Process, not practice, makes perfect for manufacturing innovators

Words by Dr Jane Fitzpatrick, Australian National Fabrication Facility Queensland node, UQ

ANFFQ

Small things matter in advanced manufacturing. I get to see them every day in my work at the Australian National Fabrication Facility - researchers, startups, industry leaders working on the very small yet very scaleable things that will transform the way we manufacture and fabricate the medicines, materials, products and processes that will rule our lives and economies in the next decades and even the next century.

But the ideation and iteration processes around advanced manufacturing have changed dramatically and no longer is it viable for researchers, established companies or first-time entrepreneurs to spend months, years or longer to try to perfect their product or idea before reaching a conclusion that it is either commercially viable or simply not to be.

People developing new fabrication technologies or ideas often battle huge startup costs from both an equipment and facility level, and from a consulting and knowledge-economy level. And that barrier to creation just doesn’t mesh with an innovation climate where the rapid realisation of prototypes and minimum viable products is vital.

This is why the Australian National Fabrication Facility at the University of Queensland exists. Yes, our facilities and vast network of partnerships bring with them an huge array of equipment ($200M), facilities and technology to bring new ideas to fruition, but where hugely tangible and real impacts occur is in the knowledge and experience that comes from having experienced staff guide and nurture fledgling ideas through ideation, iteration and towards commercialisation. And we do it fast, which is now a non-negotiable factor.

And that’s why processes, not slow practice, makes perfect for advanced manufacturing innovators.

Speed to success (and failure) is vital

It’s become an often-uttered phrase that businesses have to fail fast, fail cheap and learn from those failings, and similarly it is no longer an option to take a wait-and-see approach to prototyping your technology or product.

Where you may have taken months to get somewhere near being ready to test, we now work in hours, days or weeks to get ideas and products tested and evaluated. And it’s not about minimising quality control processes or cutting out steps in the innovation and testing phases - it’s about aggregating the skilled researchers and staff in a hub or an easy-to-access network and then creating, testing and either failing or succeeding fast in your product’s iterations.

That’s the benefit of bringing your work to a group such as the Australian National Fabrication Facility, or other startup incubators and accelerators that have the ability to scale knowledge and learnings.

We want to be able to inform our clients and the partners with whom we work that their idea has merit and should be chased further, or be able to consult on the sometimes bitter-sweet ending that comes with non-viable, non-commercial ideas. But that’s just part of the innovation game and the key, as we’ve already said, is getting there fast.

The innovators headed for success

We work with an array of people and businesses, and many are changing the way we build things, treat sick people and store energy.

You’ve probably already read at length in this month’s edition of The Brisbane Report about the intriguing, mind-blowing opportunities that exist with what can only be described as a super substance, graphene.

Our researchers at Griffith University have developed world-first technology that make graphene-based micro-supercapacitors able to be directly integrated into small electronic devices’ circuits. The micro-supercapacitors are a way of overcoming the energy requirements of small devices like wearable electronics without the need for external power sources.

This makes them ideal for the modern devices - the remote controls of our lives - that we use every day. It’s a modern folly not just in smartphone devices but also in robotics that battery life hinders advancements and practical use. Micro-superconductors have the ability to change that. And graphene is both super-strong and super-light, ensuring there’s little to no shift in usability when applied to everyday technologies.

One of the more incredible stories to come out of Brisbane is of course the Vaxxas Nanopatch system. The investment in the technology to date has been incredible, with commercialisation funds and venture capitalists injecting (pardon the pun) a highly deserved amount of funding into it. A combination of facilities, tools and people at the Australian National Fabrication Facility, both at the Queensland node and around the country have combined to develop the technology needed to fabricate the microneedle arrays used in the Nanopatch, and staff from Vaxxas continue to work in our facility today.

Is there room for improvement?

Always. Australia is too small for one facility, one university or one commercial entity to provide every tool needed to bring game-changing advanced manufacturing technologies to the business and individuals that need them. The Australian National Fabrication Facility pulls together a huge network of universities and facilities that act as one to scale the opportunities and services needed to bring innovation and commercialisation to life.

Similarly, integral to succeeding in advanced manufacturing and, the pattern we see emerging at our facility, is that advanced manufacturing innovators need to - must - seek out partnerships with facilities such as ours if they are to not just create these products and fabrication techniques but even have a hope of their ideas surviving the commercial rigours of the modern manufacturing world.

From these sometimes small ideas come scaleable, game-changing products. And sometimes they fade away. It’s how we manage ideas, consult on development and ultimately come together as networks and partners that dictate successes in our incredibly fruitful advanced manufacturing world.

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