Innovative Australian food and agribusinesses are working together with product designers and local manufacturers to meet growing national and global demand for their products and expertise. By Carole Goldsmith.

Funded by the Federal Department of Industry, Innovation and Science, Food Innovation Australia Ltd (FIAL) was set up just over three years ago to encourage commercially driven collaboration and innovation in the Australian food and agribusiness industry. FIAL operates across the entire food and agribusiness value chain, from growers, raw material producers and manufacturers, to packaging, sales, marketing and retail providers, through to final users of the sector’s output.

FIAL works with major food manufacturers, universities, scientific research organisations, supermarket chains and industry groups across Australia. There are around 180,000 food and agribusinesses nationally, and they can all use FIAL’s services.

“We are currently working with Data 61, to develop a searchable directory for the sector,” says FIAL’s Managing Director Dr Mirjana Prica.” A vision for the industry has also been developed involving industry stakeholders from across Australia over the past year. This is due to be released in October.”

FIAL offers a range of opportunities for the industry, among which are: knowledge of technologies and markets, skills training, grants for innovation projects involving both small and large businesses, trade missions, trade shows and other export market activities. FIAL is co-located at CSIRO, with its headquarters in Melbourne and a satellite office in Sydney.

“Australia is in a really exciting position to take advantage of the growing middle class in Asia, as they demand more nutritious and healthy foods,” adds Dr Prica. “We have all the ingredients to meet their needs and capture an increased share of this growing market.”

Evolve and Flow Hive – teaming up for global success

One of the greatest manufacturing innovation success stories of the year has been the development and global growth of Flow Hive. Byron Bay father-and-son team Stuart and Cedar Anderson secured funding for their invention, an innovative bee hive system that can deliver honey directly on tap, via the crowdsourcing website Indiegogo.

Brisbane-based company Evolve Group has been working with the inventors for the past year to get their product to the global market. Evolve Group has two key business units: its product design and development division Evolve NPD, and its manufacturing arm Marco. The Group’s Managing Director and Founder Ty Hermans recalls some of the hurdles encountered as the project developed.

“In the first 60 days of the Flow Hive’s Indiegogo initial fundraising, mid last year, the project raised $US12.1m,” he recalls. “However one of the greatest problems with crowd-funding is the realisation and fulfilment delivery to the backers that support the idea. We have been working through the crowd-funding program to ensure the backers supporting the realisation of Flow Hive production receive their order in full and on time.”

One of the biggest problems was one of dealing with the unexpected success of the crowd-funding campaign. Throughout the campaign, the inventors were receiving thousands of Flow Hive orders. However, at the time, they had no facilities to manufacture them.

“We approached Cedar and Stuart and they came up to Brisbane to see our facilities, where it was made apparent that we could complete their requirements successfully,” says Hermans. “We have since been working with them on the Flow Hive product design, development, manufacturing, commercialisation and distribution nationally and globally. So far we have manufactured over 22m plastic components making up over 45,000 complete bee hives, and distributing them to 128 countries globally from our Brisbane facility. In turn we have employed an extra 50 people to cope with the increasing global demand which has raised our employee numbers to just over 150.”

The Flow Hive won this year’s Good Design Australia’s Award. At the Awards ceremony, Hermans said: “Winning this award shines a spotlight on what great design can do for Australia. There is little future for manufacturing in Australia without great design. Also there is little value in designing products that go straight to China to be manufactured.

“By designing products that can be manufactured locally in Australia, we’re creating jobs that change the lives of the people we employ. To us that’s a winning formula that Australian design and manufacturing should be focusing on more.”

Smo-King Ovens – Commercial food smoking ovens

Smo-King Ovens Pty Limited has been designing and manufacturing commercial ovens for smoking food in Australia for 18 years. The company has almost 2,000 of its ovens installed in a variety of food processing businesses across this country and in New Zealand and Asia.

Speaking from the company’s head office and plant in Silverwater, NSW, Smo-King Founder and Managing Director John Hodgkinson says: “Our ovens, which are designed and developed by us, are simply operated using a microprocessor control system. They are fan-forced, have electrical elements for heating the oven and igniting the genuine wood chips to generate smoke. This gives the food that smoky taste that our customers love.

As well as providing a profitable business for Smo-King itself, it also creates work for local suppliers. Local fabrication business Interfab makes the stainless steel bodies for the ovens, while the electronic control system is manufactured by Sydney firm All Systems Electronics. Smo-King then assembles the ovens at its plant in Silverwater. The smaller ones weigh around 200kg with the largest coming in at about 500kg.

Hodgkinson advises: “Smo-King employs four people, with two in the factory working on technical issues, assembling the ovens and customer support. Vicki handles admin, reception and spare parts, and I handle sales and marketing as well as customer liaison.”

The ovens are used by retail butchers for processing meats and by fish processors for hot and cold smoking. Restaurants and specialty food processors use the ovens for smoking and cooking meat. The company also distributes a range of European and USA food processing equipment across Australia.

Hodgkinson explains that the advantage to retail butchers of having one of the Smo-King ovens is that they can make a range of value-added products.

“As an example, a Mansfield butcher in country Victoria who owns one of our ovens brings in a chef regularly, to make a wide range of products such as pies, pasties, pasta as well as processing traditional small goods such as ham, bacon and sausages.”

Most of the oven sales are in Australia and New Zealand where the demand is high, with sales also to the Grand Hyatt in Hong Kong and to food processing businesses in Fiji, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand and The Philippines.

“The American style BBQ has recently become popular in this country and restaurants are buying more of our smoke ovens,” adds Hodgkinson. “This all started with Justin Hemmes, owner and CEO of the Merivale Group, which started as a fashion house, and it now owns a group of restaurants and other hospitality venues across Sydney.

“Hemmes was opening a new restaurant at Manly Wharf and his chefs searched in the USA for a suitable smoking oven for BBQ meat. When they returned to Australia and saw our ovens, it was exactly what they had been looking for.

“We have now sold them ovens for use in three of their Sydney restaurants: Newport Arms, Ivy, and Papi Chulo on Manly wharf,” Hodgkinson adds proudly. “They have been very supportive about our ovens and this is helping us gain more sales in to the restaurant industry.”

Silvan – ‘Big red tank’ sprayers

Silvan Australia’s, ‘big red tanks’ are very well known in this country’s agricultural landscape. A leader in the design of horticultural sprayers, Silvan has evolved into one of the largest Australasian manufacturers of world-class crop protection sprayers and related machinery. The company has developed specialised equipment for a wide range of applications including vegetables, grapes, apples, pears, citrus, bananas, olives, sugar cane and turf. Silvan also imports a range of farm equipment, which is sold alongside its sprayers at its distributors Australia-wide.

Founded 54 years ago by Michael Tricarico, Silvan has been headquartered at its current site in Dandenong South, in Melbourne’s east, for the past 10 years. His son, Michael J Tricarico, is now Silvan’s CEO, but as he explains, his father still plays a hands-on role.

“Dad is still active in the business and he comes in once a week to offer advice and say hello to everyone here,” he says. “Our business employs around 100 people across Australia and New Zealand (A&NZ), many of whom are long-term employees.

“Before he started Silvan, Dad was a fruit and vegetable merchant at Footscray Market in Melbourne’s west,” explains Tricarico. “His family moved to Silvan in Victoria’s Yarra Ranges. Dad was buying fruit and vegetables from Queensland and saw some agricultural machinery there, so brought them down to Melbourne. He set up a manufacturing shop in South Melbourne, in inner Melbourne and named the business Silvan after the town he was living in.”

Tricarico adds that he was working in marketing at a large irrigation company, before he took over the reins of Silvan, three years ago.

“There are not too many Australian country towns that have not seen one of our big red tanks. Silvan has always been in the forefront of introducing spraying technology into Australia.”

All of Silvan’s spraying equipment are designed in-house by the company’s R&D team. The lead engineer has been with the business for 25 years and it was his first job out of university. The red tanks that contain the agricultural sprays were originally manufactured in fibreglass at Silvan’s plant, though this process has now been outsourced to a nearby plastics manufacturer. Some of the spraying parts are imported globally, with the bulk from Italy, the leading country for spraying components.

“We manufacture the parts that we can in Australia and assemble the tanks with attached spraying equipment at our factory here,” says Tricario. “Our 3D printing is outsourced to a local business. As an example of our innovation in design and technology, Leigh our lead engineer recently designed our new JetPro spray gun in which the gun sprays in the direction of the arm, making it ergonomic. And we are selling it world-wide.”

Silvan’s sprayers are currently exported to New Zealand, Japan, Vietnam, Fiji, Thailand, The Philippines and several other countries. Tricarico explains about one Japanese customer: “About 15 years ago they came to our plant to sell us some of their machinery. They liked our Linkage Sprayers and have been purchasing the same model for 15 years. We also have a long relationship with Treasury Wine Estates, supplying their vineyards in Australia and New Zealand with our viticulture sprayers.”

In Silvan’s factory, employees are busy connecting the sprayer parts to one of the elevated red tanks. Wheelbarrows are assembled in Silvan’s warehouses in Brisbane, Perth, Sydney and in Dandenong, bound for Bunning’s retail sales. Forklifts dart past, and to one side of the factory a Silvan Turbomiser sprayer is assembled and made ready for its journey to another farm.

Tricarico says he regularly visits the dealers and customers – he was recently at Goaty Hill Wines in Tasmania’s Tamar Valley: “They bought a vineyard sprayer and I visited during the initial sprayer setup.”

Speaking about Silvan’s future plans, Tricarico advises: “It’s business as usual and we plan to grow the business domestically, introducing new developments in spraying techniques. The agricultural industry is growing upwards, delivering an increased demand for our equipment.”