Large-scale manufacturing plants that employ thousands of people are things of the past. But, according to Geoffrey Spinks, Australia can still choose to become a global supplier of high-tech products.
Australia can forge an exciting future as a manufacturing nation in the 21st century by being prepared to embrace innovation and technology. The highly-publicised demise of the automotive industry in Australia, the latest in a long line of traditional manufacturing industries that have fallen by the wayside, seems to suggest that we have a limited future as a manufacturing nation. However, nothing could be further from the truth – provided we act now.
The assumption that manufacturing is dying because we have seen traditional industries like clothing, footwear, white goods, furniture, electronics and now cars succumb to a combination of high labour costs, small domestic markets and a high Australian dollar, overlooks Australia’s track record for innovation, diversity, specialisation and human skills. It also ignores the fact that Australian manufacturing output has quadrupled since the 1950s.
Australia has the skills and capacity to be a global leader in highly specialised niche manufacturing, delivering high quality products and providing high quality jobs. We have done it before, and we can do it again.
Look at Cochlear, whose brilliant and life-changing implants for people suffering acute hearing loss account for 70 per cent of the global market. Or Australia’s polymer bank note technology, which is another world leader.
The truth is that the face of Australian manufacturing is changing. It is no longer simply about production lines, low-cost labour and cheap, throwaway products. We can’t expect to develop new large-scale manufacturing plants that employ thousands of people. But we can aim to develop new businesses through researching innovative products and ways to make them. A vibrant innovation system can deliver new jobs and new industries and help rejuvenate regional economies.
For example, 3D printing technology is opening up all kinds of opportunities. It is hugely advantageous to develop in tandem the materials and the machines that produce them.
Here at University of Wollongong (UOW) we are already developing biomedical devices that replicate organs and other body parts, and we can also design and manufacture machines to make them. Those countries that are able to best harness and focus their research capacity and convert ideas into industries will gain a huge advantage. Those countries that fail to act now will be swept aside by a virtual tsunami of technological innovation from nations with greater imagination and commitment to invest.
The question is simple. Does Australia want to be a global supplier or an importer of high tech, high value products? The answer must be that we want to be a supplier. Manufacturing does matter. Making things goes to the heart of a nation’s psyche. And we can’t simply rely on being the world’s quarry.
At UOW our research efforts in next generation manufacturing span high strength alloys, better battery materials, bionic implants and nanomaterials. Researchers are also developing innovative machinery like high productivity welding systems, 3D printers, metal forming systems and autonomous robots. We are also active in business management and ICT research that enable efficient business processes.
[The University of Wollongong’s Professor Geoffrey Spinks is an Australian Research Council Fellow based at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science.]