Manufacturing is critical to the health of Australia’s economy. That’s why it’s important for tertiary institutions to take a forward-thinking approach to partnering with manufacturers and suppliers who are ready to support our future workforce. Jonathan Jackson reports ...


Much has been made of government’s lack of support for the manufacturing industry. It has far reaching effects on the economy, innovation and not least the lives of those who lose their means.

In the past 18 months carmakers have announced their doors will close and SPC has been bailed out (for how long?). The focus has been on larger manufacturers, but we tend to forget about the smaller businesses that are, well, going out of business.

Sixty-seven people in rural Gympie lost their jobs in November 2013 as local business JH Smith and Sons truck trailer factory, a stalwart of Gympie industry for 113 years, went into administration.  

At the start of 2013, Spillane Fabrications, a stainless steel manufacturing company based in Brisbane, went into administration after owing the ATO $100,000 and trade creditors $30,000.

In South Australia, Penrice Soda Holdings shut down Australia's only soda ash operation following “extraordinary pressure” from imported soda. The list goes on. And, it seems, so does the accompanying despair.

The reasons for manufacturing’s decline vary. Ask someone in the car industry, such as Frank Stillwell or Dr Phillip Toner, Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney and Adjunct Professor at UTS Business School and they will tell you, as they told Australian Options magazine, “Particularly significant is a long-standing policy indifference to the manufacturing sector, bordering on hostility from central economic agencies such as the Treasury, the Reserve Bank and the Productivity Commission. This flows from a colonial cringe, the commitment to a neoliberal “free market” ideology and continued adherence to the orthodox economic doctrine of ‘comparative advantage’ – the belief that a nation should produce only those things for which it has a ‘natural’ or innate advantage over other countries.”

It seems all a bit complicated, however what is clear is that a blinkered view of manufacturing creates adverse implications for the economy and further trouble for all manufacturers.

What seems to be missing is the understanding that manufacturing and innovation contribute the most important advancements to science and technology.

Just ask the students at RMIT, who throughout the departments in this university, are benefitting from strong relationships with manufacturers and suppliers that have been set up by department heads.

Collaboration between universities, manufacturers and their suppliers are crucial to Australia’s advancement in economy, industry and future innovation.

Andrew Thompson is the Manager, School Tech Services & Facilities for Architecture and Design at RMIT. Speaking specifically about the students in his own department, Thompson believes that partnerships with manufacturers and suppliers, such as the one in place with Alfex CNC, allows students to “explore what they will do when they become architects and designers.”

This is essentially an upskilling approach and it will create future leaders and revive the manufacturing industry.

Some have already entered this realm.

Alfex CNC is a strong partner with RMIT. They supply a range of cutting edge CO2 and fiber laser technology for engraving, machining and cutting, as well as high quality CNC machine tools and routers. Hot water manufacturers Rheem and Rinnai support the plumbing and building division at Holmesglen by supplying a range of hot water systems for testing and maintenance purposes. More manufacturers should adopt this upskilling approach.

“As a university we cater not only for higher education, but vocational education also,” Thompson says. “For vocational education, it is important that we move beyond training for current situations and use technologies that students will adopt and innovate in future. RMIT are early adopters of technology and this is something we have taken seriously for a long time.”

In the school of architecture and design, Thompson sees this partnership as an opportunity to become familiar with advanced technologies in computer-aided design and then link these skills with computer aided manufacturing.

“The aim,” says Thompson, “is to group complementary machines together so that students are imbued with a full understanding of how each machine integrates and how that integration may better their skills as designers and architects.”

Students and learning institutions wouldn’t be able to do this without manufacturing support; schools require the full backing of the organisation supplying the tools.

Jordan Buhagiar is the Laser Division Manager at Alfex CNC and says his company is more than happy to offer tools and support.

“We want to see manufacturing flourish in this country and we believe that by supporting institutions such as RMIT we can help give students necessary technical skills, create further innovation and ensure that the industry survives no matter what the socio-economic climate.

“We also want to ensure that we spend enough time with students so they upskill to the point where they can confidently walk into the industry of their choice and have an immediate impact.”

Thompson says that RMIT will always look for suppliers who make time for the students.  

“We chose Alfex because they offer good local support. I can’t stress how invaluable that is to us, especially at the end of semester with school production schedules looming. When a machine goes down and students have deliverables we need to know that support is on hand before too many people are affected.”

Buhagiar says: “It is important for all manufacturers and suppliers to not only supply the tools but to ensure there is training involved as well as ongoing support. Without it, why bother starting a relationship.”

Awareness of manufacturing and the opportunities that advanced technologies within manufacturing can provide is crucial to this nation’s growth. Without manufacturing whole economies dissipate. So what better place to spread the message than in a learning facility where manufacturers can shape the minds and skills of future designers, architects and innovators. 

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