IMCRC showcases innovative manufacturing technologies

IMCRC showcases innovative manufacturing success stories

Earlier this month, the Innovative Manufacturing Cooperative Research Center (IMCRC) opened its two-day Australian Manufacturing Innovation Showcase at The Timber Yard in Port Melbourne. Manufacturers’ Monthly attended the event and spoke with three Australian innovation success stories.

On display were the innovative results of more than 40 collaborative manufacturing research and development (R&D) projects between ambitious Australian businesses and research organisations, including 13 leading universities and the CSIRO.

With support and co-funding from IMCRC, each project explores advanced technologies such as additive manufacturing, robotics, data analytics and augmented and virtual reality to deliver transformative business models, products and services.

Sleep Corp

David Kaplan, managing director and CEO

SleepCorp’s Virtual Manufacturing System (VMS) uses robotics-based machinery for increased efficiency in manufacturing.

In collaboration with Swinburne University of Technology, the SleepCorp project aims to establish a new Virtual Manufacturing System (VMS) that links robotic machinery to a digital twin enabling a faster and more flexible production approach to address changing customer demands while maintaining cost competitiveness. .

Can you tell us about Sleep Corp’s Virtual Production System, and how you came up with this project?

I have been in manufacturing for over 42 years. And I was still running it pretty much on the old system. But it has become very, very difficult to stay competitive, especially with the cost of labor in Australia. And there are so many obstacles to running a manufacturing business, especially in home textiles.

At the future map I attended, I learned and heard about industry 4.0., and I went back to my team and said: “Guys, we have to change everything – we’re going to change our thought processes.” So, we reinvested and put a new ERP system into our business.

After installing NetSuite, we received an invitation from the IMCRC to present and were lucky enough to be accepted. We have worked with Swinburne University before and this time they worked on a digital twin. They designed our entire factory in virtual reality. And we realized that within our regions, it won’t work. So, we had to actually move site and build a new factory. We found a new location where we could build the factory from the ground up and build it to spec, designing it exactly how we wanted from start to finish.

Can you explain how this sewing machine works and the challenges it deals with?

In the past, we had a whole load of separate sewing machines. You should have an elastic that you would insert the skirt of the mattress protector, and then you put the elastic on. And then, you would have to have another machine that you would use to sew the actual base fabric on top of that. Another machine would do all the labeling.

This machine does everything together and was designed for us specifically. So, you still have one person operating the machine, but everything is done in one, which makes it more efficient. Before, we had to put layer by layer, cut them, and then put all the different components together and then arrange them. This machine cuts the panel, brings that one piece to the machinist and the machinist then sews it.

Now, the computer knows which machine to take it to. If they make a single bed or double or queen – the computer knows which machine to go to. That’s all done with RFID chips and each of the tags has an RFID chip in it. We will get to the point where we can scan the warehouse to see what stock we have. When we pack it in boxes, you will know what is in the box when you scan a box.

We also automated our warehouse. Instead of having maybe 20 people running around the warehouse picking and packing, what we now have is a shelving system with robots. The robots tell the computer information such as, the average selection made every day. On Mondays, for example, the robots know what customers would like to order. So, it tells the computers what stock is needed in the system to fulfill that order. And it will tell the staff what they have to enter the system ready, and what will be required to be selected. Then, the whole shelf comes to them and it tells them you have to pick these pieces and that shelf moves away and the next one comes. So, instead of people running around, the shelves go around automatically.


Stanley Thomson, CEO and Marcio Casagranda, head of business development

Verton’s remote control load management system

Rotating suspended loads is still a manual process, with workers using ropes, known as taglines, to guide suspended loads into the correct positions. Verton is transforming this process with smart technology that allows suspended loads to be managed remotely and precisely.

What is Verton’s remote control charge management system?

Marcio Casagranda

One of the biggest challenges for a crane is maintaining control of the load while it is suspended. Today people get very close to the load and physically touch it, push it or grab a claw to pull it. That means you have people near the load, which is where accidents and deaths actually happen.

The whole idea with the remote control, payload orientation technology, was to get people out of the danger zone. With our technology, most loads can be oriented with the remote control and the operator can be 20,50 100 200 meters away. This eliminates the risk of people getting hurt and as we spread this equipment, and we get more and more people using it, we realize that there is a significant improvement not only in terms of safety, but also in terms of efficiency. Depending on the type of load and the type of work, the efficiency gains are 10,15, 20 to 400 percent.

How did the collaboration with IMCRC and the Queensland University of Technology come about?

Stanley Thomson

Initially, very early in the process of the project, we needed some really deep scientific research to actually validate the mathematical model, because the physics of it is quite complicated. We knew enough to build toy models and start the process, but we wanted to say if we make a life-size product it will actually work. So we were already working with QUT and then when we got involved with the IMCRC, whose QUT was already part of their network, so we were able to continue that relationship. We started with one or two and there are probably five or six different researchers that work with us. As Ian and David mentioned in their talk, there has been a lot of change in the way universities work with industry partners. It wasn’t just us, it was the way the CRC was able to influence and change the way universities approached industry. Because it’s a major change from a commercial business point of view where we’re trying to make money and a researcher completing his PhD, it didn’t always work, but QUT was very good.

What was one thing that stood out from your experience with the IMCRC collaboration?

Marcio Casagranda

I think one of the biggest things that came out of all the good experiences with IMCRC was its flexibility. When we started, we had five different streams to explore and evaluate what made the most sense. We quickly realized that two or three of them didn’t make much sense or the return on investment would take too long, so we decided to focus our energy and resources on one or two streams. IMCRC was quite flexible in accommodating this and that actually delivered the results we have today. The model was easy to work with and change things around. We were able to find a different application for the technology we developed and leverage that, making it a more commercial product.

Lava Blue

Sylvia Tulloch, director and Sara Couperthwaite, professor – green production and resource transformation at QUT

Lava Blue uses machine learning and automated manufacturing techniques to produce high-purity alumina

As global demand for the chemically inert ceramic material, high-purity alumina (HPA) increases, Lava Blue is using machine learning and automated manufacturing techniques to transform the way it is produced. The precious material is critical to the production of many household technology items such as LED lighting, electronic displays, semiconductors, lithium-ion and aluminum batteries.

In collaboration with the Queensland University of Technology (QUT), and with the support of IMCRC funding, Lava Blue’s research is focused on developing a resilient, agile and highly competitive production process to transform kaolin, an aluminium-bearing clay, into HPA.

Can you explain your journey through refining high purity alumina? When did it start and why?

Sylvia Tulloch

The traditional way of making high purity alumina is very expensive and also very energy intensive. None of it is made in Australia, some in Europe and most of it is made in China.

So we approached QUT and said we could develop a process to go straight from this cheap material that we can mine and turn it into this very precious material. So take something that’s worth $75 a ton and turn it into something that’s $25,000 a ton. We started doing some experimental work, and we discovered this great new program called IMCRC to really take it forward.

When mineral processing was first developed more than 100 – 150 years ago, people did not use hydrochloric acid because hydrochloric acid attacks steel, which is what all the vessels were made of. This is despite the fact that it is very attractive in many ways, for example, its recovery according to the circular economy is easier than many other assets. But they didn’t do it. So all these supply chains were set up using other materials. 50 years ago, we invented plastics and plastics are not attacked by hydrochloric acid, and tantalum and a new metal were found, and it is not attacked by hydrochloric acid. So the reasons for making those decisions so long ago, do not apply in today’s world. And so we said, let’s see what we can do to set up a whole new industrial process with hydrochloric acid, HCL processing.

How has collaboration with the IMCRC helped your project?

Sarah Cooperthwaite

When we heard about the IMCRC, we wanted not only to prove that it works, but to optimize it further. And that’s where we needed to introduce the concepts of in-line monitoring so that we could get a much better process control over it, so that we could optimize both in terms of recovering the aluminum, but also minimize waste.

And the other thing we’ve been able to do with the real-time monitoring is build predictive models. So when we get a new raw material or product on the front end, we can start to actually predict the purity of the product we’re going to get. And that’s what the IMCRC was really about, it took that kind of lab process, built it to scale, which is what the mini plant does, but added all that intelligence through a network of sensors so that we can actually predict and model what’s going to happen at each stage of that process.

What are the possibilities for this research over say, the next decade?

Sylvia Tulloch

What we’re trying to build is a whole Australian industry because we don’t want it to be just us doing things. We want to make it broad across the Australian industry. If you have a single company doing a single industrial thing, you don’t have all the advantages of being able to get staff who have been trained in different companies. There are all sorts of advantages to having half a dozen companies all doing the same things in a country.

We think that this processing of hydrochloric acid is actually much broader. One of the things that has come to light more recently is that one of the other acids used a lot in mineral processing is sulfuric acid, which mostly comes from oil and coal mining. So once we stop oil and coal mining, there will be a shortage of sulfuric acid. Whereas, with hydrochloric acid, there is a lot of chlorine in the sea. We think it will be faster than gradual, and will have to find other alternatives to do many things that have been driven by the changes we are making to adapt to climate change.


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