The manufacturing sector has a longstanding reputation as leading innovation. A series of industrial revolutions has brought manufacturing to the forefront of economic productivity, and the latest, Industry 4.0, has broad-reaching implications. This refers to adopting emerging technologies to make processes, supply chains and resource utilisation more efficient.

For Australian manufacturers, digital transformation has stepped up and isn’t expected to slow. CommBank’s Manufacturing Insights Report, released in March 2022[1], shows that almost three in four manufacturers accelerated their technology investment due to the pandemic. A similar proportion expects it to rise further over the next six months.

According to the report, efficiency is a clear driver of technology adoption, and in particular, emerging technologies such as intelligent automation and machine learning are gaining popularity. Against a backdrop of persistent talent shortages their applications and benefits also come further into focus.

This was a key discussion topic at the recent CommBank Western Sydney Manufacturing Roundtable, where attendees highlighted the technologies and associated skills they are prioritising. From welding and joinery robots, upskilling staff to use advanced machinery and even just going paperless, there was a spectrum of digitally-led initiatives designed to optimise operations. 

Balancing productivity and quality

Manufacturers continue to focus on striking a balance between saving time and ensuring a quality output. Many manufacturers at the roundtable agreed that technological advances had improved precision in the production process but that it may not yet be a panacea.

The Manufacturing Insights Report showed that process control was the top area of technology investment, a priority for more than one in three manufacturers. While productivity featured as a key overall driver, Kuldeep Wahi, the CFO of Prestons-based Titus Tekform, points out that transforming processes can also deliver a superior outcome for customers.

“Our Titusonic technology, a wood welding process, makes assembly and joinery of kitchen cabinetry faster and more precise,” Kuldeep said. “It’s helping where tradespeople are impossible to find, but it’s also leading to near-perfect finishes in the edging of modular kitchens. It takes labour and time away, but it also took 10 years and significant investment to develop.”

Other manufacturers agreed that technology could help combat skills shortages and save time. Still, in some cases, there was a difference of opinion in its ability to deliver the desired quality. One manufacturer using robotic welders remarked that while it can reduce the process by hours, meeting or exceeding their quality standards still relied on the ‘human touch’.

Navigating the challenges

While the roundtable attendees well understood the benefits of technology, they noted prevailing headwinds in its adoption and implementation. Some of these mirrored the findings of the Manufacturing Insights report, including a lack of expertise and resources amid competing priorities.

Skills shortages were discussed as an industry-wide issue, but specific expertise in new technology areas was more acute for some manufacturers. The ability to find engineers, CNC machinery operators and robotics specialists, among others, was noted as particularly difficult. Some strategies being employed were covered in the first piece in this series.

Another common challenge was accommodating new technology and equipment within the physical facility. This typically requires larger factories and associated overheads, which aren’t always readily available.  

This was the case for another attendee, “the industry will experience massive change over the next two years, and we are focused on opportunities for increased automation. However, to introduce new technology and machinery, you need more space and to think differently about traditional configurations of the factory.”

Having discussed the opportunities and challenges of technology, manufacturers at the roundtable agreed that digital innovation was crucial to enhancing their operations.

And Australia has an established reputation as a leader in this area. Indeed, the Manufacturing Insights Report showing that manufacturers generally rate their capability on par or better than their global counterparts. As new strategies help alleviate some of the challenges, this should make Australian manufacturers even more competitive on the global stage.