For three quarters of a century, the Victorian Vernier Society has provided a meeting place for those who consider manufacturing essential in sustaining a strong, vibrant Australian economy. Here the Society’s president Kerry Little takes us on a tour of its history, and its plans for the future.

In 1942, with World War 2 at its height in the Asia Pacific region, a group of Melbourne manufacturing companies formed the Victorian Vernier Society with the aim of assisting the war effort by co-operatively increasing their production. The Society quickly became a meeting place for Melburnian manufacturing people to share experiences, information and stories. Many manufacturing businesses at that time were family-owned and as manufacturing became crucial to the growing post-war Australian economy, the Society’s monthly luncheon became a gathering place for all those who believed passionately in ‘making things’.

In 2017, Vernier celebrated 75 years of existence. Despite manufacturing’s diminished role in the Australian economy, the reduced number of family-owned manufacturing businesses and the decline in manufacturing employment, the Society has remained the monthly meeting place for all those who have a passion for manufacturing. The Society still believes, perhaps more than ever in today’s globalised world, that making things is essential for a vibrant, sustainable Australian economy. The Society appreciates the nature of business is changing, manufacturing is transforming and advancing, and business leaders have more pressures on their time than ever before. Yet there is still great strength in continuity and networks, as exemplified by Vernier.

In 1938, the Australian manufacturing sector’s contribution to GDP was 19%, just short of the rural sector’s contribution of 20%. With the outbreak of war in 1939, industrialisation increased as Australia switched its resources to supporting the war effort as key industries expanded and new ones grew to produce munitions, ships, aircraft and new kinds of machinery. Machinery imports dried up as most machines were imported from England, which needed to work at full capacity just to keep pace with its own needs. To ensure the optimum use of machines and equipment, Government bodies were set up to ration and control their use. Manpower also required strict planning as people were moved around from one facility to another to maximise output. Previously male-dominated craft unions allowed women to replace men at the bench and semi-skilled workers carried out the previous work of the skilled.

In 1942, most manufacturing companies were small (30 to 100 workers) and predominantly family businesses of father and son used to an uncontrolled economy where production was geared to local needs and chosen markets. Government bodies began to operate a ‘command’ economy but shortages occurred such as in quality steels, specialty materials and modern manufacturing processes. Vernier was inaugurated in Melbourne to specifically assist in finding practical solutions to these problems using co-operation to lift production efficiency.

After the war, the late 1940s and the 1950s saw the growth of industrialisation driven by a rising population fuelled by immigration and increasing demand for consumer products. It was also a time of increased unionisation and increasing labour shortages. The Vernier Executive was instrumental in solving this problem; four Vernier executives led a mission to England to recruit 250 skilled workers, mainly engineering and foundry tradesmen and electricians whose migration was subsidised by members’ contributions. While England was equally keen to keep its skilled labour, in the end 500 tradesmen emigrated. As well as acquiring skilled labour, the Society was heavily involved in the promotion of apprenticeships and the establishment of technical education centres, from which Monash University with its strong engineering and science departments was eventually created.

By the 1960s, manufacturing had peaked at just over 25% of GDP and employed around a quarter of the nation’s workforce, but since the mid-1970s the manufacturing sector has seen a slow, steady decline as a result of sharp increases in labour costs, exchange rate challenges and the long-term failure to match productivity gains in other countries.

Australian manufacturing has become more specialised. Imports now account for about 30% of total sales of manufactured goods in the Australian market, compared with around 21% in the late 1980s. On the other hand, nearly 13% of Australian manufacturing output is now exported, twice as much as in the 1980s (though this has fallen slightly since 2001). Australia’s top 30 manufactured exports now include specialised motor vehicles, pharmaceuticals, computer components, telecommunications equipment and aircraft components, though the recent demise of the mass-market automotive industry will change this profile.

Through all these changes, the Vernier Society has managed to maintain a small but significant presence on the landscape of Melburnian manufacturing companies. While some members moved interstate and failed to build a complementary sister organisation in NSW, the Victorians enjoyed the celebration of their 50th year of existence in 1992 with the issue of a book edited by historian Geoffrey Blainey called the ‘Collective Memoir’. An extract from the book explains the ethos of the Victorian Vernier Society:

“Vernier exists not as a set of incidents in time and space but rather as an Australian spirit and a culture that has filled a room in Melbourne, once a month, for 50 years. Our spirit and culture has remained remarkably stable over time. In this way we are a negation of history; history is about change whereas Vernier is about continuity.”

Why manufacturing matters

On 5 August 2011, hundreds of tourists and space enthusiasts packed the Florida shoreline of Cape Canaveral to watch as the Juno space probe was launched. Following a near-five-year journey to Jupiter, the probe will complete 32 rotations of the gas giant, skimming within 5,000km of the planet’s cloud tops and sending back millions of pieces of information.

Each component of the spacecraft has been manufactured to extraordinary precision and assembled with infinite care at the Lockheed Martin space system facility in the US. This is not just advanced manufacturing – this is leading-edge manufacturing. When the first pictures come back, imagine not just the great thrill of the NASA scientists, but the great pride of all Lockheed Martin people who assembled the craft; the skill and innovation of the component sub-contractors who were part of its manufacture; and the pride in every American who can say “my country manufactured and delivered this marvellous piece of engineering”.

Manufacturing is not just a journey to the stars but an essential pathway to prosperity. Imagine all the spin-off technologies that have come with this fabulous piece of engineering. This is why manufacturing is so important to the success of a nation, and so important to the Vernier Society.

People watched the Juno launch on televisions and computers, read about it on iPads, listened to reports as they drive their cars, or read of it as they sat in aircraft. All of these mechanisms are the results of innovative manufacturing, but the likelihood is that none of these products were manufactured in Australia. All who are part of Vernier and anyone who has worked in manufacturing knows the pride and satisfaction in seeing what they helped manufacture being delivered to customers, whether it be aerospace parts, tankers, trucks or CNC grinding machines.

But manufacturing is declining for a variety of reasons – now Australia can not even boast of an automotive industry and Australian manufacturing is weaker for it. The Vernier Society members are determined to demonstrate that a sustaining, vibrant manufacturing sector is crucial to Australia, its economy, and its place in a globalised world.

Vernier believes passionately in the importance of manufacturing for Australia. Manufacturing is crucial to the economic success of the nation. The days of manufacturing being a major source of employment have diminished with automation and competition from lower labour cost developing countries, but it can still be a powerhouse to the economy through exporting world-class products, as demonstrated by high-cost, high-value manufacturing nations like Germany and Switzerland. Vernier’s mission is to focus on three major aspects of promoting the importance of manufacturing.

The first is to change the public perception of manufacturing. Manufacturing has changed dramatically from its Latin meaning of ‘making by hand’. Leading manufacturing companies are no longer ‘dark satanic mills’; they are modern, clean, bright, efficient places to work, where highly skilled engineers and craftsmen operate high-technology CNC machines. They are no longer ‘fitters and turners’ but manufacturing technicians. Manufacturing is no longer just a mechanical skill; it is truly mechatronic. Manufacturing takes place just as much on the CAD station or in the patents office or in the software area as it does on the shop floor. All these professions and professionals contribute to make a physical entity leave the manufacturing facility, whether it is a wind turbine, a medical product for blood diagnosis, a drone for agricultural management, or even a spacecraft. They are all tangible products that enhance modern life.

The second focus for the Society is increasing collaboration among all parties in the manufacturing space. All the academic studies show that Australia is one of the worst countries for collaboration among companies and between academia and industry. This was confirmed by Vernier’s own study program in 2014 of Victorian manufacturers. While there is a lot of talk of collaboration, there is still a long way to go – between companies and the unions particularly – when one considers how countries such as Germany have strong working relationships across all aspects. It will be interesting to see whether organisations like the Australian Advanced Manufacturing Council (AAMC) can help build a more collaborative environment and if so the Society is keen to play its part.

The third focus is on innovation. Much is said about innovation but it is too wide a subject. The Federal Government’s website says innovation “generally refers to changing processes or creating more effective processes, products and ideas”. Vernier is lucky to have some of Victoria’s leading companies who innovate with both new ideas and product development. Another feature of the Society is the monthly speaker program which provides a current view of innovation in leading countries and companies.

Technological advance is the lifeblood of all developed nations and as Australia makes the transition from a resources-driven economy to a more diverse economy there is a danger that the value of manufacturing to the economy is allowed to diminish. The Victorian Vernier Society, in its small way, is determined not to let that happen!