Dr Keith McLean is the Director of CSIRO Manufacturing, formerly the CSIRO’s Manufacturing Flagship. He spoke to William Poole.

AMT: Tell us about CSIRO Manufacturing and the sorts of activities it’s engaged in.

Keith McLean: We’re a business of about 430 staff with a range of skills and backgrounds. We have a really diverse capability that stretches from molecular engineering through to organic chemistry, to materials-processing to additive manufacturing to modelling. It’s a diverse skill-set that we bring together as a mission-directed organisation, to tackle problems for our customers, partners and collaborators.

Our focus here is on manufacturing, but of course manufacturing is a huge and diverse industry. We have a major program in biomedical manufacturing, from small molecule drug development, to materials for implantable devices and for growing stem cells. We have a program on Industrial Innovation, doing prototyping for a range of industries including for energy, rail and defence, a key potential growth area for the country.

The chemicals and fibre manufacturing group are developing chemical and fibre processing capabilities for industrial, environmental, agricultural and energy applications. In the carbon-fibre space we are working closely with Deakin University and industry partners, using our skills in polymer synthesis and fibre processing.

We also have a program in High-Performance Metal Industries, where our metals processing and additive manufacturing work is done. We’re working with companies to develop processes for taking ores and making them into titanium or titanium alloys, and using them as feedstock for additive manufacturing – going “from ore to more” as our buzz-phrase puts it. We have just opened a new facility here a few weeks ago called Lab 22, which is an additive manufacturing capability that’s got about $6m worth of new infrastructure. We’re working with many local companies to help them understand how this technology might help their business. We also want to help build skills, because as manufacturing changes, one of the great issues is having the skills needed to do high-tech manufacturing in high value-added areas. We’re very much about high-tech manufacture in areas where we have expertise and can add value.

We also supply capabilities into other parts of the CSIRO. We are taking our materials capability here and applying it in our Minerals Business Unit or in our Agriculture Unit where we are working on materials to improve water retention in soils, or degradable materials for use in, for example, water retention.


AMT: CSIRO recently announced its masterplan to promote growth through innovation. What does that entail?

KM: The key point of the strategy is for CSIRO to act as a key catalyst in accelerating innovation in the country. One key point of the strategy is “customer first” and for us to understand the needs of our customers and to help their business. Scientists, in general, have a track record of saying “Look at this fantastic technology”, and those on the outside saying “Yes it’s great, but we don’t need that”. This is not just to blame scientists, there’s been a lack of co-ordination and communication from both sides; some industries don’t understand science and where it can help them. As a country we need to work better between business and research.

So in our business unit there’s much more focus on how we work with industry and particularly SMEs. We’ve been sending some of our people out into local technology-intensive SMEs and looking at their problems, and having them come back and do a reciprocal visit here where we try and match them up with skills they might need. It’s not a quick process, but has started to generate projects for us working with local companies. And we’re very keen to do that, because from my point of view, the key thing for CSIRO to do is help companies create opportunities and to create the new industries that will foster growth and high-tech jobs.


AMT: AMTIL recently enjoyed a tour of Lab 22 and I was struck by the emphasis on creating industry access, and making this technology available for companies. How important is that?

KM: It’s very important, as another key message in CSIRO’s new strategy is to act as a connector. We want to use facilities such as Lab 22 as a connection point, as places where we hold events and can connect with companies. They may not actually use the additive manufacturing capabilities in Lab 22, but when you bring them in and show them what we’ve got, at least they’ve started to understand what CSIRO might do for them and they have a connection. Then if they have a requirement at some point they might think “Maybe those guys at CSIRO can help us”, at least they’ve seen inside and have some idea what’s available.

We also help them through our SME engagement office to get access to grants and so on. I think it’s really important that we do that. Another facet of our engagement is that we have strategic relationships with global multi-national corporations. For example, we have a 25-year record of working with Boeing. We’ve won awards from within Boeing for how we’ve worked with them. I guess between us we’ve spent $130m in that relationship. We’ve got jointly developed technology that’s now incorporated in Boeing aircraft. Having links with the Boeings or the GEs of this world, we can then potentially put our smaller company connections here in touch with global supply chains.

That’s something we’re increasingly mindful of. We want to see ourselves as a connector. Our scientists want to do work that makes a difference to Australian businesses. That to me is the main reason we’re here. It could be helping a company with a small problem or a large problem, it could be that we develop our own technology and spin it out. In this part of the organisation over the last 15-20 years, we have spun out and licensed a number of technologies .

And we’ve got to make opportunities for the people coming up behind us. Australia has an almost unique problem in that in Europe or the US, something like 70% of people with PhDs go into industry; only a small percentage goes into academic or research institutions. It’s the opposite here. We need to help generate future jobs and actually get young scientists and engineers working in companies and creating that wealth for the future.

Our new CEO Dr Larry Marshall is a venture capitalist who spent 25 years in Silicon Valley, so he has a real passion and drive to make CSIRO different. Australia is around tenth in the world for investment in R&D, but 81st for efficiency of translating that into outputs, and he wants to see Australia moved up that table. As a country, we’ve got to do things smarter.


AMT: And how is that being put into practice?

KM: Certainly from the research side of things, I see a change in the conversations we have with universities. It’s much more open. We’re speaking about working together, about approaching industry together. How do we engage better with industry? How do we be more entrepreneurial? How do we help businesses, and not just from a technical and scientific/engineering point of view? What business models can we use to make life easier for them?

We’ve done a number of deals recently where we’ve costed a project and it’s a young company with not much in the way of cash, so we’ve been innovative and taken equity instead for the work we’ve done with them. The deals have been structured to maximise their R&D tax concession, so while they may ultimately have to pay us, they get a fair proportion back. Those kind of things are important – you’ve got to work out ways to help companies grow.

And we’ve got a lot of infrastructure that they may need. In the materials space we’ve got a high-throughput robotic facility that can make libraries of material overnight, rather than one person slaving away doing a synthesis that may take a week. We’re building a new suite of clean rooms with equipment for making materials and devices for the biomedical industry – about 16 companies committed to help us do that, the same sort of model as Lab 22. Those are the kinds of things we want to make available. How do you build a scientific infrastructure that customers want and do that in partnership with them, and then do projects that are actually meaningful to them?


AMT: What can you tell us about CSIRO’s involvement in the Additive Manufacturing Growth Centre the Innovative Manufacturing CRC?

KM: With the Growth Centre, the Federal Government expects CSIRO to have a major role in moving it forward. We’re well into discussions with its chairman Andrew Stevens – he’s visited us, I’ve interacted with him a lot in terms of what CSIRO can bring. We’ve seen the model that Andrew wants to use, he wants it very much driven by industry, and CSIRO is absolutely 100% behind that. Really we just want to make what we have here available in the best possible way for Growth Centre members. And from a manufacturing point of view, CSIRO has some involvement in all five Industry Growth Centres. This business unit has capability that could be applied to them all as well. We want to make them work.

We’re also involved with the IM CRC, in a couple of the programs. One will be mainly driven from our Digital Productivity business unit, around automation and robotics. And we have some involvement in the 3D printing area. There are meetings going on as to exactly how that’s going to look, and there has to be a connection between that CRC and the Growth Centre. It’s still a work in progress.

We think they’re both important. Again, it’s about what you’re delivering for your customers in those entities. How can we best help? That’s our attitude.


AMT: What’s your background and how did you find your way to CSIRO?

KM: I’m originally a micro-biologist, would you believe? I worked on problems in the oil industry caused by bacteria. Certain organisms can grow in oil reservoirs, causing souring of oil, and on pipeline walls, causing fouling and corrosion. After my PhD I joined a consultancy in Aberdeen (Scotland) and worked in the oil industry for a while. I then decided to get back into research, so I did a couple of post-doc research jobs around that problem of microbial corrosion: in Aberdeen for the oil business, and then in New Zealand in a geo-thermal power station.

I came to CSIRO in 1989 and worked in industrial biotech for a while. In the mid-90s there was an internal call from a project in the bio-medical space looking for a scientist to join their team developing materials for implanting in the body and they needed properties that allowed them to modulate biological responses to those materials. While it wasn’t exactly my expertise I knew enough. I volunteered, and basically changed my scientific direction completely, working in surface chemistry, modification of materials – initially mainly for implanting in the eye. After that I started to jump my way up till I was leading the biomedical materials area in CSIRO. I ran that until last year, when I got kicked up to this job.

It’s been an interesting ride, and it demonstrates that science now is not just about being locked in one specialty for life. I now say to people I don’t remember much about my original training, but I know enough surface chemistry, enough polymer chemistry, enough bio-medical materials chemistry to be dangerous. It’s great to have that breadth. It’s interesting to get to a point where your Mum says “How come you work for something called ‘Manufacturing’ when you did things with bacteria?”


AMT: What might a typical day involve?

KM: My job is about making connections and making sure CSIRO is connected, making sure we can add value. A lot is about being out and interfacing with our customers, and with bodies we interact with – I sit on a number of boards and advisory committees. It’s also about trying to generate income for CSIRO, making sure we have the external revenue we need – this year we’ve got to raise about $35m. There’s a lot of internal stuff, managing budgets, trying to grow our people. It’s about making sure we deliver to our political masters as well – they’re our biggest customer really. And it’s about making sure we’re scientifically relevant, training young people, growing the new capabilities that we’ll need.

I’ve got a tremendously multifaceted job, I have to say. I’ve been in CSIRO for 26 years and I wear my commitment to this organisation on my sleeve. While the organisation has its critics, it does, in my opinion, a terrific job.