As CEO of the Australian Manufacturing Technology Institute Limited (AMTIL), Shane Infanti is the Publisher of AMT magazine, and the Exhibition Director of Austech. He spoke to William Poole.

AMT: Let’s start with Austech – what can visitors expect this year?

Shane Infanti: What we’re very pleased about with Austech this year, is the presence of all of the major machine tool dealers, and that’s the first time for a long time that we’ve had every one present. And in talking to those companies, what they’re anticipating on bringing out from a technology point of view is potentially equipment that hasn’t been seen in the country before, so that’s been pleasing.

AMT: Do you think that’s indicative of a renewed confidence in the market here and in Australian manufacturing in general?

SI: For Austech it’s more based on the decision we took to go to a two-year cycle. Technology suppliers recognise that Austech is still the major means for them to promote their technology out to the industry. Major shows are still a good way of getting the message out to potential customers.

AMT: The decision to hold Austech every two years rather than annually: it was obviously a big move.

SI: It was. And it was primarily driven by our members. The Sydney show was not an unsuccessful show, so from that point of view, it wasn’t a huge driving force to change. It was purely based on exhibitor feedback: that a show of this type is really only warranted every two years. The rate of technological change doesn’t advance that much. There’s lower levels of investment in technology over the last five years compared to 10 or 15 years ago. So the return on investment for doing the show really only warrants it being every couple of years. And when you look around the world, most of the major machine tool and manufacturing technology shows are on two-year cycles, so it makes sense to fit into that schedule.

AMT: Was it a controversial move?

SI: When you make a decision like that, you’re always going to have people who are going to like it and people who aren’t going to like it. We certainly had that feedback from AMTIL members, that some would prefer to do a show every year. I suppose the advantage for us is that in every off-year in which Austech doesn’t run, NMW still runs in Sydney, so there’s always an opportunity for those people who want to exhibit at a show every year; they can still have a presence in Sydney in the off-year to Austech. There’s not a strong machine tool presence at that show, but for those who wish to do it, there is a chance to.

So was it a controversial decision? No, I don’t think so. I think we certainly did the due-diligence on surveying the members. We had focus groups that we discussed it with at length, we went all the way through the ramifications of what the decision would entail, and generally speaking, the bulk of the membership is happy with the move.

AMT: Moving on from Austech, what can you tell us about AMTIL’s current plans in other areas going forward?

SI: There’s some interesting developments. We’ve just recently been recontracted by the Federal Government to continue our involvement with the Entrepreneurs’ Infrastructure Programme (EIP) and we’re very pleased with that. We’ve been strong advocates of the Programme over a long period of time, we believe in the Programme and the benefit to Australian businesses. So we’re very pleased to continue that engagement. And we’ve now got nine Advisors and Facilitators around the country to assist in the delivery of the EIP. So that’s pleasing.

And that continues our engagement with the Federal Government and has led to the Board being very focused on a position paper that will identify the industry issues that are affecting our sector. A strong AMTIL stance will eventually lead to further liaison and lobbying of government at both state and federal levels to see some policy changes that are going to address those issues.

The other things that AMTIL is focused on are how we further engage with our members in areas where they need assistance. And they’re predominantly around networking, business opportunities and knowledge, so we’re very focused on those three areas.

Networking, for example: one of the key areas we’re focused on with networking is to make sure that we have a number of good functions around the country, given that we’re a national association. We need to make sure we have good activities in each state. That’s challenging at times: to be able to do that. But trying to find the right solutions for how that will work in all states is something that we are focused on.

On business opportunities, we’ve got a regular Hotspot email that is sent out that is trying to focus on where business opportunities are that our members can take up. In addition, we’re working very closely with other organisations like the Industry Capability Network to identify supply chain opportunities and how we can tap SMEs into those value chains. That’s going to be a strong focus over the coming year or two. And knowledge: we’re just right at the moment going through another revamp of our data collection and statistical analysis and looking at how we can present that information back to the members so that provides real benefit to them.

AMT: The return of the Manufacturers Pavilion at this year’s Austech seems to tie in very much with the aim to address those issues.

SI: I think in terms of Manufacturers Pavilion, again, it comes back to one of the focus areas we’ve got on how we help manufacturers integrate into supply chains. Traditionally Australian manufacturers aren’t good at marketing themselves. They’re very good at what they do, but traditionally marketing is not a strong point. A lot of what we do and a lot of the initiatives AMTIL has are around helping companies to promote their capabilities and market themselves. The Manufacturers Pavilion is just another way in which we can give a focus to our manufacturing companies and hopefully assist them in developing supply chains with OEMs and international Prime contractors.

AMT: AMTIL is a partner in the Additive Manufacturing Network, and a large area of Austech is devoted to the Digital & Additive Manufacturing Pavilion. How important is that focus on additive?

SI: I think it’s important, but it needs to be kept in perspective. It’s important that we look at new technologies and how they’re going to impact on the future of manufacturing in this country. Additive manufacturing is not necessarily a new technology, but something that a lot of companies are now realising is not just a prototyping technique, but can be used in a production sense. And how we can incorporate that into existing manufacturing processes is something that needs to be investigated.

But I think it certainly needs to be kept in perspective that in the long term, I would expect it may only be as little as 5% of traditional technology techniques that are replaced by additive. So whilst it’s a bit of a buzz-word, we just need to be mindful that the traditional techniques of subtractive manufacturing will continue to be the bulk of our manufacturing industry.

AMT: Does the fact that additive techniques may be more applicable to short-run, high-value-add manufacturing rather than mass production make them particularly applicable in Australia and the industry here?

SI: That’s right. And that’s certainly where a lot of people see that the opportunities are going to lie, in that customised low-volume, high-design area. And there are certain industry sectors that lend itself to that more than others, like medical for example. Obviously with highly customised parts that can be manufactured very quickly with intricate design, that’s probably more of an attractive opportunity than, for example, defence. But we have to remember that additive technology has the benefit of reducing weight and providing structures that you can’t provide with subtractive means. So there will be opportunities in all sectors I think.

AMT: What do you think the preparations for this year’s Austech have revealed about the current state of manufacturing in Australia?

SI: The major issue that we face at the moment in this country, and that we see particularly on behalf of our members, is the lack of investment in new technology. And if we don’t continue to invest in new technology, we’re going to fall further and further behind on the global stage. That’s the major challenge facing us at the moment: how we do encourage and incentivise Australian businesses to invest in new technology, given that the outlook for a lot of those businesses is not so optimistic? So that is going to be the challenge. What we’ve seen over the past six years has been investment levels and business confidence dropping, and we’ve got to look at how we can get that back to levels that we had 10 years ago.

AMT: What would you say the government can be doing to help?

SI: There certainly needs to be some government initiatives to encourage investment and even just over the past 12-18 months we’ve seen some programs like the Next Generation program, which was co-funded between state and federal levels, and some investment in manufacturing technology programs. And they’ve been good, but they’ve come and gone and that’s just not enough. We need to have some sustainable longer-term incentive programs, like an accelerated depreciation program that may go over the next five years. And that needs to be on a federal basis and it needs to be a longer-term vision. Again, that’s certainly one of the issues that our Board is focused on and how we can help address that with our Federal Government.

AMT: You’ve been running Austech at AMTIL for a few years now. How has the industry changed in that time?

SI: It’s certainly got harder and that’s reflected obviously by the level of manufacturing as a percentage of our GDP. I think when I first started in 1999 with AMTIL, it was round about the level of 13% of GDP, and at the moment we’re down around 7% or even less. But whilst as a percentage, we seem to have decreased quite significantly, obviously our GDP has increased, so in real terms, our manufacturing sector is not much smaller than it was in 1999.

But it certainly has changed. We’ve seen a lot of businesses that have gone to higher-tech – the ones that have been successful have made investments and have automated so we’ve seen more introduction of robotics and machines that are focused more on getting the parts in and out of the machine quicker, and spindle speeds on the machines have increased.

So we’ve seen a lot of productivity increases over the years, but as I said earlier, that needs to go now to another level. We’ve just got to continue to look at that.