NMW and Austech chart a revival in Australian machine tool manufacturing

Analysis by Peter Roberts

No country can hope to have a sustainable manufacturing sector without the ability to make its own industrial machines, and Australia is no exception.

Australia’s premier manufacturing and machine tools exhibitions kicked off in Melbourne today, demonstrating renewed vitality in Australian made equipment.

Austech, the leading advanced manufacturing and machine tool exhibition, is 20 per cent larger this year, with machines from more than 30 Australian manufacturers featured.

Co-located National Manufacturing Week has a similar Australian exhibitor flavour.

As @AuManufacturing News’ editor, I chaired a CEO roundtable to discuss the trials and triumphs faced by local machinery makers.

Leaders of cutting tool company ANCA, global packaging equipment star TNA Solutions, high-speed metal 3D printer maker SPEE3D and manufacturing systems house ADDE were in full flight in the Industry 4.0 Theatre.

Grant Anderson, a former Group CEO of ANCA, talked about the importance in globalisation of establishing after sales and support services in overseas markets.

Alf Taylor, founder with wife Nadia of TNA, emphasised the importance of protecting your intellectual property – TNA once spent $6 million defending part of its’ extensive patent portfolio.

Byron Kennedy, founder of SPEE3D, identified availability of finance as an impediment to succeeding from Australia.

And Barry Hendy, managing director of ADDE had some advice for Australian companies seeking to automate – don’t just begin automating, first fully understand your product, processes and people.

While three of the companies have enjoyed success, SPEE3D is setting out on the journey at a time when business has never moved as rapidly, and in a super-competitive sector.

There have been several high points, and as many lows, in Australia’s machine tool manufacturing history.

Prior to WW2 the government set up a number of manufacturing nodes, including plants to make machine tools, which were ready to expand in the lead up to conflict.

Later these firms and the skills they nurtured were critical to Australia’s rapid post-war industrialisation.

But the cuts to industry protection, the stop-start nature of orders and our small market saw many machine tool makers fail.

Companies such as John Heine, whose presses and cutting equipment could once be seen in seemingly every factory, shrunk, and today is reduced to a metal casting business.

The 1980s and 1990s saw a revival with changing technologies allowing the truly innovative to prosper.

Similarly a more recent revival has come as industry 4.0 and technologies such as 3D printing change the face of manufacturing.

But I shouldn’t get carried away – Australian machinery manufacturers were swamped in today’s event by a massive overseas presence.

And today there is little government focus on machine tools, and a comparative dirth of skilled young people eager to get into the sector.

It will be a tough road ahead for young companies like SPEE3D.

Picture: David Chuter: Peter Roberts introduces (seated from left to right) Grant Anderson, Byron Kennedy, Alf Taylor and Barry Hendy

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