‘Manufacturing’s Future in a Digital Age’ was the subject for discussion in Melbourne on 14 November, as delegates from across Australian manufacturing gathered for the 2017 AMTIL National Conference.

Held at Leonda by the Yarra in Hawthorn, the one-day conference was focused on the ways in which emerging digital technologies are revolutionising manufacturing the world over, and explored the opportunities this created for the industry here in Australia. With a line-up of speakers that encompassed manufacturing companies, technology suppliers, research bodies and industry groups, the Conference offered a comprehensive, in-depth perspective of what the future holds. The event also featured 10 exhibitor stands from companies such as SICK, Lightwave Technologies and evok3D, the Innovative Manufacturing CRC (IMCRC), and the Conference’s sponsor – William Buck.

Following a welcoming address from AMTIL Board Member Brigitte Stavar, the first presentation came from keynote speaker Brad Howarth. Drawing on two decades as a journalist covering technology’s impact on organisations, society and individuals, Howarth’s presentation offered a wide-ranging view on the impact digital innovations are having on the world of business and wider society.

“Wealth is generally generated by those who drive change,” said Howarth. “So at some stage we have to ask ourselves: how comfortable are we with the risks in being a driver of change, as opposed to the risks of being a follower of change? But the greatest risk of all comes from doing nothing at all. Simply maintaining the status quo today is one of the fastest paths we can take into irrelevance.”

Howarth was followed by David Chuter, Managing Director and CEO at the IMCRC. Chuter took a closer look at Industry 4.0, the wave of technological advances sweeping the world of manufacturing, and how Australia can capitalise on the resulting opportunities. He also described the work the IMCRC is engaged in to help manufacturers in this country to seize that potential.

“We’re seeing an explosion of opportunity with this thing called the Internet of Things (IoT),” said Chuter. “Fifty billion connected devices – it’ll just keep growing. If you look at emerging technology trends, the IoT is the single biggest investment opportunity the world has seen. We’re seeing $1.4 trillion invested in the IoT. So what are the opportunities for Australian manufacturing in Australia?”

Next on stage was Dr Nico Adams, the IMCRC’s Program Lead for Digital Transformation as well as a Senior Research Scientist in CSIRO’s Data61 business unit. Adams’s presentation offered more detail on Industry 4.0 and the practicialities of its implementation, with case studies of companies who have taken the lead in this area.

“Forget about the technology,” said Adams. “It’s not about the technology. The technology is merely an enabler to certain business outcomes. What the technology does in essence is to allow you to digitise your value chains, and in that way to change the way in which you create and capture value.”

The real-world challenges of embracing Industry 4.0 were explored next by Dr Steve Dowey, Technology Manager at Sutton Tools and RMIT Senior Research Fellow. Sutton has been on a digital journey for a few years now, most recently deploying a low-cost IoT solution for factory visualisation at its plant in Thomastown, Victoria. Dowey offered a practical illustration of what steps Australian SMEs can take to reap the benefits of digitalisation.

“We’re entering the ‘Era of Connection’” said Dowey. “In this Era there are lots of opportunities that you can leverage. What we’re seeing is advanced manufacturing technologies that will enable products we’ve never seen before.”

After the delegates broke off for a networking lunch, the afternoon began with two panel discussions examining specific aspects of Industry 4.0. The Research & Training Panel comprised Mark Raphael from RMIT University and Shanti Krishnan and Professor Bronwyn Fox from Swinburne University of Technology, who discussed the challenges of training the workforce of the future and how their organisations are meeting that challenges. This was followed by a Technology Applications Panel, featuring Matt Minio of Objective 3D, Jason Bouyer of Balluff, and Mark Dudman of Kaeser Compressors Australia, who talked about some of the latest innovations at the cutting edge of manufacturing technology.

Finally, Gavin Smith, President and Chairman of Robert Bosch Australia, gave the concluding address. As both a provider of manufacturing technology and a global renowned manufacturer in its own right, Bosch is spearheading the adoption of Industry 4.0 wordlwide. Smith discussed some of the strategies his company is putting in place, and the broader implications for industry.

“For us, we’re not only on the supply side of the Industrial Internet, but we’re also significantly on the demand side,” said Smith. “We understand that we have to change and upgrade our factories, otherwise in our future we may not be competitive.”

Positive outlook for the industry

One theme that recurred throughout the conference was the current strength of manufacturing in Australia.

“There’s a narrative that exists in this country to say that manufacturing is on the way out,” said Howarth. “Now you and I know that is not the case. When we see headlines about the car industry being shut down, that narrative builds up very quickly. But for anyone to suggest that manufacturing in this country is on the way out is first utterly wrong, and secondly disingenuous about the future of this country.”

Chuter echoed Howarth’s remarks, emphasising current indicators that show a highly postive outlook for the industry.

“We’ve had a bit of doom and gloom, but manufacturing’s going really well in Australia at the moment,” said Chuter. “Despite the end of vehicle production, we’re racing ahead next month for a potential 14 months of uninterrupted growth in the sector. In a survey from Commonwealth Bank last year on the proportion of industry that is innovation-active, manufacturing topped the list. We’ve seen in the Budget last year, another $100m invested by the Commonwealth Government. The signs are good.”

A success to build on

The AMTIL National Conference was attended by a total of 122 delegates, who between presentations and discussions with exhibitors, also enjoyed a series of networking breaks throughout the day and a cocktail function that brought the event to a close. For AMTIL CEO Shane Infanti, the event was a great success that has lain the ground for similar events in the future.

“I think it’s been a very successful day,” said Infanti. “The presentations have been fascinating, and the feedback from the delegates I’ve spoken to has been really good. I’d like to thank the team at AMTIL, particularly our Events Manager Kim Banks, for delivering a terrific event. This was the first AMTIL National Conference, and our aim is for it to become a regular fixture on the industry’s calender in the years to come. Today’s event has provide a great platform for us to build on.”

There were more positive remarks from Shane Rolton, Director at Wysiwyg 3D and Pro Z 3D Solutions, which were among the companies exhibiting alongside the Conference: “It was a wonderful experience. The presenters were most informative. I took notes and have actually made a couple of changes to one of our business models, based on one of the presentations. And we’ve probably got three or four really good leads.”

With the industry around the world facing unprecedented change, opportunities to exchange information and learn where the latest technology is heading are vital for Australian manufacuturers. That’s where events such as the AMTIL National Conference are crucial – a point underlined most eloquently in Howarth’s keynote speech.

“What can we do to understand what other options lie out there?” said Howarth. “We need to get some height, get a better view of the environment in which we live. Which is why events like this are so absolutely critical. Your ability to network among your peers, exchange ideas and speak to the exhibitors gathered here, provides you with a level of insight you didn’t have when you turned up. The solutions to the problems that lie ahead are actually already here today. You’ve just got to ask the right questions, and that starts with having the curiosity to do it.”