Building a New Manufacturing Sector in Victoria

by Dr Catriona Nguyen-Robertson MRSV

This article follows a presentation to the Royal Society of Victoria and Australian Academy of Technology & Engineering (Victoria Division) on 7th July 2022 delivered by Professor Bronwyn Fox (CSIRO) titled ‘Creating a World Leading Manufacturing Sector in Victoria’.

How do we create a world-leading manufacturing sector in Victoria? Building on a long tradition in automotive, aerospace, defence, metal, food, chemical and general manufacturing, Victoria continues to be the epicentre of Australian manufacturing. Combined with a highly skilled workforce, infrastructure, education, and research, we can be a global hub for science infrastructure and R&D.

Chief Scientist at CSIRO, Professor Bronwyn Fox, is no stranger to scientific innovation. She sees herself – to use an engineering term – as a systems integrator. She has a long history of bringing together researchers from multiple institutions and different scientific disciplines, leveraging digital science, and translating brilliant research ideas into real world solutions.

Bronwyn started out at CSIRO in the 1990s as a fresh graduate. Throughout her studies and career as a researcher, she partnered with CSIRO on various projects. She wants all universities to be set up so that others can do what she did and reap the same benefits. But not many PhD students in academia have the opportunity to partner with industry.

Now returning as Chief Scientist, she is guiding CSIRO to solve great challenges with innovative science and technology with the goal of helping the community.

‘We’re not in the science business at CSIRO,’ she says. ‘We’re in the people business.’

“If they can do it, so can I.” Bronwyn’s love of the punk rock movement shines through as an example of levelling the playing field – all we need are pioneers (like the Sex Pistols) to dare others to participate.

One of the megatrends that Bronwyn sees as shaping the future of the manufacturing sector is the Internet of Things (IoT). It has great potential to transform enterprise and industry, and even the way we interact with each other.

The IoT allowed for the emergence of digital twins that simulate manufacturing and mining processes. This now means that people can use data from multiple sources to virtually test machines and accurately predict what maintenance needs to be done. In addition, test products can be commercialised in the digital space before people invest in physical resources.

There has also been a shift in mindset within the sector due to IoT. Data is becoming more decentralised and more widely shared so that manufacturing processes can be replicated around the world. Furthermore, sustainability has become a large focus in supply chains. Larger companies have started selecting partners based on real-time data of which companies are working sustainably. Bronwyn is concerned that Australia is at risk of being cut out of supply chains if we cannot provide evidence of reducing carbon emissions.

Bronwyn is interested in leveraging the successes of the mining sector’s use of digitisation, automation, and control in manufacturing. CSIRO’s mining division aims to create a suite of technologies that change the way we think about time and space. As Bronwyn puts it, ‘it all sounds very “Doctor Who”’.

Measuring the concentration of valuable material in rocks is difficult and time consuming. As this is a major impediment to efficient mining, researchers rose to the challenge of developing new sensing technologies. Using magnetic resonance to analyse the atomic properties of materials, the NextOre sensor can measure ore grade in large volumes. A CSIRO spin-out company, Chrysos, also developed a PhotonAssay to measure gold in rocks. By hitting samples with high-energy X-rays, it can analyse gold, silver, copper and other elements quickly and accurately. ‘It is the new gold standard for the gold standard,’ says Bronwyn.

CSIRO also developed artificial intelligence to help drones navigate mines and VoxelNET, a technology that can generate a virtual mine to simulate its operation. Together, these technologies make the mining process more streamlined and sustainable.

CSIRO’s Manufacturing Business Unit develops innovative products and processes for Australian manufacturers to also be globally competitive. CSIRO’s Data61 is an example of a hub of state-of-the-art labs and facilities. Bronwyn herself also drove the establishment of the Swinburne/CSIRO Industry 4.0 Testlab for Composite Additive Manufacturing. The centrepiece of the lab is an industrial scale, multilayer 3D printer that builds carbon fibre composite products with improved production quality and reduced waste in the process.

The manufacturing sector is evolving, and we are producing world-class infrastructure here in Victoria, but do we have a workforce that can keep up with its evolution? With all the elements that we mine and use in products, the most important element of all is the people.

Bronwyn discussed nurturing the next generation of leaders in STEM with Dr Amanda Caples (Victoria’s Lead Scientist) and Mr Rob Gell (President, Royal Society of Victoria). Amanda is concerned at the dive in numbers of secondary and tertiary students taking advanced mathematics and science subjects, when the skills gained in those subjects are highly valuable – whether students become pure mathematicians or scientists or not. Rob and Amanda are both involved in outreach activities that engage young people in STEM, but point out that we need multiple points of intervention as people diverge from the path of STEM throughout school and their careers.

Not only do we need more young people pursuing STEM, but we also need to create a supportive environment for those who do. While things are improving, there remains relatively little culture of crosstalk between academia and industry. Amanda made an analogy to biochemistry: Research and Development needs to be more of a dynamic equilibrium between industry and academia, with ideas and support going both ways.

CSIRO’s On innovation programs are one such example of ways to connect research organisations with commercialisation pathways. They help Australia’s publicly funded researchers and small and medium enterprises develop the skills needed to fast-track their technology and ideas into the market.

With people like Bronwyn at the forefront of industry research, Victoria is in good hands. Amanda, Bronwyn, and Rob all advocate for bringing multidisciplinary scientific and engineering capabilities together. Our state is home to many success stories in advanced manufacturing, and it will only grow from here.

Livestream Recording