Deakin University’s research innovations regional manufacturing director Mark Curnow sits down with Mignon D’Souza to discuss how the university’s innovation hub ManuFutures works towards growing advanced manufacturing capability in regional Victoria and Australia.
ManuFutures is an advanced manufacturing and innovation hub located in Geelong, Victoria. The hub boasts a range of state-of-the-art facilities, including advanced manufacturing technologies, prototyping equipment, design studios, and collaboration spaces. This allows businesses to develop their products from concept to production, all under one roof.
Mark Curnow, research innovations regional manufacturing director at Deakin University said the hub was established in 2018 when Deakin University realised that it was time to progress the ideas that had been incubating within its institutes and faculties to commercialisation.
“The last few years since COVID have really ignited interest in manufacturing in Australia, particularly sovereign capability. With that in mind, the university went into establishing ManuFutures by wanting to transform research into commercialisation and advance regional manufacturing in Australia.”
ManuFutures has been designed with the aim of promoting innovation and collaboration between different stakeholders in the manufacturing ecosystem. This approach is not just about providing the latest equipment but also fostering a culture of collaboration, knowledge-sharing, and innovation.
The facility is part of the university’s broader strategy to create industry- academic partnerships that drive innovation and support the growth of the advanced manufacturing industry in Australia. The goal is to create an environment that supports the translation of research outcomes into practical, commercially viable solutions.
ManuFutures is focused on supporting start-ups and entrepreneurs. The facility provides a range of resources and support to help entrepreneurs and small businesses to develop their ideas and bring their products to market. This includes access to funding, mentorship, and business support services.
“ManuFutures is a business accelerator. Typically, when a start-up business is in its initial phase, they’re very focused technically on its product and how it’s progressing. But they can probably lack fundamental business elements and have questions like – how much cash do we need? What’s cash flow about? What sort of investment will we need? How do we create a pitch deck? How do we seek seed investment?” Curnow explained.
“Through ManuFutures, we’ve established a raft of training programs that support those early-stage businesses in developing their understanding and capability and accelerate their journey to commercialisation.”
ManuFutures has four training programs:
- Ignite: A pre-accelerator program strategically designed to help early-stage start-ups and start-up entrepreneurs.
- Accelerate: A program that helps start- ups to grow and scale-up, with a focus on product engineering.
- Engage: A program that engages with small- to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) for collaborations with Deakin for research and development, identifies gaps that need to be bridged within industry, and connects SMEs with internal and external technology experts.
- Connect: A unique product engineering service designed to leverage skills, capabilities, resources, assets and research outcomes across the university and support manufacturing businesses to maximise their competitiveness and create new global market opportunities.
“The journey of a start-up is not easy. It’s time and resource-consuming, which is why our we lay out the roadmap for start-ups through our training programs,” Curnow said, adding that the ManuFutures training programs were for both individuals and organisations.
“For instance, our Ignite program involves 12 days of training over 12 weeks at no cost to the participant. Here, we map out the start-up journey, the personal time investment needed, and the financial resources needed, so that people and start-ups completely understand what they’re getting into.
“Our Accelerate program is more focused on the business side of things. It could be a smaller business that has a product and needs help to take it from an early-stage product to scale-up ready. Here, we help them with many elements of product planning, and production line layout – we have full desktop 3D experience capability. So, we can digitally twin their process to help them along that journey.”
One of the several start-ups that has benefited from the resources and support provided by ManuFutures is FLAIM Systems, a company that has developed the world’s first multi-sensory firefighter immersive learning solution to replicate the stress and uncertainty of real-world emergency situations safely and cost- effectively. FLAIM is ManuFutures’ first tenant, located at Deakin University’s Waurn Ponds Campus.
“FLAIM is one of our many successful graduates – they’re reaching a level of maturity now with growing global sales,” Curnow said. “And their product is phenomenal. It’s immersive learning for firefighter training, where Virtual Reality (VR) can put scenarios into a training environment.”
Over the last four years, FLAIM Systems has conducted over 141 training scenarios, sold over 500 systems, onboarded over 200 customers, and sold in 43 countries, generating over $10 million in total revenue.
Another company that ManuFutures has supported is Universal Motion Simulation (UMS), which develops and manufactures turnkey reconfigurable driver training simulation solutions for armoured vehicles.
The company’s core Reconfigurable Driver Simulator (RDS) is a highly dynamic motion platform consisting of a six-degree-of-freedom robotic arm, interchangeable replica vehicle cabins, haptically enabled control devices and immersive simulation environments featuring detailed vehicle dynamics and terrain modelling.
ManuFutures has helped create more than $1 billion in company value, incubated more than 17 advanced manufacturing start-ups, helped companies establish export markets in over 45 countries, hosted 500 student placements, and created over 200 direct advanced manufacturing jobs, including in regional areas.
Recently, ManuFutures has expanded its operations with a newly completed $20 million ManuFutures2 building at Deakin University’s Waurn Ponds campus. The hub has doubled in size, offering more tenancy opportunities, product engineering services, training, and manufacturing incubator programs.
The Victorian Government and Deakin University jointly funded the expansion with $10 million each, as part of the Victorian Higher Education State Investment Fund (VHESIF), which launched post-COVID.
Mark Curnow stated that the completion of ManuFutures2 puts Deakin University at the forefront of manufacturing innovation.
“So back in 2020 – 2021, we received support from the state government in the form of the VHESIF grant. With that investment, we built the second ManuFutures facility that houses an additional six manufacturing businesses.
“Our new ManuFutures2 building includes collaborative working spaces, further rental tenancy bays for manufacturing businesses, and an Innoveering Centre that includes product engineering and development capability, and opportunities for research collaboration and integration,” he said.
“Four new manufacturing businesses have already moved into the new spaces as tenants, with room for two more. A total of 14 successful and emerging global manufacturing businesses now call Deakin’s ManuFutures home.”
With the new expansion further promoting the development of advanced manufacturing capabilities, ManuFutures has attracted new investment to regional Victoria, boosting the local economy and creating jobs.
“When the second ManuFutures hub was built, we were given a series of criteria that we need to meet to support the grant we received. And one of them is to develop regional manufacturing and set up satellite operations that will provide education and training in regional Victoria,” Curnow explained.
“Therefore, we have established satellites in Warrnambool and Bendigo, and we are currently actively pursuing cohorts of entrepreneurs and start-up businesses so we can take our training packages to these regions.”
The next phase of ManuFutures will be three more factories of 2000 square meters in size with the key objective of supporting businesses to scale. The factories – known as ManuFutures4, ManuFutures5, and ManuFutures6 – will be constructed within the next two and a half years.
“Instead of a very successful business graduating and flying the nest, we will have the capability to retain them on campus in the future economy precinct at Deakin University’s Waurn Ponds campus. This will retain their connections to research, to students’ learning opportunities, and to graduate students’ work opportunities,” Curnow said.
Collaboration in the manufacturing ecosystem
Collaboration is extremely important to the work that ManuFutures does, according to Curnow.
ManuFutures has fostered collaboration among different sectors and disciplines by bringing together industry, academia, and government, which has helped break down silos between different sectors and disciplines, leading to more effective problem-solving and innovation. For instance, in Bendigo, ManuFutures has partnered with local TAFE provider Kangan Institute to deliver training activities.
“We’re trying to create a full circle experience within the university. While we’re developing manufacturing, we also want to create opportunities for students. So, we’re collaborating with the schools, faculties, and institutes, where we’ve got many specialists that can help with research or product development problems.”
Curnow added that they encourage their tenants and program participants to collaborate as much as possible with each other. The new ManuFutures building is designed and set up to provide opportunities to do so – from the lunchroom and the areas where they can co-mingle and enjoy their lunch or coffee break, to meeting rooms and collaborative workspaces where they can work together and create learning opportunities for each other.
One of ManuFutures’ targets for the year is to establish firm linkages with more established businesses like Hanwha Group to become part of its ecosystem.
“Let’s say, for Hanwha, we want to do some work in supply chain development. If we can raise their capabilities through our training and activities, then it improves the whole supply chain for that parent while developing regional manufacturing at the same time. Thus, we’re developing an industry-ready workforce, improving the supply chain for smaller start-ups, and helping the tall- tree businesses deliver what they want to do,” he said.
Education in engineering and manufacturing
Deakin University’s ManuFutures is helping to develop the skills and knowledge of the next generation of engineers and manufacturing professionals by providing access to training programs, research opportunities, industry collaborations, and industry events. Deakin University’s research and development capabilities have played a key role in contributing to the success of ManuFutures and the businesses it supports.
The relationship between ManuFutures and the students at Deakin University is a symbiotic one.
“To have start-ups or entrepreneurs, you need an innovation pipeline and a lot of our innovation pipeline to date has come out of the university,” Curnow said.
“We are looking everywhere for brilliant minds and brilliant ideas, but we’ve got a readymade swimming pool full of them in our backyard at Deakin.
“We’d like to say we’re Australia’s unique, advanced manufacturing innovation accelerator. And the uniqueness comes from that connection with the university. It’s a closed-circuit activity where we can rely on each other to support businesses in growth.”
ManuFutures also provides work- integrated learning opportunities for PhD candidates, research assistants, and higher degree by research (HDR) students by connecting them with businesses, which in turn generates employment opportunities in their fields of interest.
This also completes the circle of ManuFutures’ key objective of research to commercialisation, according to Curnow.
“Research has many avenues of impact. While a lot of research occurs to educate people through papers, there’s also research that needs to be converted to commercial reality and has societal impact. Getting the research out of the university and into the commercial world is the piece of the equation that we’re working on.
“We are not landlords. We provide space as a commercial landlord, but we are much more than a landlord. The businesses we house must work with the university – a two-way interaction that will complete that circle for our students.”
Discussing education in manufacturing in general, Curnow said that generating student interest in manufacturing and STEM careers is an important issue that the industry must come together to resolve.
“We need to teach the emerging workforce of the future that manufacturing is not in overalls and trudging around in boots with grease. Manufacturing is intelligent, challenging, and rewarding work.
“When I see some students today, the work they do in additive manufacturing, 3D printing is their hobby because they are so passionate about it. That’s a great capability that we need to tap into as an industry.
We also need to be well in touch with major industry sectors and employers in any given region and have a good understanding of their skills requirements, so that we can tune our education to suit that direction and focus on those needs. Because if you’re not preparing the students for the workforce, it’s all for nothing,” Curnow said.