Even as far back as the mid-late nineteenth century, Geelong was forging its reputation as a leading Australian industrial centre. Until the last decade, it had been home to majors like the Ford Motor Company, Shell and Alcoa, contributing to its longstanding heritage in manufacturing.
While the closure of the Ford Plant and Alcoa Point Henry smelter hastened Geelong’s move away from traditional manufacturing, in its place is a rapidly emerging, advanced manufacturing hub.
David Buchanan, the Chief Executive Officer of Advanced Fibre Cluster, explains that Geelong’s transformation from an automotive-centric manufacturing centre to one focused on advanced materials and composites is gaining momentum.
“Geelong’s transition was cemented when Deakin University, the City of Geelong and the Victorian Government established Carbon Nexus in 2014. It’s the only carbon fibre research and manufacturing facility of its kind in the Southern hemisphere,” David says.
Carbon Nexus is a purpose-built research facility designed to accommodate the diverse needs of international manufacturing organisations that require the cost-effective resolution of carbon fibre-related projects that are strategic and complex.
According to David, with the support of Deakin University, Geelong has developed a high-end capability in materials, artificial intelligence, and robotics. This has attracted major manufacturers and collaborators, from Boeing, Thales and Vestas.
This also means Geelong is well placed to meet demand for carbon fibre composites in the offshore wind and defence sectors. “We have a window of opportunity where the labour government is focused on jobs, sustainability and renewables, and that plays into our core capabilities,” David says.
Commercialising home-grown innovation
David says that the Carbon Nexus initiative has brought researchers, government, and industry together to establish Geelong as a centre of excellence in carbon fibre. He views this, and the deep local talent pool, as a key driver of a manufacturing renaissance.
"There's a number of Deakin Uni PhD students that have already gone on to establish thriving businesses. One that is garnering attention is Carbon Revolution, which has developed the only carbon fibre wheel," David says.
According to David, start-up companies incubated at Deakin's facility have support from the University through research programs and a "real-world commercial capability to develop new products".
"It's the collaboration between the university, government and businesses driving these real-world solutions," he says.
"With the closure of Ford’s plant, you also had a lot of experienced engineers suddenly out of work. Now you regularly see former Ford engineers working in senior roles within companies started from Deakin's facility."
In his role at Advanced Fibre Cluster, David is intent on promoting this cutting-edge innovation in advanced manufacturing and materials locally and globally. This includes working with Deakin to advance “what’s emerging in 3D composite manufacturing and uses of advanced fibres and carbon fibre in recycling and sustainability.”
Seizing on Geelong’s advantages
Many manufacturing centres around Australia, from Port Kembla to Gladstone and Kwinana, have a specialised focus. As CommBank’s Mining and Energy Economist, Vivek Dhar, points out, “identifying where the advantage lies and picking your niche can help lay the groundwork for a sustainable manufacturing centre”.
For Geelong, there is currently a study proposal being developed by the Victorian Government and ICN Networks to establish a vertical supply chain for the offshore wind sector . This could involve the production of carbon fibre-based wind tower blades and shipping via Geelong’s seaport.
“You need really large areas to make really large blades that need to be loaded onto break bulk ships,” says David. “Geelong has the deep knowledge of carbon fibre, and businesses like Sykes Rowing that specialise in fibreglass, and carbon fibre components, which is what the blades are made from”.
In fact, GeelongPort has released plans for developing up to 25 hectares of land for a wind farm hub to support Victoria's growing renewables industry. The precinct will provide specialised facilities for berthing, laying down, and building equipment for onshore and offshore wind farm projects.
David says that servicing the defence sector also presents significant opportunities. “Defence plays into Geelong’s advanced materials capabilities, for example, the light-weighting of hydrogen tanks, carbon fibre airframes, both simple examples that in future will allow drones to fly further on missions”. Geelong already has manufacturing company Quickstep , who are a leading manufacturer in the Drone industry. Geelong needs to continue to focus on developing expertise and skills to support this market segment.
The application of Geelong’s innovation in the defence sector is already attracting prominent global players. In early 2022, South Korean company Hanwha chose to build its state-of-the-art armoured vehicle centre of excellence at Avalon Airport in Greater Geelong.
Clearer pathways for innovators
The renaissance of manufacturing in Geelong will only continue to flourish with clear access to government funding support and programs. As Vivek says, the overall allocation of funding for the sector is positive. However, building an understanding of the suitability of programs will enable more benefits to flow through.
David agrees that navigating government grants can be complex and that simplifying the process can open doors for manufacturers, particularly those transitioning from the R&D to the commercial stage.
He adds that it is also essential to continue attracting major international players to Geelong to help expand the sector’s presence, supply chains and infrastructure.
“Alongside the many successful and passionate emerging businesses and our talented workforce, having more blue-chip prime players can help us build on our advantages over the next three to five years,” David says.