative solar cell technology is viable," Professor Gu added.

Suntech recently announced that the company has established 450MW capacity of the high performance Pluto solar cell, which was jointly developed with the ARC Photovoltaic Centre of Excellence at the University of NSW.

The Centre’s Professor Martin Green says this corresponds to close to $1 billion per year in product in today’s market. 

"The Pluto technology represents a low cost approach to fabricating the Centre’s world record 25 percent efficient silicon cell," he said.

"In 2009, early production cells were used in a solar module that surpassed the previous world record of 15 percent for multicrystalline silicon cells. Then in 2010, Suntech improved this module efficiency to 17 percent."

Professor Green added that the Centre recently produced a new laser doped solar cell with an efficiency of above 19 percent. 

"With further optimisation of the cell design, the laser doped cell is expected to become the first low cost cell, capable of energy conversion efficiency above 20 percent, to enter full-scale production," he said.

Construction is underway at the University of NSW of a new Solar Industrial Research Facility that will house a full-scale state-of-the-art cell production line. 

This will be used to demonstrate the next generation of the Centre’s wafer-based technology with the aim of accelerating the transfer of this technology into production. 

Readers should note, the Chinese and Australian Governments have established the Australia-China Special Fund for S&T Cooperation which provides support, on a competitive basis, for Australian researchers to participate in strategically focussed, leading edge, international scientific research and technological collaborations with Chinese partners.

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