Can Australia become a global manufacturing hub, create jobs and enhance national security? Yes, writes Professor Simon Ringer, who says the time is ripe for investment in advanced manufacturing to spur Australia's economy.
Imagine an Australia with a globally competitive manufacturing industry — niche market players sprinkled among strategic capability providers and a flourishing start-up culture.
At a time when we are seeing billions come out of our domestic economy and thousands of jobs lost on top of great suffering from COVID-19, that vision sounds mighty attractive, right?
So, is this merely a pipedream, or is this a viable objective for Australia with a clear road map?
I’m an engineer and I want to share some perspectives on why now is a crucial time for Australia to prioritise investment in an advanced manufacturing capability to build national resilience, create new jobs and drive economic growth.
Firstly, let’s unpack “advanced manufacturing”.
It’s an enormous scientific and technological disruption that’s still in industrial infancy.
It’s a game-changing intersection between additive technologies (such as 3-D printing), new materials science, automation, and digital design.
Traditional manufacturing begins by taking source material and whittling it down to the desired shape or design, whereas additive technology lets us build structures up into complex devices, components and even whole machine systems with control from the nanoscale.
Before, what we were able to manufacture was limited by what our fabrication tooling could do. Now the barriers are coming down and we can make what we can imagine.
Consider if Leonardo da Vinci had been able to feed his remarkable sketchbook into a device that made the structures and machines he had imagined on those pages.
Well, those devices are becoming available as a result of additive manufacturing.
Consider if Leonardo da Vinci had been able to feed his remarkable sketchbook into a device that made the structures and machines he had imagined on those pages. Well, those devices are becoming available as a result of additive manufacturing.
This will spawn new industries with great vocational, technical and professional jobs and careers.
Additive technologies are now available across polymers, metallurgical alloys and advanced ceramics, opening a vast opportunity space for using new materials — many of which are found and processed in Australia.
Automation, sensing and “industry 4.0” technologies are another key element where Australia has expertise.
Designers can now work with a “digital twin” — a detailed computer-based replica of whatever it is they might be making.
This allows them to build things from novel materials with remarkable properties into structures that would have previously been impossible to make. This is a design revolution.
Suddenly, the familiar Australian laments of our high cost of labour and the tyranny of distance make way for our competitive advantage — a creative and well-educated workforce.
We already have the right raw materials. Our TAFE and university sectors can build the necessary skills pipeline.
An advanced manufacturing capability is essential for building national resilience and bolstering defence-capable industries: biomedical implants and prosthetics that are custom-made for the specific anatomy of an individual is an enormous market opportunity; Australia’s fabulously successful mining, and oil and gas sectors will also benefit; aerospace maintenance, repair and operations, the Western Sydney Aerotropolis — the list goes on.
Let’s also include entrepreneurial resilience. Advanced manufacturing lowers the barriers for start-ups to enter the market.
So, whereas an Australian engineering graduate with great ideas a decade or more ago might have been overwhelmed by the complexity that comes with establishing a new manufacturing operation, advanced manufacturing has turned the tables.
It has democratised manufacturing by eliminating the need for massive labour-intensive plant infrastructure.
This brings me to economic growth. According to a recent report, global manufacturing is a US$35 trillion-dollar industry.
Pegging additive manufacturing to address about 5-6 per cent of this market long term is a potential US$2 trillion opportunity and expected to be in the hundreds of billions within a decade.
As a lever for us to address inequality and create new opportunities, now is a great time to be building a national capacity that enables Australians to play in these markets.
But beyond having the right raw materials, and potential upside for economic growth, why now?
It’s clear. All those supply chain issues that we knew were lurking in the background have popped out with COVID-19 and given us a jump scare.
From lifesaving medicines and plastic bottles to concerns about our energy security and much more.
A new leadership consensus is emerging across politics, public institutions and industry that between COVID-19, global social unrest and the scientific and technological disruption underpinning advanced manufacturing, the world has changed and we need to act.
I am not suggesting some jingoistic return to a protected economy. But this is absolutely not the time for the “do nothing” option.
An advanced downstream manufacturing capacity will not simply appear or be somehow created by the market, we need to back it by industry, government and research providers coming together.
The positive discussions on this topic across all sides of politics, public institutions and in industry are to be commended. These must now converge on a national action agenda — a road map to bolster our national manufacturing capabilities.
We’ll know we’ve arrived when Australian Made or Designed in Australia are commonplace labels in our target markets.
What we don’t need is another report. Our future prosperity is too important.
Professor Simon Ringer is the Director of the University of Sydney's Core Research Facilities and academic within the Faculty of Engineering.