A message from Jens Goennemann

The magic happens when industry and research come together successfully. Deservedly, the topic is back in fashion in Australia.

Coincidentally, I recently left the country to mainly witness international examples of this magic just as the federal government released its University Research Commercialisation Action Plan, but that’s by the by.

My first stop was at an outpost of the Fraunhofer HQ near Cologne. The Fraunhofer Society is of course a world-leading collection of 76 applied research centres in Germany dating back to 1949. I cannot overemphasise the word ‘applied’.

Each of these 76 centres is themed around a specific technical subject area (a vertical), though the entire network shares nine priority themes, not too dissimilar to our six National Manufacturing Priorities. Each priority area cuts horizontally and ties in the research verticals when and where useful. There are over 30,000 employees in total, mostly employed as scientists and engineers, and mostly occupied by work with commercial applicability.

About 85 per cent of the 2.9 billion Euro annual research budget is from contract research: a third from state and federal governments as base funding, a third from competitive public funding, and a third from industry. On top there’s half a billion Euro of “cement gold” creating and sustaining the infrastructure for the Fraunhofer approach that the entire nation believes and invests in for almost three quarters of a century.

While solving industrially relevant problems is what Fraunhofer is known for, the head of every research centre is also a C4-level professor, and therefore an academic domain expert.

Appreciation of everything on the spectrum between blue sky and marketplace is in the network’s DNA. It is named for physicist Joseph von Fraunhofer, whose career spanned remarkable achievements in discovery, invention, and industrialisation or, in other words, all along the Technology Readiness Levels from 1 to 9.

Any good invention is worth borrowing from. A few years ago, we wanted AMGC to follow Fraunhofer’s approach for applied research. What was new to me was to learn from the UK’s Catapult Network that their aim was to replicate Fraunhofer, for example in their “thirds” model for funding.

The first Catapult was opened in 2011 and themed around High Value Manufacturing (HVM). Today, there are nine centres over 40 locations. According to the network’s count, runs on the board include 14,750 industry collaborations, 8,332 SMEs supported, and 5,108 academic collaborations between 2013 and 2020. The network represents a cumulative £1.3 billion worth of facilities under management.

I visited the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC) in Manchester and the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) in Sheffield, both part of the seven HVM Catapults.

There is sometimes a perception in Australia that “if you build it, they won’t come” with publicly funded facilities, and I have come across some buildings lacking a purposeful content inside since cement gold alone makes only a good announcement and not much more. But what I saw in the UK showed that if there is purpose, knowhow and commercially valuable problems to solve, then the investment isn’t squandered.

Companies want benefits from a lift in skills, knowledge, and competitiveness. McLaren’s demand at Sheffield for example is so high the place doesn’t have spare capacity.

I came back after seeing what I hoped to: examples of what good looks like, in terms of public research and private enterprise working together, and over a long period of time.

It takes time, commitment, and investment to make it work. It requires public trust, as some of the investment is public money. Each of the above programs is 73 and 11 years old, and either of those is a long time in politics, especially in Australia.

Most importantly, I came back realising that some of what we’ve done at AMGC in the last six years and together with our amazing network of nearly 4,000 manufacturing members pretty closely resembles what my old mates in Germany and the UK have done, but achieved here with a much smaller budget and on a certainly different scale.

Dare I hope that we jointly keep course to one day see international guests come and admire how Australian manufacturing has transformed a lucky country into a smart one.