Colin Thomas is the Manager of the Tonsley Manufacturing Innovation Hub, part of Flinders University’s Tonsley campus within the Tonsley Innovation Precinct in Adelaide’s southern suburbs. He spoke to William Poole.

AMT: What is the Tonsley Manufacturing Innovation Hub and what are its objectives?

CT: Well there are two ways of looking at that. You can look at it in the small scale, which is that on the ground floor here, we have our cyber-physical factory, which we established with the South Australian Government and the Innovative Manufacturing Co-operative Research Centre (IMCRC), which is a showcase of Industry 4.0 technologies, interconnectivity of devices, augmented reality, RFID technologies, and also collaborative robots and industrial robots. So in the lab itself is a demonstration of advanced technologies.

But you can also look at the Hub as a bigger hub, with all of the resources of Flinders University and the Tonsley Innovation Precinct – all of those resources collaborating to assist manufacturing. Collaboration in the Tonsley precinct is enjoyable and advantageous, with innovative companies like Sage, AZZO, Phoenix Contact, Micro X and Zeiss based here, and TAFE SA as well. So when you find an issue, you’re able to refer people to others around the place. We’re collaborating with TAFE SA on some training opportunities around Industry 4.0, with the AI Group. Rockwell Automation is moving in too, so work on Industry 4.0-level, machine-to-machine communication is going to take off here.


AMT: What are some of the notable projects you’ve got currently in progress here?

CT: The biggest project that we’ve got at the moment, which was only announced in February, is with BAE Systems and the Australian Submarine Corporation (ASC), assisting them with developing innovative and advanced technologies to be used in shipbuilding over the next few years. They’ve established a laboratory here equipped with collaborative robots, with augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR), automatic guided vehicles (AGVs) or autonomous intelligent vehicles (AIVs), visual systems and product tracking. I think there’ll be about 20 people in there, working to develop advanced technologies for use by BAE and by suppliers to BAE in the building of ships. That really is quite an open collaboration between a defence leader and other SMEs, which is quite new.

Through Flinders University’s New Venture Institute, there’s also a program called the Innovative Manufacturing Accelerator, which runs about three or four times a year over a six-week period. Companies and occasionally individuals sign up for it, and we work through their business problems and solve them. That program encompasses companies involved in water treatment, electric blow-moulding machinery, in vineyard management, in problem-solving in glass factories – there’s a really broad range. We just try to get them to clarify their problems, and work with the tools and the capabilities and the people we have here and in industry to solve those problems.

We’re also working on a proposal to prepare more hands-on, practical shipbuilding prototype process development. Whether it’s welding, or product tracking and movement, etc., we’re working to develop another facility here at Tonsley. We’ve got the collaboration lab with BAE, and the next step is a digital transformation lab with some 3D vision systems, and some Industry 4.0 connectivity and automation projects. And the next step after that, which is still under development, would be a new area where we can build prototype ships, prototypes of shipbuilding processes.


AMT: In what ways can manufacturers engage with the Hub?

CT: There are a number of ways: through work-integrated learning; through research projects; through attending some of the events that we run. We run events such as training programs – sometimes suppliers will come and demonstrate their product and we’ll facilitate that – or other events with the Advanced Manufacturing Growth Centre (AMGC), the IMCRC, the Entrepreneurs’ Programme.

Manufacturers can also engage through things like the Innovative Manufacturing Accelerator program. Or they can get a visit from myself or others within Flinders to just talk about what they’re doing, how they’re doing it, and how they might make changes.

We’ve also facilitated the IMCRC’s FutureMap project, where companies undertake a survey to understand their position in Industry 4.0, where they are, and where they want to be.


AMT: How important is it to have places like the Manufacturing Innovation Hub that can facilitate collaboration between universities or research bodies and industry?

CT: I think it’s critical, both for us to develop new technologies, and to make the best of existing technologies. For Australia to be competitive, we need to be at the leading edge, and quite a lot of that work can be done, and is being done, with the universities. It really builds manufacturers’ capabilities, to use the smarts and the resources of a university to find the next better thing – not just using the current best thing … that’s important too, and that’s all that some companies need, but there are other companies that need the higher-level technology and research & development, to take that next step.

I think, from what I’m seeing, the companies that are really doing well in manufacturing are the ones that are collaborating. When you look at the leading companies in South Australia, the leading manufacturers, there’s a very strong correlation between ones that are really doing things well, and the ones that are collaborating with the universities. Companies like Redarc, Schneider Electric, SMR, Supashock, AML Technologies… The ones that are doing the leading-edge development work are the ones working with universities.


AMT: There’s clearly a strong emphasis on Industry 4.0, and digitalisation of manufacturing processes, in what you’re doing here.

CT: Certainly. My background is that I was a manufacturing engineering manager for several years at Electrolux. And as well as product standardisation and rationalisation being an important part of the success of Electrolux, so was staying in touch and implementing advanced manufacturing technologies. We worked with SAGE for 20-plus years in developing advanced conveyor systems and control systems and identification systems, and also lots of automation. There were more than a dozen discrete robotic automation cells, and more than 50 robots. They were really taking the best of European manufacturing and applying that in a better way to local Australian needs.

And a lot of that was developed by local integrators; we used the local capabilities of Australian electrical and automation integrators to build those capabilities and improve the production systems at Electrolux, including lots of things that are now under the Industry 4.0 umbrella. So I guess using those technologies was the way I’ve worked throughout my career, and now I’m able to assist others in applying them.


AMT: What’s your view of the current outlook for manufacturing, in South Australia in particular, and across Australia more generally?

CT: It’s never easy and it’s never been easy. But South Australia is buoyed by sectors such as shipbuilding and the space sector, and that does give an injection of enthusiasm and optimism for ongoing manufacturing in the state. More broadly in Australia, I think there are lots of people doing some amazing stuff, like Evolve and ANCA, and others that are really doing great work and great new product development. So yeah, I’m optimistic from that point of view.


AMT: What do you think are the big opportunities for the sector, over the next few years?

CT: I guess I’m disappointed we don’t make more of our renewable opportunities. There’s just one manufacturer of solar panels in Australia. It’s disappointing to me that we’re not a powerhouse in solar panel manufacturer.

My ideal is that new lower-cost automation will give us more and more opportunities to make our own things. I think certainly the food industry is showing that you can do it and you can be successful. If that level of technology and automation was adopted by other manufacturers, I think they’d be increasingly competitive.


AMT: What does your role here entail?

CT: There’s two parts to the role. One is to assist local industry in understanding advanced technologies. So that’s assisting them to learn about what technologies are around and available, to understand how they can be deployed, what benefits they get from them, and to assist them in deploying them, whether that’s through education or through connection with others that do that.

And the other part is about the general connection with the university. That can be through promoting work-integrated learning, providing work experience for our students with manufacturers; and it can also be through research projects like the BAE project, developing the abilities within the university to work more closely with manufacturers.

One other significant task I undertake is that I lead a robotics and automation group in South Australia. It’s called an Emerging Technologies Interest Group (ETIG); five of them were established by the State Government early last year. This one is a business-to-business collaboration on automation and robotics. There’s over 150 companies listed and there’s about 50-60 active members of that group who collaborate on how to implement advanced technologies and automation. We’ve been meeting once a month and visiting lots of sites around the place. So 20 or 30 people will go and visit a manufacturer and learn about what automation they’ve done. There’s really great sharing of capabilities.

AMT: Can you just tell us about your professional background and how you ended up at Tonsley?

CT: Sure. Well I started out by taking a general engineering course in Detroit, because I was living there in my late teens. I transferred that back to the University of NSW and finished off with a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering. Then I got a job at Email Ltd in Orange, NSW, where they made refrigerators and stoves. I did a great project there on computer-integrated manufacturing back in the late 1980s, as a new plant making small refrigerators using lots of new technologies and systems. And then after five years, I moved to Adelaide to work at the cooker factory here.

I then worked for Electrolux for more than 25 years in a number of roles, including maintenance management, project management and manufacturing engineering management, as well as new product projects. The largest project was the BIOS rationalisation, standardisation and modularisation of all of the products onto a single platform, which is what allowed Electrolux to invest in high-volume manufacturing on a single platform. In doing that we implemented a number of automation projects. One of the most significant was taking hands out of presses, so there were no manual mechanical press operations left. Instead it was all done remotely by robots, keeping people away from those dangers. The lost-time injury rate fell dramatically over that automation period, from a hundred or more injuries a year, to going two or three years without a lost-time injury.

And then the opportunity arose here at Flinders, to apply what I’d learned more broadly on a broader manufacturing basis.


AMT: And what’s the most satisfying aspect of working here?

CT: It’s the sharing of technologies, leading a group of interested parties, showing other manufacturers what they can be doing and have them directly helping each other. That’s very satisfying. It’s also satisfying seeing where the students go, opening up some doors in industry for them, and letting them find interesting work in industry.