With increasing widespread acknowledgement that the construction industry in Australia needs to make more use of off-site manufactured products to improve efficiencies, it is important to turn the focus toward what is actually going on off-site, in the manufacturing world.

There is no question that in a setting of free trade agreements and in the face of import threat, Australian manufacturing must both maintain and improve its competitiveness in the international arena if it is going to survive. That applies to all industries.

Today’s manufacturing however, isn’t completely what it used to be. Certainly, many tried and true practices continue today, and they have been perfected over time for optimal outcomes. Increased large scale innovation is also evident.

The transition toward greater automation is but one evident example. That move in itself should help overcome the traditional argument that Australian manufacturing cannot possibly compete on its own devices with our northern neighbours for example, because our labour rates are so much higher. The provision of protection for some manufacturing sectors with taxes and subsidies is slowly becoming a thing of the past, and the Federal Government now grapples with a quandary over supporting free trade versus forever inventing initiatives to assist the affected sectors. Although well-intended, the initiatives unfortunately very often are not what industry needs to actually deliver improvements in the productivity and efficiencies it needs, to become more competitive.

So largely left to fend for itself, what is the manufacturing sector to do?

There’s a long way to go in terms of educating ourselves and learning from each other and from offshore experiences.

Associations can play a role in this, setting best practice as a benchmark toward which their members can aim and facilitating the opportunity for education. That can be across all areas of business from operations, to financial management, to marketing, to workplace health and safety, to R&D, and to legal, technology and manufacturing practices. Factory visits, presentations, networking opportunities, think-tanking, site visits, technical papers, R&D, study tours and involvement in the development and review of Australian Standards all help to raise the bar and innovate.

Looking abroad can also add value. There are some impressive technologies being applied overseas, which are not necessarily communicated internationally. Associations can take a lead role here by facilitating visits to foreign shores to help overcome any ‘not in my backyard’ syndrome that can be prevalent when one is working in one’s business and not on one’s business. The manufacturing sector needs to spread its wings and learn from what is happening elsewhere. There are valuable lessons in what has worked and what hasn’t.

Practice in manufacturing facilities isn’t the only area on which to focus. R&D being conducted both here and on foreign shores by universities can also offer valuable contributions. There is some amazing research work being done – unfortunately that often happens as silos with not enough cross-pollination and collaboration between institutions and individuals – but it is worthy of evaluation. Healthy links between industry and education can deliver substantial benefits for both.

That’s not to say the manufacturing sector isn’t doing any of these things – only that it needs to up the ante. Implementing the old ‘continuous improvement’ philosophy to ensure it keeps pace with competing imported product.

Regarding competing imported products, one component of comparing Australian manufactured product to the imported competition is making sure that one is comparing like with like. The recent Senate Inquiry into non-conforming building products has identified there is a problem here. It’s a problem that is not confined to the construction industry.

Nonetheless, it is important to recognise that what might at first appear to be a more cost-effective imported alternative may end up being high risk and a far more costly option in the long run. I have heard too many horror stories of product being purchased on the basis of price alone. At least when manufacturers belong to their industry association, one might assume that the risk of poor quality and/or non-compliance to Australian Standards will be reduced.

So how is the precast concrete industry innovating to benefit construction?

In the case of precast concrete manufacturers who are members of National Precast, I can confidently say there have been several technological innovations in more recent times. Whilst part of the Association’s role is to communicate these changes to the broader construction market, some are either still little known or too new, which can create a road block and then flows on to how often they are specified.

There have been some impressive advances, beginning with an increased prevalence of factory automation. Whether it’s walling panels, flooring or pipe manufacture, factories are moving ahead in automation at a significant rate. Investment in new and improved equipment is an ongoing occurrence in the industry. Concrete mix designs, meanwhile, are becoming more high tech to improve manufacturing processes and deliver specific outcomes.

Other recent advances worthy of mention have seen a broader offering of finishes to precast elements. Mould liners have become readily available, whether they are imported or manufactured here in Australia. The range of patterns is enormous, from brick or stone patterns to geometrics.

Combine the use of form liners from suppliers like ramsetreid with stains from organisations like Nawkaw and the result can be a durable and long lasting aesthetic masterpiece. The beauty of staining is that colour consistency can be perfectly achieved. And it has a long life, which minimises ongoing maintenance.

Very new to the market here are photocatalytic coatings such as ecotio2 being applied to precast. Using titanium dioxide as an ingredient, precast elements become graffiti-resistant and self-cleaning, while combating pollution as they purifying the air. Also new is ramsetreid’s graphic concreteTM, which offers the ability for images to be etched into the concrete’s surface.

As associations like National Precast continue to lead, observe and communicate the innovations in the precast industry, we call for the broader industry to get on board and help Australia forge ahead. We call for the industry to look at the full picture, and not just price. And we call for manufacturers to get involved with their associations. We need to all be in it to deliver innovation and raise the bar.