Innovation stories: Australian advanced manufacturers share the secrets of their success

Dresden co-founder Bruce Jeffreys presenting at NMW's Industry 4.0 Theatre

Research from the Advanced Manufacturing Growth Centre (AMGC) has explored the key factors for manufacturing success including competing on value not cost, accessing expertise across multiple organisations and applying higher levels of digitalisation.

A panel of five advanced manufacturers at National Manufacturing Week showed what these concepts look like in practice, at a presentation titled “Innovation Stories”.

Movus, a startup which recently gained high-profile venture backing offer FitMachine solution as a service to enable smarter maintenance to a wide variety of industrial clients. Its founder described how the marriage of bits and atoms is blurring manufacturing and services.

The Industrial Internet of Things company acts a lot like a software startup, with rapid development cycles and frequent updates to products. Since starting in 2015, it has moved into its seventh generation of sensor and fifth generation of gateway module. The 500 lines of code used to make sense of heat, noise and vibration from machines has increased to 17,000.

Movus is an example of the emerging and modern definition of manufacturing, which sees production as just one part of the whole manufacturing value chain.

“Our goal is to enable the likes of servitisation for manufacturing and for Australian industry. We want you to transition to that service model, and this is what we’re enabling you to do. And a lot of customers are already doing that,” explained Brad Parsons, CEO and Co-founder at Movus.

“If you’re not a digital business, then in the next five years you’ll be out of business. What we are is a highly digital business.”

New production methods are enabling solutions to previously intractable problems, according to Mario Dimovski, CEO and founder of Tradiebot. Dimovski is a veteran of the smash repair industry and the founder of Plastfix, a fast-growing plastics repair business.

New production technologies are opening up ways to repair items that previously ended up in landfill, such as headlights. Tradiebot is bringing these new solutions to commercial reality in collaboration with universities and organisations such as the Advanced Manufacturing Growth Centre and Innovative Manufacturing CRC.

Just a month ago we launched our first project, which is an automated robotics system that’s going to be repairing headlights by using 3D scanning and CAD files to print straight onto the headlight of a broken component,” Dimovski said.

He added that this represents one of three collaborative projects underway, with others using robotics to deal with a dire skills shortage in auto repairs, and an Artificial Reality (AR)/ Virtual Reality (VR) training environment.

Adopting new technologies would also be important for companies to attract the next generation of bright engineers and tradespeople. If manufacturers don’t keep pace with technology adoption, graduates might look to other companies.

“We’ve just recently looked at hiring a pretty large team of AR and VR developers and software engineers and so forth; we’ve gone to the universities, we’ve gone to the schools and said ‘this is what we’re expecting,’ he explained.

“And they’ve come back and said ‘You’re one of many.’ So how do we compete against XBox or EA Games or whoever, to tap into these guys?”

Austeng had transformation thrust upon them by the end of automotive assembly in Australia, which previously provided most of the Geelong company’s business.

The boutique engineering firm was made to rethink what it could offer the market.

Disruption presents opportunities, according to Lyn George, who co-owns Austeng with husband Ross.

“We really had to think about how we could transition from what seemed, to us, to be a disastrous situation,” said George.

“We needed to identify new target industries and we needed to engage. What I mean by engage is we needed to network, we needed to attract publicity, and we needed to collaborate with other companies”.

A project designing and building a world-first short nanofibre plant won awards, but left Austeng “high and dry” after they were cut out of ongoing production revenues. It showed them that while they were good at prototyping and commercialising new production methods, they also needed to engage more deeply in projects.

Today Austeng is a hub for start-up manufacturers in Geelong, and combine in-house expertise with strong university connections to turn ideas into reality. Part of collaboration for Austeng includes taking equity in these startups and securing exclusive manufacturing rights. They work with a long list of promising manufacturers, including FormFlow, Capricorn Power and Polymeric Powders.

Brisbane-based Evolve Group has a “no-nonsense approach to product commercialisation,” according to its plain-speaking founder Ty Hermans.

The company brought production in-house in 2013, the same year it bought Poolrite, Marco Engineering, and divested Polyslab, which brought Hermans’ first product to market.

Since then it has assisted in design and manufacturing optimisation for products including the wildly successful Flow Hive, which has won numerous design awards. Hermans calls Evolve a design-led manufacturer, an important distinction to a manufacturing-led manufacturer.

“Because we work with our customers and with a real focus on that product being a success, we tie ourselves to the success of that product,” said Hermans.

“By understanding the whole manufacturing curve, we’re able to eke out every last bit of opportunity in that product, and ultimately make our customers’ products a real success.”

Hermans explained with the right approach to manufacturing, production can be successfully reshored and provide “the biggest silver bullet for jobs growth in Australia.” Evolve’s Marco Engineering division is currently involved in a collaborative project with the AMGC and others to bring injection moulded products for an Australian manufacturer back from China.

“In the last six to nine months since we’ve started focussing on reshoring projects, we’re nearing about $100 million worth of manufacturing work a year that we’re looking to bring on over the next three years,” he told the audience.

“For a business that historically has only been turning over roughly $20 million a year, you can imagine the amount of growth that is bringing to our business. I can see that opportunity presents itself to so many manufacturers in Australia.”

Another company bullish about the future of advanced manufacturing is Dresden Optics, which makes fashionable, low-cost eyewear. Created out of its founders’ frustration with optometrist trips and wait times for a set of prescription glasses.

“We are essentially, by default, Australian manufacturers. We never set out to be. We set out to solve a problem,” shared co-founder Bruce Jeffreys.

“And we found ourselves actually being the only manufacturer of prescription eyewear in Australia.”

Dresden is currently involved in two collaborative products to tackle material science and automation challenges, which will enable the company to use recycled plastics and to scale internationally.

“We had an amazing breakthrough early on. We met a manufacturer named Astor Industries, who was very heavily involved with the automotive industry, and was facing a really serious issue of transition,” said Jeffreys.

“We were really fortunate that the Astor staff bought the business off the owners and were willing to work with us on partnering a new relationship in manufacturing. So instead of contract manufacturing, we work with Astor and we co-manufacture.

“Why that’s so important, and why I think it’s the sort of thing only Australians can do, is because we’ve got such a small manufacturing base, instead of this contract methodology, where you go to China and go ‘we want 1,000 lids thanks,’ you work with a manufacturer together saying ‘we don’t really know what we need. We actually don’t know. We’ve never sold this thing before.

“We don’t know what colours people will like and don’t even know what sizes they’re going to like. So that approach was critical to us getting going, and what that’s meant is we’ve had some really stunning innovations.”

Three of the five companies above are involved in collaborative projects supported by AMGC. These projects are aimed at accelerating the successful transformation of manufacturing business, based on research on the adoption of advanced knowledge, processes and business models.

“Companies who display advanced characteristics are the companies who are superior,” explained Dr Jens Goennemann, Managing Director, AMGC.

“Superiority is demonstrated through advanced knowledge such as higher R&D spend, advanced processes like automation and advanced characteristics like adding servitisation to your products.”