While the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic still hangs over Australia’s economy, the construction & infrastructure sector is currently enjoying highly promising conditions, creating big opportunities for innovative advanced manufacturing businesses such as FormFlow. By William Poole.

Anyone strolling through Federation Square in Melbourne in the last few months might have noticed something unusual. Displayed there from January to March, the Future Food System was a three-storey building developed by sustainability advocate Joost Bakker to demonstrate his concept of a fully self-sufficient, zero-waste dwelling. Chefs Matt Stone and Jo Barrett took up residence throughout its time in Melbourne, living entirely on food and resources produced within the building. Powered by solar panels, with everything from fruit and vegetables to shellfish grown on site, the Future Food System teems with invention, but from the outside, one of its more notable innovations might easily be overlooked. Amid the produce growing across the building’s exterior, its cladding was supplied by Geelong start-up FormFlow.

Central to FormFlow’s business is a revolutionary process that enables corrugated metal sheet to be bent at sharp, precise angles without stretching or damaging the material or coatings. Matt Dingle and Matthias Weiss devised the FormFlow Bend in collaboration with Deakin University,

“The science behind it was developed by a guy called John Duncan who lives in New Zealand,” says Dingle. “He was a mentor for me and Mathias when we were doing our PhDs. It’s based on the mathematics of origami, a clever but deceptively simple process.”

Dingle and Weiss recruited Geelong-based engineering company Austeng to help develop the machinery to validate their concept, before founding the company four years ago with Austeng’s owners Lyn and Ross George.

The FormFlow Bend offers a range of benefits. Traditionally, structures using corrugated metal end up with gaps wherever the sheets meet – at corners or roof peaks – which would be concealed with capping and flashing. With FormFlow, corners are clean and elegant – as shown at the Future Food System. Beyond those aesthetic gains, it also offers improved structural strength, as well as environmental benefits, with the airtight seal delivering greater insulation.

“It’s particularly good in things like bushfire-prone areas,” Dingle adds. “It can prevent things like ember attacks, where embers make their way into the building envelope through gaps in the structure. And in traditional building methods, there’s nearly always gaps in the structure. With our system you don’t get anything.”

Today FormFlow employs 15 staff with an additional cohort of interns and students. Initially based at the ManuFutures manufacturing innovation hub on Deakin’s Waurn Ponds campus, the company moved to a 1,300sqm site in North Shore last August.

While the FormFlow Bend remains the core of the business, Dingle and Weiss haven’t stood still. From the original 90-degree bend and the technology to produce it, the team have gone on to develop ways to produce other bends in corrugated sheet, as well as technologies that add value to it; it is currently working on a laser measuring system for quality inspection.

Finally, FormFlow has moved into prefabricated construction with a building system that brings all these innovations together, while also delivering energy efficiency and eco-friendly construction.

“We’re working on a building system which, with steel as the base material, maximises the environmental benefits,” Dingle explains. “It’s all about reuse and recycling, and also being able to use recycled content in our base materials.

“The FormFlow Bend is a world first; there’s nobody else in the world doing that. The building system may not be as revolutionary, but I think we’re taking a unique approach to it.”

The company is initially focusing on the residential market, with a range of modular designs that allow high levels of flexibility for customers. In addition, it recently participated in a project to develop emergency shelters for people impacted by natural disasters. This also represents a promising option for mass isolation facilities – an area with considerable potential following recent breaches in the COVID-19 hotel quarantine program.

Alongside its innovative products, FormFlow is bringing fresh thinking to the ways it operates. The company is applying the latest practices in advanced manufacturing. Having worked with the Advanced Manufacturing Growth Centre (AMGC) early in its development, it recently entered a collaboration with the Innovative Manufacturing CRC (IMCRC) to establish an Industry 4.0-enabled manufacturing cell to enable high-volume production of its building products.

“We’re starting down that journey now,” says Dingle. “It’s really about looking at how we can integrate elements of Industry 4.0 into what we do. That’s going to be enormously valuable for us over the next 12 months, particularly with some high-volume contracts on the horizon.”

FormFlow is also employing a smart strategy to bringing its products to market, seeking out industry partners to enter licensing agreements on everything from the basic bend to the prefab building system. Dingle describes its approach as a continuum: the team starts with an interesting idea, embarks on a development cycle from initial research through to a final product or process. Once confident it is commercially viable, the company will then look for licensing partners.

“We’ve done that with BlueScope Steel,” he says. “They have an exclusive license in Australia for the 90-degree bend, and as they come online we’ll offer them the new things first: a 60-degree bend, our laser measuring system, our building system. And if they don’t take them on, we’ll go somewhere else.”

FormFlow also works in close collaboration with all its licensing partners. Dingle describes how this works in the case of the building system: “We not only provide the design of a building, we provide all the systems and processes that support it, and we spend enough time with them to make sure it’s up and running properly.”

Collaboration is integral to FormFlow’s business. Given the founders’ backgrounds , the company retains close ties with Deakin. Weiss still leads the university’s Roll Forming Research Group, and FormFlow employs several research fellows and internship students from Deakin. In the last two years, the company has been running a program at Deakin’s school of architecture, which has also resulted in a significant contract for the company.

Austeng is also a key partner. The company has a long track record of working with inventors, startups and universities to help develop bespoke machinery. For Dingle, their expertise has been invaluable: “It’s really helpful having somebody just around the corner helping us develop machines, with that capability to turn the ideas into a tangible, workable machine solution.”

Whether it’s with industry partners like Austeng or Bluescope, universities like Deakin, or organisations such the AMGC or the IMCRC, Dingle believes collaboration is vital for innovative manufacturing businesses like his.

“I think we get a bit hung up on intellectual property (IP) as being strategically important. We kind of miss the point. It’s our ability to develop the IP that’s critical. Once we’ve got a clever idea we spend too much time trying to defend it, whereas the strategic advantage is our ability to keep generating new ideas. The more you have these effective collaborations, the more you enhance your ability to do that.”

In terms of plans going forward, the immediate future for FormFlow already looks hectic. For starters, having only just settled into its new factory a few months ago, the company could soon be looking for even larger premises – a move possibly triggered by a significant contract.

“At the moment that looks like it might happen this year, so this site is definitely a transition,” says Dingle. “It won’t be our final home.”

In the longer term, the aim is for FormFlow is to retain the core of its business in Geelong, while extending its influence around Australia and even overseas through licensing partnerships, and maintain an emphasis on continued innovation.

“We’re really focused on trying to have these two arms of the business, the R&D side and the production side, both generating revenues independently, without compromising one or the other. We’ve got other ideas based around the mathematical theory we use for that bend, which would enable us to do things that nobody’s ever seen before.”