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30 July 2014

Have Aussies forgotten how to make things?


If you're anything like me, you enjoy a weekend trip to Bunnings. Today there are more things to buy than ever, for less than when our fathers took us to the local hardware decades ago. Where once tools and taps and barrows and bolts were manufactured in Australia, most of this stuff is made in China.

Most of us would agree Australia's manufacturing sector has been destroyed by cheap Chinese imports. What hope is there for Australian made? With the help of some lateral thinking, maybe more than most think.

The end of the made in China boom?

Robert Gottliebsen reports China's remarkable gains in productivity and standards of living were all achieved with borrowed capital and technology. Alan Greenspan points out that no Chinese companies feature on the annual lists of the world's most innovative companies -- nearly half of those lists are made up of American companies. This is leading to a narrowing productivity gap between China and the US, which is putting serious pressure on the Chinese economy.

That's right, don't underestimate the power of first world creative thinking when matched against the cheap cost of third world manual labour. Here are a couple of examples from my dealings over the last year.

Australia leads the world in compression fabric design

Jogging.jpgI remember twenty years ago most Australian clothing manufacturers closed their local factories and set up workshops in Fiji where labour was cheap. Now most clothes sold here, even in stores like Zara, are made in China or Pakistan by one suspects slave labour. Yet in some areas of fashion we continue to lead the world.

Our client Quick Response is a local family business of almost 20 years who are still designing and making swimwear and compression garments locally. What's more, they manufacture using Australian made fabric.

In fact Australian compression fabric is the most technologically advanced in the world. It's the result of research and innovation that over the years has been tried and tested by our champion swimmers in those body hugging suits.

UNO have built an e-commerce site so you can buy the world's-best QRS compression garments direct, for less than sports brands that are usually made in China and Indonesian from inferior fabric.

Still open: a local manufacturer of timber shutters

Thirteen years ago Open Shutters was one of UNO's foundation clients. While cheap Chinese shutters have decimated most local manufacturers, Open continue to do business by concentrating on innovation. An obsession with quality design, investing in advanced machinery and only using sustainable timbers continues set them apart.

While white paint may disguise the compromises of Chinese made shutters in the short term, having been in the market now for several years they are proving to peel, bow, crack and break. The fact Open's product is built to last sees them gaining repeat sales over two decades on. What really makes the biggest difference is the way Open think: installation.png

What truly lifts them to the top of their category in the world is the design thinking process they apply in everything they do. When suppliers tell local architects or designers their ideas aren't possible, Open finds a creative way to deliver.

Could robots save Australian manufacturing

If you still doubt the power of creative thinking over cheap labour, consider this. Last year McKinsey released a list of the things that would change the business world. Near the top of the list was advanced robotics: robots with better and better senses, dexterity and intelligence that can automate tasks or help humans or even operate on us more effectively than... humans.

To quote the numbers:
• 170%: growth in sales of industrial robots 2009-2011,
• 320 million: manufacturing workers (12% of global workforce), and
• $2-3 million: cost of the 250 million annual major surgeries.

Here's what robots could do:
"Advances could make it practical to substitute robots for human labor in more manufacturing tasks, as well as in a growing number of service jobs, such as cleaning and maintenance. This technology could also enable new types of surgical robots."

Closer to home, when I underwent keyhole surgery a few months back, I could have chosen to be operated on by a robot designed in the US for remote controlled surgery on the battlefield. My gap cover wasn't enough to cover the extra cost, but the cost gap will quickly close. It's another reminder the changes in our lives will more likely be shaped by innovation than the global oversupply of cheap labour.

If you are a manufacturer the message is clear, forget cost cutting, start thinking and get marketing.

Read more on how to rethink your business.

Glenn | Tags: challenger brands innovation manufacturing Australian made

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