“Manufacturing is dead in Australia?” We don’t think so

“Manufacturing is dead in Australia?” We don’t think so

John Sheridan, CEO at Digital Business insights.
When we asked people across our industry networks two years ago, “Is manufacturing dead?” the answer was resoundingly “No.”

But it is in transition.

It is not just manufacturing that is changing. All our industries are being disrupted to a greater or lesser extent. And that is intimidating for many.

The digital revolution continues to disrupt, largely in ways that are ill understood by politicians. Industry sectors are impacted and transformed. Jobs disappear daily. And nobody knows who to blame. Internet. Email, The World Wide Web. Google. Multiple apps and devices. Take your pick.

The use of connected wisdom and insights (joined up thinking) to manage the disruptive change is absent without leave. Governments and businesses postpone action and wait and see. And “Leadership?” is a cry for help from populations across the planet.

This is no time for dickering around. Another year has almost gone.

The political news side-show alley in the US, Europe and Asia is super sticky and attractive day by day, but really just a shell game hiding the deep and fundamental issues of digital change that are a million times more disruptive than presidents and brexits could ever be.

And to address that we need strategic and thoughtful action, not side-shows.

We have to recognise and then understand what is changing and then do what we can about it. Which surprisingly is rather a lot.

Because with the shift of power from vendor to customer, old world to new world, and “command and control” to collaboration, most useful action is now starting at the grass roots. Born of frustration. But also born from the recognition of the positive power of network connection and collaboration.

Two years ago there were a number of comments from ministers in Canberra about the state of manufacturing in Australia. “Mining is contracting. Manufacturing is dead? We are becoming a services economy.”

The comments were provocative and caused vehement disagreement on a variety of manufacturing Linkedin groups.

“Manufacturing dead in Australia? Nonsense. What about…”

And a long list of successful manufacturers, alive and well across Australia was posted…with example following example. It was a bit like the Monty Python joke, “What have the Romans ever done for us?”

The list of leading manufacturers grew longer every day and over time and through other networks, I made a note of them all. All 5,000. Capturing the wisdom of crowds.

And it got me thinking.

It was obvious that Linkedin members across Australia knew different parts of the manufacturing success story, but the national press was promoting a very different and depressing message.

And that message was hitting home in schools and homes across the country negatively. “There’s no future in manufacturing…you should study (insert a safe career option here). Not that there are any of course.

So to counter the ignorance, negativity and bad news stories, it was obvious that we needed to showcase the best of Australian manufacturing industry publicly.

Once again in discussion with Linkedin members, the Taiwan Trade portal was suggested as the leading example of how to showcase a country’s best.

So we copied it. But populated our version with the 5,000 Australian manufacturers in the database, creating a national manufacturing showcase.

Creating one place for visitors from New York, Shanghai, Delhi, Jakarta, London or Seoul. To save them from having to work their way through hundreds of directories trying to find what they want in Australia.

See the showcase – http://manufacturing.digitaltoolbox.org

And through the wonders of Google spiders…the showcase started getting visits from all over the world, especially from China, Japan, India, Hong Kong, USA, UK, Indonesia and Canada, and 60 other countries worldwide. With some visitors spending hours on the showcase looking at mining machinery or agricultural machinery or whatever.

And it became clear, from talking to associations, regions, export agencies and Linkedin groups that we could and should promote our manufacturers not just within Australia, but selectively to markets across the world because each overseas market is interested in something different.

So we developed a variety of export “shop windows” for each of these markets starting with Taiwan. And more on the way.

Then a strange and unexpected thing happened.

When we demonstrated the toolbox to councils, RDAs and state government departments, they quickly understood how it worked, but then had their own ideas about what it might do.


“If you can showcase manufacturers to overseas markets, then surely you can showcase manufacturing solutions to industry sectors and regions in Australia?”


“If you can showcase Australian manufacturers in this way, then could you showcase central Queensland manufacturers and engineers to the oil and gas producers in the Galilee basin?”


If you can showcase Australian manufacturers nationally, then you could showcase our local and regional manufacturers to markets that the Mayor has visited recently, couldn’t you?”

And so on…

Creating a catalogue of 5,000 leading, national Australian manufacturers stimulated lots of discussion and ideas. All positive. And more suggestions on manufacturers to add to the showcase arrive every week. Even spreadsheets.

So two things…

Inevitably, we have overlooked Australian manufacturers that should be included in the showcase. If so, let us know and we will put them in.

And because of the interest in the Toolbox, we have now begun to invite more partners into the toolbox resource centre to join QMI, ACS, CSIRO, Outsource, State Library, TIQ and others to help businesses become more informed, healthy and profitable.

Because healthy and profitable businesses can afford to employ people.

My last blog – ‘The future of work isn’t the issue…the future of jobs is,” – stirred up comments, not just in the public Linkedin forum but also privately from people across the planet for whom disappearing jobs and unemployment because of digital disruption was a raw issue.

This has never happened to me before, with any of my 34 previous posts and I saw that “jobs” (or lack of them) was a huge and universal issue, with a lot of personal impacts still hidden under the radar.

And with increasing robotisation, computerisation and automation it was going to get a lot worse and happen quicker than most pundits were predicting.

And central governments are doing little or nothing about it.

Unemployment and underemployment hits first at a local level. It is in the towns and councils and regions, that redundancies and closures, and the shift to contract work and freelance hits hardest.

And it was Mayors, CEOs and economic development officers in councils, and digital economy and innovation departments in state governments that responded to the blog and began to recognise the value in the Toolbox projects.

They were the ones tasked with the immediate problem of “jobs and growth” and there is no magic wand that can fix that problem.

No quick fix. No saviour on a white horse.

The issue of jobs and growth can only be fixed by intelligently focusing energy (money, time and people) on developing and boosting our productive industry sectors – agriculture, manufacturing, ICT, cleantech, greentech, medtech, biotech, creative industries, education, tourism, design based professional services and the new smart trades – focusing on the productive industries to diversify our economic base.

So we saw that the toolboxes had to interconnect. They had to be able to share resources. They had to be able to share partner programs. They had to be able to support learning and courseware and training.

They had to be collaborative. They had to provide a platform for partners of all kinds with expertise in export, management skills, workforce skills, new technologies, design, branding and marketing to deliver their programs in a “joined up” way.

And they had to showcase our export capabilities to the world.

Of course, federal government doesn’t think like that, but most state and territory governments, councils and RDAs do. They have to.

They are the ones at the sharp end having to deal with underemployment, closures and digital disruption.

And many of them are starting to recognise that the digital revolution is not just about smart cities, online shopping, social media and mobile workers.

It is going to eliminate 50% of jobs in the not so distant future. Even in many of those service industries the federal ministers are recommending we move to.

And states and councils can’t afford to be passive onlookers, because the impacts will be felt hardest at the local level. That’s where people will come knocking on the door, tapping on shoulders in shopping centres and waiting outside schools.

The digital revolution is a two-edged sword. It offers enormous opportunities and benefits but carries enormous threats.

Understand them properly and they can be managed. They can be leveraged.

But let it just “happen to you” and you will wake up one day and realise it is too late to change anything. And it all happened under your watch.

Smart cities and smart regions are connected (should be anyway). The 55 RDAs across Australia are connected (should be anyway). The hundreds of councils are connected (should be anyway). The growth centres are connected (should be anyway). All our industry sectors are connected (should be anyway). Australia is connected (should be anyway).

And that is why the Toolboxes share, connect and collaborate.

Grass roots, bottom up development, driven by collaborative individuals, councils, industry groups, state government and a growing range of partners.

We are now working on more trade showcases for overseas markets, because access to more markets for our products and services will mitigate risk and help increase market share and profits.

And we are expanding the Toolboxes beyond manufacturing to include agriculture, mining and energy and disability services & aged care. With construction and transport to follow.

And we are discussing regional Toolboxes, with councils and states.

“You could create a toolbox just for macadamia nut farmers couldn’t you?” “You could create a toolbox for a large vendor (no names yet) and the supply chain?” “You could configure a toolbox focused on tourism, agritourism, agriculture and manufacturing?”

Yes. And it all joins up.

It’s early days and projects continue to develop iteratively.

Manufacturing is not dead in Australia. And in fact, all of our productive industries are alive and well.

Where next? The underlying currents of digital change provide a clue. Towards more connection, more collaboration and more integration. We can’t fight that.

But think through the implications of those irresistible forces and you will see a different world. And we will keep you posted on where and what we configure next.


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