Australia’s manufacturing future – the industrial shift needed


David Chuter

Last month, I wrote of the importance of leadership in manufacturing during the COVID-19 pandemic, exploring five imperatives: recognising and protecting value drivers, prioritising breakthroughs, collaborating on shared problems, mitigating risk through co-funding programs and building resiliency through local supply chains. Where to now as we start emerging from the worst of this crisis?

“Never waste a crisis,” said Winston Churchill – something I tried to apply in three decades of automotive manufacturing. We must not waste this one.

What is old is now new; what was once unfashionable is now fashionable. Concepts and virtues such as leadership, collaboration, innovation, ingenuity, and, dare I say, even local manufacturing, are not just in vogue but important and necessary.

Churchill also said, “sometimes it is not enough to do our best; we must do what is required”, and that is what we must do to refashion Australian manufacturing and build our industrial capability and capacity. Organisations such as the IMCRC have been pushing these values and concepts for some time, but often uphill with calls to action and investment only being heeded by the most willing and ambitious partners.

So, how do we do what is required?

As the COVID-19 crisis evolves, it is challenging the old order and forcing questions about what sort of future we want for Australian manufacturing and for industry in general. We must look at what is required of businesses, research organisations and government to create a thriving, relevant, resilient, and globally integrated manufacturing sector. In the past few weeks, the views of society and industry have rapidly changed and if there is to be a ‘new normal’, then it appears to be one where manufacturing is much more vital.

We need, first and foremost, to see manufacturing as both a vertical industry sector and a horizontal enabler for most primary Australian industry sectors, in terms of key enabling technologies, supply chain capability, accelerating digitalisation and the uptake of Industry 4.0 and associated new business models.

We need to balance short-term and critical initiatives with longer-term strategic needs linked to a compelling, engaging vision for our future that is clear on ‘races that we can win’, both locally and globally.

And we will need to test this through the lens of industry sovereign capability and needs, perhaps in collaboration with New Zealand. While much focus is rightly on the medical, pharmaceutical and health sector, we also need to reflect on needs and opportunities for value creation, investment, jobs and prosperity in bio, energy and fuels, minerals, food and agribusiness, construction, defence and space, as well is in digital platforms and cyber. We have world-beating capability and exemplars in all of these areas, and need to upscale by design.

We need manufacturing – and industry generally – to be attractive to investors, businesses, researchers, government, current and future employees (think schoolchildren and the parents that influence what they will do) and to the community. And we need this attraction to be both local and from overseas to insure and assure our future relevance and economic prosperity.

All of which can and should have manufacturing front and centre, both to design, engineer, make and service, and also to enable and lead. It is time to build sufficiency of capability and scale and to create both the future of work and the jobs of the future.