Manufacturing companies in Australia are finding niches in the medical technologies sector as their traditional markets of mining and automotive diminish.
Lower production costs and more robust large-scale capabilities offshore are playing a major role in the exit of mining and automotive component manufacturers from Australia.
However, industry and government support have helped some firms evolve their advanced manufacturing skills and enter the medical device market.
Medical device production in Australia has grown by 1.3 per cent annually since 2012 and is now valued at AU$3 billion a year according to IBISWorld.
South Australia is emerging as a hub for the medical devices industry and is home to the Tonsley Innovation Hub and the Adelaide BioMed City precinct, a $3 billion tripartite health hub comprising a major hospital, research centres and educational institutions.
The Tonsley hub is located on the site of a former Mitsubishi car manufacturing plant and major tenants include medical device manufacturer Micro-X, Siemens and ZEN Energy. International optical and optoelectronics firm ZEISS is also about to move into a new $6 million premises at the hub.
The downturn in world commodity prices has forced South Australian company Plastico and Hackett Engineering to shift its focus from mineral analysis equipment development to components for orthopaedic implants.
The company first dabbled in medical devices in 2014 but has now decided to make it a major focus following collaboration with another Adelaide-based firm, Austofix.
Plastico and Hackett Managing Director David Schiller said 20 years’ experience making mining components had it well placed to succeed in the medical field.
“The decline of the mining industry in Australia has forced us to look at other things,” he said.
“China seems to be commanding a large chunk of the mining components manufacturing and we have seen our business move there recently, which is hard.
“There is a large push for South Australia to transform itself into a medical device hub and there is an opportunity for us to do well here.”
A Plastico medical machinist with one of its laser systems at the company's operating facilities in Adelaide, South Australia's capital.
Austofix has developed innovative orthopaedic trauma devices for more than 25 years including a device that allows surgeons to accurately insert an implant inside a bone without the use of x-rays.
The Ezy-Aim Electronic Digital Targeting System and associated nails are used to repair fractures of the femur, tibia and humerus bones.
Plastico and Hackett received a $47,500 grant from the South Australian Government last month to help it transition.
Major car manufacturers in Australia including Toyota, Mitsubishi and Ford are moving their assembly lines overseas because of the relatively small size of the Australian market and high production costs.
South Australian based SMR Technologies is an independent division of SMR Automotive Australia focused on the design, manufacture and distribution of high-quality products for a broad range of industries.
SMR Automotive is a leading car sensor manufacturer and developed the world's first plastic automotive mirrors, earning it more than $160 million in exports.
However, the exit of the automotive industry from Australia also has it looking to medical devices. SMR is working on a number of products including take-home tests for bladder cancer patients.
The non-invasive devices use biosensors to test urine and aim to help people avoid uncomfortable follow up tests where tubes are inserted into the urethra to access the bladder.
In an industry-university collaboration in South Australia’s capital Adelaide, researchers from the University of South Australia and Flinders Medical Centre are preparing the device for a 1000-patient hospital trial.
An SMR Technologies spokesman said the company was very interested in exploring more opportunities in the area of cancer research.
“Cancer is a global issue and we hope that these sensors will play a key role in the fight against the deadly disease,” he said.
The spokesman said preliminary results suggested it was a superior method to common cancer detections methods such as cytology and endoscopy.
This uptake in manufacturing in Australia is also supported by the increase in clinical trials for medical technology, which has grown by about 8 per cent per annum according to MTPConnect Managing Director Sue MacLeman who recently spoke at the AusMedTech Conference in Melbourne.