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  • Holger Dielenberg

Why equipment suppliers support the Space Tank manufacturing incubator

Over the last six months I have been working with equipment suppliers to develop Space Tank’s Tech Lab offering that will allow product startups to innovate and prototype pretty much anything.

One of the interesting things that has emerged out of all of this activity is the question – why do equipment suppliers support Space Tank? What’s in it for them? Instead of the expected marketing fanfare, their answers reflect a real concern for the health of Australian Manufacturing.

Drilling deeper, we hit compelling forces that underlie some of Australia’s core manufacturing and economic challenges that effect industry suppliers, large manufacturers and startups alike. Put simply, we all face the same challenges like poor domestic supply chains, diluted manufacturing sovriengty and skills shortages.

As Australian manufacturing shifts gears, it is encouraging to receive genuine industry support for Space Tank’s manufacturing incubator.

I have long worked with Thinglab and Alfex CNC who have supported Space Tank since its inception. They have continued to offer their generous support with 3D printing and laser cutting equipment and have played an important role in establishing a framework of trust for other equipment suppliers to follow. The AMP tomorrow makers fund provided a $40,000 grant to help with equipment costs and with this combination of industry support, we have been able to provide cutting edge prototyping facilities equal in standard to Melbourne’s University design labs. Formech jumped on board through their Australian supplier, Tasman Machinery and offered a brand new vacuum former and Roland gate crashed the party by throwing a 4 axis milling machine into the mix.

We got excited about the innovative possibilities that could emerge when local design entrepreneurs start to use the gear and we began to realize that the excitement we feel stems from a fear that Australia’s manufacturing health is in the toilet. Australia’s flushing a lot of manufacturing offshore – In effect, we are feeding our brightest and best hopes for a new industrial revolution to the fishes!

The equipment suppliers who support Space Tank want to be part of a sustainable solution that grows high value manufacturing opportunities. We want to accelerate new generation startups in diverse communities. We’re searching to find Australia’s next high impact products. So while figuring out how to make that work, we often stood together in the Tech Lab and shared our motivations for collaborating.

Here are the main points that emerged:

1. Startups have limited exposure to innovation technology: Despite Uni Fab Labs, design graduates have had very low exposure to manufacturing technology and when they are ready to develop a product, sadly they can’t afford it. Australia suffers a low OECD ranking in collaboration between University research and industry. Commercial R&D labs are hidden inside large corporations and accessed only by internal staff. In short, access to enabling manufacturing technology is limited, thereby restricting the adoption of modern manufacturing skills. To solve this and to accelerate product innovation, Space Tank’s manufacturing incubator collaborates with equipment suppliers and provides startups with easy and affordable DIY access to the manufacturing technology they need.

2. Product startups are idea rich and cash poor: Product startups emerge from the most varied circumstances like university graduates to the migrant and refugee community to young adults with limited manufacturing experience who just need a chance. The central problem they all face is money. Unlike desk based and information technology businesses whose activity is largely centred on a laptop and wifi connection, a product startup requires fabrication space, expensive prototyping equipment and manufacturing know how. Space Tank recognises that Australia’s largest potential for high impact product development stems from this grass roots demographic so solving the money issue is the number one priority.

3. We’re becoming a nation of retail and burger flipping professionals: Australia is losing its manufacturing skills and replacing them with service based professions. TAFE’s, trade apprenticeships and technical colleges are diminishing and manufacturing industries are closing and drifting offshore and with that, skills transitions are lost. This negatively impacts the entire manufacturing supply chain from equipment suppliers to emerging product developers to established companies. Skills atrophy leads to a whole range of diminishing returns on: productivity, innovation, equipment sales, startup growth, employment etc. When we can longer cost effectively manufacture and prototype new products, we are forced into service based work. Clearly we need to support high impact product startups and develop more competitive manufacturing supply chains.

4. For makers, Melbourne is a donut city – there’s nothing in the middle! Melbourne has become an exciting place to shop, eat, sleep and repeat. Recently, Melbourne celebrated its retail and hospitality strategy and while it’s encouraging to see these sectors thrive, we should recognise that the majority of products sold in retail are not made by Australians! They are designed and made offshore and the profits of those sales also go offshore. Despite the marketing hype surrounding hipster product officanados – in reality, there are not many maker’s left in Melbourne because the rent is killing them! Nearly all the makers who are succeeding have fled Melbourne’s core. Melbourne’s Startup Action Plan aims in part to address this imbalance. Many of us makers and innovators hope that manufacturing does not continue to be overlooked in this new strategy.

5. Product innovation requires a complete manufacturing network: While Australia’s high cost dollar is tearing apart our manufacturing landscape, individual makers and the private sector are left to find their own solutions in order to survive. Space Tank has taken a lead in this regard by collaborating with industry to lower costs and share skills. By developing agreements that benefit all parties we are building a network that accelerates product development and business growth. A recent study of Space Tank’s outcomes over the last two years reveals an 80% success rate of in-house product startups!

6. Makerspaces like Space Tank are giving manufacturing a new heartbeat: All around the world, high level Makerspaces are successfully flattening barriers to entry for product startups. We are developing a long list of ground breaking innovations that change the way people live. At the same time Makerspace incubators around the world are breathing new life into stagnating manufacturing economies by providing a solid platform for new industry growth.

The common denominator in successful makerspaces is cross sector collaboration and high level industry and government engagement. Equipment suppliers who support makerspaces become part of a skill sharing solution for product startups and they are helping build future manufacturing and industry opportunities that will benefit us all.

For those of us who deal every day with innovation and are on the hunt for the next high impact product, it is disheartening to see so clearly into Australia’s innovation blind-spot (manufacturing) and at the same time be faced with such profound challenges.

So what’s in it for product startups when industries work together?

When equipment suppliers support Space Tank they become genuinely part of a platform of solutions in the startup ecosystem. They are supporting local product startups who will go on to succeed and give support back to the Australian economy as they grow. Everyone benefits from brand exposure, marketing, networking, collaboration and business referrals and it’s all based around affordable access to enabling resources. The creative entrepreneurs who come and use the facility build hype and attract a broad range of talented individuals who all enjoy accelerated skill sharing and business development.

Grassroots innovation and niche manufacturing starts small, but as we have experienced many times throughout the evolution of manufacturing, it is the grass roots startups who end up growing entirely new industries. Space Tank is committed to building the manufacturing link in Victoria’s incubator and startup scene in order to expose exactly this kind of super product potential.

At Space Tank we believe it’s good to get your hands dirty and that high impact products have the potential to change lives and economies. Our vision is focused on supporting product startups whether they be med tech, industrial design, sculptural, architectural or IT based. You can make it at Space Tank.

It is for these reasons that industry equipment suppliers are getting on board with Space Tank and sponsoring our new Tech Lab with prototyping technology. Space Tank currently has agreements with over twenty companies and organisations accruing over $675,000 of in-kind support. These companies are playing an important role in building future manufacturing industries for Australia by supporting grassroots product innovators today.

I would like to extend gratitude to the company’s: Roland, Formech, Tasman Machinery, Thinglab and Alfex CNC for supporting Victorian product startups. Space Tank’s agreements with these companies and others proves that there is genuine value in collaborating with industry peers to develop greater business and innovation potential for all of us.

We are committed to helping product startups make it in Australia. If you would like to use Space Tank’s new Tech Lab and prototyping incubator, get in touch here.

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