Ray Kirby is the Director of the new UTS Tech Lab facility in the Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS). He spoke to William Poole.

AMT: Firstly tell us about the UTS Tech Lab facility

Ray Kirby: UTS Tech Lab is an entirely new facility in Botany in Sydney that we built to focus on research and to bring companies to work with us on research in this space. It will house post-graduate students mostly, post-doctoral students and PhD students, and it will also be a place for academics to come and work on their research and work on collaborative projects with companies. The place was formally finished in September. UTS has spent $60m on this facility; that includes the fit-out as well as the new equipment that we’ve put in.

What we tried to do is put in equipment that is as high-tech and as state-of-the-art as we can in particular areas, and then we’ve drawn together the different sides of engineering and technology. For example we’re bringing together the civil engineers and mechanical engineers, we’re bringing them together with computer scientists and electrical engineers, so that we’ve got everyone working under one roof. We think this will allow us to move forward with the development of technology in engineering, because engineering is going towards the integration of high-value technology into more traditional applications. What this will allow us to do is to link up with things like data analytics and data visualisation and so on. This allows us to approach engineering in a more co-ordinated way.

AMT: What sort of capabilities and facilities have you got at Tech Lab?

RK: What we’re try to do is to bring together the skills in our faculty, what we’re well-known for and what we’re leading at. UTS and our faculty are particularly well known for computer sciences, data analytics and robotics and those sort of areas. What we try to do at Tech Lab is provide facilities for the computer sciences and communications and networking groups, but then join them together with our engineering facilities.

We have facilities here for civil engineering; we’ve got a a reaction floor and a reaction wall where we can test full-scale structures, concrete and timber structures. We’ve got the facilities to fabricate concrete. We’ve got climate chambers where we can change the temperatures to test concrete through its cycle of different environmental conditions.

So what this facility allows us to do is to draw those engineering areas together with the computer sciences. What we hope in the future is to integrate our areas under the general banner of IoT (Internet of Things) so that we can integrate the testing of sensors and various other monitoring systems on real engineering artefacts and products. We would hope that’s of interest to people working in utilities, in infrastructure, in transport – things like Smart Cities; Smart Buildings; Smart Infrastructure – and those are the areas where that sort of approach will attract potential partners.


AMT: Can you shed any light on any notable projects that are already underway here?

RK: Well, not all our facilities are up and running; we are getting close to finishing. But the early adopters will include Sydney Water, with whom we are fitting out an iPipes lab, as it’s called; that’s a lab that will focus on doing smart pipes for Sydney Water. It will involve coming up with new ways and technologies to reduce leakage and failures in their piping system. That will be one of the first projects that we’ll start here, and over time we will gradually move some existing projects over here. But as Tech Lab opens, we are currently talking with partners to bring them in to do some new collaborative projects here.


AMT: What sort of work do you envisage doing with manufacturers and in what areas can manufacturing companies collaborate with UTS?

RK: By integrating our robotics team and our communications and networking teams, our computer sciences, we’re hoping to try and bring those technologies together so that we can look at Industry 4.0-type manufacturing technologies and move towards advanced manufacturing in that way. We will also have additive manufacturing down here, so we’ll have metal printers, plastics printers, we will also have concrete printing down here as well. Our intention is to do that. So over time, manufacturing becomes a natural focus for what we do here because it’s well suited especially to our expertise in robotics and sensor design, and moving that together with our analytics and so on.


AMT: There’s a big emphasis on facilitating collaboration with industry. How do you see that taking shape?

RK: What we see as our value-added here is our ability to innovate and provide new ideas and new solutions to problems. What we’d like ideally is for companies to come in and work with us. We have a big space in Tech Lab where companies can actually come and bring their personnel to work with us. We would like to bring some big multinational companies in, for them to bring their supply chain in, to partner with SMEs and also start-up companies, so we get this mix of people from different areas and backgrounds; we can put some students in there as well. From that we can kind of build this ecosystem where we can focus on innovation and that will add value for our industrial partners beyond what they would normally have access to in terms of doing traditional research projects with us.

We also hope to be able to offer companies access to our facilities. We’re happy for companies to come in and hire out our facilities if they wish; we can do consultancy work based in our facilities; we can do testing according to standards and so on if that’s what companies want.

But our ideal picture is companies working with us on research projects. What we hope to see Tech Lab do is to help companies through the process of moving from development of ideas, to proof-of-concept, to actual pre-commercialisation. We’ve got the ability to do some full-scale mock-up testing, so for example in manufacturing we could put together a small mock-up of a full-scale manufacturing facility or process, and we could then flesh out all of the issues or the problems, we could run through our proof-of-concept with that, so that by the time it comes out of Tech Lab, it is almost ready to be actually implemented in a real manufacturing facililty.


AMT: A lot of Australian manufacturers, particularly SMEs, often find themselves stumped on how to approach R&D collaboration in this way. How is Tech Lab aiming to facilitate that process?

RK: I think we’re all aware in universities that universities are often seen as challenging partners to work with because of their size and legacies. I understand that, from an SME’s point of view, working with universities can be daunting. We want to change that at Tech Lab, to offer a much more flexible, approachable way of working with universities. So we’re in the process of drawing up standard ways of working with Tech Lab.

Our approach is going to be to say to companies: “What are your problems, what are your issues?” We want to go to companies and offer a kind of solutions-based approach. And because we’ve got lots of different areas under one roof here, then we can say to companies we have the capacity and expertise to offer a solutions-based approach. We would ask companies: “What are your issues?” and “What’s your problem? What’s keeping you awake at night? What’s stopping you going forward where you need to be? How can we help you solve your problem? Here’s the way to work with us – which will allow us to deliver on that.”

We’re conscious that from our side we need to be easy to work with, we need to be able to turn around projects quickly. And we recognise for SMEs and especially start-ups that we need to be quick about that; that time is important. We’re working very hard to ensure our processes and our procedures are quick and responsive and agile and meet the needs of our potential partners.

AMT: You’ve come from the UK fairly recently. Having that perspective, what lessons that would you say Australian manufacturing can draw from the industry in the UK?

RK: I came from the UK 18 months ago; I spent all my working life there before I came here. In the UK manufacturing went through a pretty terrible time. It’s not unusual to see lots of manufacturing industries start to disappear, and we certainly saw that in the UK. And there’s a sense if that happens you can’t get it back, it’s gone forever. But it’s not the case. In the UK now they are starting to revitalise some of the industry by focusing on very high-tech new developments in manufacturing. This is high-value manufacturing. A lot of it is being driven by the defence industry and the aerospace industry and areas such as that, where high-tech, high-value manufacturing is important. And that’s been done by collaborating, getting universities and companies to collaborate together, to generate that new IP and that new technology. These initiatives are also heavily supported by the UK Government.

I think in Australia there is an opportunity to do something similar. I think Australia has some great universities, some great high-tech skills, has a great SME base. Australia shouldn’t think all of a sudden that manufacturing is something Australia can’t do anymore or that it’s something we should all be getting out of. I think in manufacturing we’re certainly moving towards the high-value, high-tech areas and with proper co-ordination and investment, I think that the future is potentially very strong. Especially for rolling out new manufacturing technologies into South-East Asia and so on, where Australia is seen as the technology developers, as a centre for innovation and tech.

What turned things around in Britain was government support. We recently had Professor Graham Wren from Strathclyde University over, who helped start the Catapult Centres (a UK government programme to promote innovation) in Britain. We spoke a lot about how that happened, and to initiate that, you need government support. So I think the future of manufacturing in Australia is potentially strong, but it needs support from government – federal and state. It needs that impetus. What has happened in Britain – and this is true of Europe as well – is that governments are now starting to reinvest in manufacturing.

AMT: What form should that government support take?

RK: In Europe governments were investing on a kind of a third-third-third basis. So if industry would put in a third, government would put in a third, and then the universities would attract the other third from various research projects. This allowed them to put together big projects that were ambitious. And I think what Australia should focus on is putting … well my view would be Centres of Excellence in manufacturing that are supported by government, but then clearly link in to SMEs and supply chains and so on, that support a greater wider network of manufacturing technologies.

I know this is starting to be developed through things like CRCs and so on, but I sense with CRCs that they are still a little bit low down on what in Europe we used to call technology-readiness levels – the TRL levels – and that CRCs are still too close to universities and not close enough to commercialisation. What Europe has done through the Fraunhofers and the Catapults is to move it up a few TRL levels so that the outputs from them are much closer to what industry wants in terms of commercialisation.

From my point of view, being relatively new to Australia, there’s still this focus on universities very much as the holders of fundamental knowledge, and that that’s very important, and that actually getting involved in translating that into industrial outcomes is almost seen as something that is not really what we should be doing. I think there’s a cultural shift that needs to be done and that universities have lots of untapped reserve in terms of helping companies.

AMT: What would you like to see Tech Lab working on in five years time?

RK: I would love to see Tech Lab being a host for digital transformation, IoT, advanced manufacturing, Industry 4.0, additive manufacturing technologies, and the translation of that technology into real industrial processes. I would love to see a mixture of multi-nationals, SMEs and start ups from New South Wales and across Australia, working together on delivering new technologies that are rolled out both locally, nationally, and also internationally.

What I want to see is ambition. We have potential to take up more space here, to grow, to lead the translation of university research into outcomes.We have to translate the outcomes of university research into real products, processes, commercialisation, much faster than what we’ve done in the past.

AMT: Tell us about your background and how you came to become involved

RK: I’ve been an academic all my life. I started my academic career in Britain; I’m a mechanical engineer by training; I did my research in acoustics and my research is generally in acoustics. Noise control and guided waves and structures. In Britain I worked in the mechanical engineering department at Brunel University, which is a technology university a bit like UTS. I was there for 18 years, I was head of mechanical engineering, and at that point I was kind of thinking it was time to do something different!

UTS advertised for a new position in my research area, which was acoustics. They were setting up a brand new group in acoustics. They were also moving into this place called Tech Lab, which looked quite exciting. It all looked to me like an exciting move and a change. And sometimes you’re just ready for a different challenge.

So I came over to join our new centre for audio acoustics and vibration and focussed on research, and then the job of Director of Tech Lab was advertised. I thought it looked like fun and I was fortunate enough to be successful in my application. So since January I’ve been in charge of Tech Lab; I’ve got kind of a split role: Director of Tech Lab as well as continuing my research. And I’m enjoying it. It’s a fantastic role; every morning I come in here and feel lucky I work at this place. It’s very exciting; we’re going to enjoy developing Tech Lab.