Tips to help manufacturing SMEs innovate and collaborate with universities

Creating a thriving onshore manufacturing industry in a post-COVID world is critical for Australia’s economic recovery, given it is our fourth-largest industry.

With SMEs being the backbone of Australian manufacturing, many are recognising that maintaining their competitive edge and staying profitable depends on innovation and collaboration.

At the Innovative Manufacturing CRC (IMCRC), we’ve seen first-hand what effective and purposeful collaboration with universities can achieve, funding more than 40 manufacturing research projects as part of an overall portfolio investment of more than $200 million.

Many of the projects we’ve funded have exceeded expectations and produced much broader outcomes than the original objectives. And over the years, we’ve gathered enough knowledge to share the following tips to help SME manufacturing businesses like yours attract innovation funding.

1. Come to the table with a solid understanding of the subject matter you want to research

For example, leaders with STEM foundations or significant background knowledge in the field of research find it easiest to collaborate with universities.

We find these leaders are more likely to make informed decisions, ensure the research and business objectives are aligned and encourage the successful translation of research outcomes into the business’ operations and broader ecosystem.

When selecting a project leader, you want to ensure they have the right skills and knowledge to complement and challenge the university’s research approach, helping the project stay focused on the research findings throughout its lifecycle.

2. Be willing and able to invest a proportion of your operational revenue into research and development (R&D) and innovation

This research focus and commitment indicate that you are ambitious and outcome-oriented, with a clear path of project integration into the business.

However, making your revenue dependent on the outcome of a research project is unadvisable. University research at times can be high risk and involves exploration, often not conducive to short-term pressures or restrictive timeframes. Before embarking on university collaboration, it’s worth considering how flexible your business is, and whether you would be comfortable pivoting during the research project if required.

3. Try before you buy

Although it’s not critical to have worked with universities before, it can be reassuring if you’ve “tested the university collaboration water”.

Working with universities via smaller grants or contracted work can provide you with an idea of what to expect when establishing agreements, conducting research and agreeing on deliverables. It can also give you the opportunity to create relationships and project management structures that can be implemented in future collaborative projects.

If you’ve been through the innovation process before, you’re also more likely to feel more comfortable working with a university partner on a R&D project.

Collaborating with universities can be as challenging as it is rewarding, but we believe the future of manufacturing depends on leaders having the courage to innovate in 2021 and beyond.

Dr Matthew Young, Manufacturing Innovation Manager, IMCRC

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