With traditional industries disappearing and the resources sector in decline, our economic future depends on Australian manufacturers embracing design to deliver advanced products with global appeal. By Professor Guy Littlefair.

Apple’s Chief Designer Jony Ive once said design was “about bringing order to complexity”. A simple statement that oozes common sense, especially when one considers the simplicity with which Apple’s designs brings complex technology to the fingertips of millions of smart technology users around the globe. However, I believe this statement has also never been truer when it comes to advanced manufacturing in Australia.

Australia has been staring down the barrel of complex challenges within manufacturing for several years now, firstly as the decline of the manufacturing industry gathered pace, and now as the economy feels the pinch from a reliance on the weakening resources and commodities sectors.

At this point it is difficult to see how, without a bold, courageous advanced manufacturing vision, coupled with an education framework to ensure graduates are prepared for the jobs of the future, Australia can continue with the standard of living it has become accustomed to. Interestingly, seven years ago while in New Zealand, I wrote an article foreshadowing the precarious economic position of Australian manufacturing. Since then little has fundamentally changed. No longer can Australia’s prosperity afford to rely on what it digs out of its earth, loads onto ships and sends overseas.

As someone who is relatively new to Australia – I am not sure I am considered a local after five years in the country – I was afforded the perspective of an outsider’s view when I arrived here to lead Deakin University’s School of Engineering. This perspective, combined with my experience from other parts of the globe, meant I could see these challenges from the moment I arrived, and I also had an idea of the solutions. And fundamentally it comes back to design.

My heritage is in the UK, where I witnessed the decline of much of the traditional manufacturing base in the 1980s. However I’d immediately come from six years in New Zealand – a place colloquially considered to generally follow the footsteps of its bigger Aussie cousin. Yet it was the things the Kiwis were doing that Aussies hadn’t yet turned their minds to that were immediately obvious to me.

From an industry perspective, New Zealand’s focus is all about the export market. Australia, up until this point, has been much more concerned with its internal domestic market, to the detriment of innovating products with mass consumer appeal.

I believe this goes some way to explaining why the car industry didn’t survive here. Australian industry must understand what the world wants, and that different parts of the world require different design functions. In other words, products that are desirable outside Australia are desirable in Australia, too. This brings us back to Ive’s statement and the cross-global appeal of the iPhone.

I couldn’t help but think about how design could assist in bringing order to the complexity of a future where the jobs are now ill-defined at best, and at worst, completely unknown.

When I arrived at Deakin, I saw a great opportunity to recast engineering education around product design and development, in order to drive a new type of manufacturing view built on design and advanced manufacturing delivering highly sought-after products. After all, universities should be leading the way when it comes to researching solutions and producing graduates to drive such solutions when they enter the workforce.

In considering how innovation has developed, evolved and translated into success, I split the domain into three different elements: industrial technology, industrial engineering, and industrial design. Traditionally, Australia has been strong in industrial technology. We need only look to the CSIRO and our universities, which have been responsible for the development of new materials, new processes for production and material optimisation.

Thanks to the car industry, Australia has also had some presence in the element of industrial engineering, which includes the development, improvement, and implementation of integrated systems of people, money, knowledge, equipment and materials. But Australia’s focus on industrial engineering has not been as prominent as in other countries, and with the demise of mass automotive manufacturing, there is a real risk of things actually moving backwards.

Then we have industrial design, which is creating products and systems that optimise function, value and appearance for the mutual benefit of both user and manufacturer. Successful innovators such as Apple, Samsung and Dyson have proven that industrial design should be the first thing manufacturers consider when developing products that require engineering and technological solutions. But this has not been part of the DNA of the innovation process in Australia. Considering again New Zealand and the industrial design focus in their manufacturing sphere, Methven and Fisher & Paykel would be two obvious examples – in the high-tech area Navman also springs to mind.

But how to bring these elements together? As the Dean of Engineering at one of Australia’s most future industry-focused universities, it is my job to not only identify problems, but also propose solutions. Deakin’s solution has been borne out through the establishment of its Centre for Advanced Design in Engineering Training (CADET) and the development of a design-based curriculum built from international best practice.

Deakin’s unique approach has already attracted interest from industry. Last year, I was asked to be a founding member of the Australian Precision Manufacturing Group (APMG), and CADET has been invited to host this year’s Australasian Association for Engineering Education conference, largely as a result of our design-based curriculum. It is exciting to see Australia embracing this new approach.

It is my view that for too long in Australia engineering curricula has been overly focussed on science at the cost of design. If universities are to do their duty and support the economy, particularly as it moves from a resources base towards a much more smart technology base, it needs to move into the design space and produce graduate who can communicate in the common language of design.

Professor Guy Littlefair is the Dean of Engineering in the Faculty of Science, Engineering and the Built Environment at Deakin University.