OPINION by Professor John Spoehr
What does it take to create a world-class innovation ecosystem in Australia?
Our capability to manufacture the products we need when we need them has been elevated to a national policy priority following the impact of the pandemic on key supply chains, which restricted our access to critical goods.
Over the last few years a quiet revolution has been taking place at the Tonsley Innovation District in Adelaide’s southern suburbs. An industrial-scale testing facility has been created to test and trial cutting-edge technologies and business processes.
This is Australia’s first ‘Factory of the Future’ facility – a $20 million investment in capability building established by Flinders University, with support from the South Australian and Federal Governments, and in partnership with BAE Systems and a network of leading South Australian companies.
BUILDING EFFECTIVE COLLABORATIONS
Dozens of technology trials have already been undertaken in the pilot facility, attracting over 2,000 visitors from industry, government and the community, who want to learn more about how we can build effective research collaborations between researchers and industry.
The good news is that early successes are attracting attention and funding from national and state policymakers. The high level of interest is also linked to the fact that Australia needs to urgently develop and adopt new strategies that boost university/industry research collaboration.
This is fundamental to national growth in high value, knowledge intensive, products and services.
We have drawn inspiration from the best-of-breed globally, including the network of Fraunhofer Institutes in Germany, the range of manufacturing institutes in the United States, and the Catapult Centres in the United Kingdom.
What these leading research and development institutions have in common is a long-term commitment from funding partners to build world-class capability and capacity in collaboration with industry. They exist at the interface between universities and industry, filling a gap that is presently very large in Australia’s innovation ecosystem.
While Flinders has been fortunate to secure strong government support to help bridge the gap that so often exists between universities and small to medium sized businesses, meeting the collaboration challenge at a national level requires a commitment to establishing a network of Factory of the Future-style facilities across Australia.
Along with government support, our Factory of the Future is a partnership with BAE Systems Maritime Australia and its growing supply chain.
A key driver of the collaboration is a shared commitment to maximising the domestic industry development benefits that can flow from projects as large as the Federal Government’s $35 billion Hunter Class Frigate program. Projects of this scale have enormous transformative potential, particularly when the ambition is to create a world-class, digitally enabled ship manufacturing capability.
CREATING SCALE & MOMENTUM
To have the freedom to take risks and innovate, enlightened firms have a long history of establishing research and development facilities in innovation districts just like Tonsley.
BAE Systems has followed this tradition, co-locating its Research and Technology team with Flinders University at Tonsley. This is a game changer, creating scale and momentum on the back of a now well established and mature research partnership.
Our collaboration with BAE Systems is grounded in a commitment to help remove barriers and accelerate the adoption of technologies in a human-centred way. This means engineers, scientists and social scientists working much more closely together than they have in the past, on common challenges.
So far, lessons learnt from our trials have been published as part of a series of Australian Industrial Transformation Institute research reports, informing practice in both shipbuilding and the wider manufacturing sector.
In pursuit of greater sovereign capability in times of crisis, Australia, like most nations, has been challenged to invest much more in research and innovation. At Flinders we have accepted this challenge and are significantly expanding our world-class research and development capabilities, and boosting essential collaboration between research and industry through new partnering models.
Our vision is that by 2027 we will form part of a world-class network of Factory of the Future facilities in Australia, much like our global inspiration in Germany, the US and UK.
What might have seemed unrealistic to many onlookers five years ago is now well underway. It is proving to be a source of inspiration for policymakers wanting to accelerate the growth of advanced manufacturing in Australia.
About the author: Professor John Spoehr is Pro-Vice Chancellor of Research Impact at Flinders University, where he is actively involved in the development of industry, government and community research partnerships at a local, national and international level. Learn more factoryofthefuture.com.au