Australia needs to up our innovation game – it’s now or never

Robotics

It is hard to escape the future of work. Nearly every day, new reports predict huge changes to how businesses operate, and what this will mean for countries, companies, and consumers. From digital transformation to the rise of robotics, one thing is clear: in the age of automation, innovation and the adoption of technology are the essential building blocks for success.

Worryingly, on both fronts, Australia and New Zealand are being left behind. In 2017, the Global Innovation Index showed Australia’s continuing decline in innovation performance, dropping four places to 23rd in the world. New Zealand fared only slightly better, at 21st place. Compared to Asian peers, Australia ranked a lowly seventh out of ten.

This decline is even more surprising given the importance national leaders have placed on boosting innovation. In Australia, the Government has committed $1.1 billion to driving innovation through the National Innovation and Science Agenda (NISA). New Zealand’s Government has likewise invested millions through its Innovative New Zealand program.

The disappointing performance in the face of Government support reflects the fact that the transformation to become a high-performing, innovative economy is slow and complex, requiring multiple stakeholders with significant roles to play.

While government funding and commitment is important, success also needs a modern education sector to mould future innovators. More importantly, ANZ businesses need to lead the way with a renewed focus on workplace innovation and technological adoption to drive productivity gains and competitiveness.

Currently, one real weakness in Australia and New Zealand’s innovation landscape is the failure of business owners and managers to deploy new technology to its full potential. NISA has identified that Australia’s business R&D investment is low relative to competitor countries, highlighting the need for ANZ companies to increase their efforts to scale, innovate and become more productive to thrive. Risk aversion and a culture of fear are some of the primary factors holding back the ANZ business community.

This can be seen in a variety of technological indicators, such as The International Federation of Robotics’ World Robotics Report 2017. This found that Australia and New Zealand are massively lagging when it comes to the installation and use of industrial robots, at 21st and 27th in the world respectively. Part of the problem is that too often ‘robots’ are associated with expensive, cumbersome, and complex industrial robots, whereas the reality is that robots now come in all shapes and sizes – including moveable and adaptive collaborative robots, or ‘co-bots’.

Even in the face of national issues that automation can help to address – such as relatively small populations, high labour costs, and geographical remoteness – ANZ businesses’ use of robotics ranks behind countries like Slovenia and the Czech Republic. In fact, Australia and New Zealand have less than half as many robots installed as Italy, Belgium or Taiwan, while the global robotics leader, Korea, has almost ten times as many industrial robots as Australia.

As the Chair of NISA noted in his ‘Australia 2030 Plan’, “rather than being fearful of the disruption and change that technology will inevitably bring… Australians should see in these transformations the seeds of renewed growth that can sustain our enviable prosperity and quality of life.” The plan recognised that combatting fear and raising industrial productivity using technology were key priorities for future success.

One such ANZ company that has embraced technology to drive productivity and business success is ASSA ABLOY NZ, a manufacturer of door opening solutions. By installing collaborative robots – or ‘co-bots’ – made by Universal Robots, the business was able to deliver products to market faster, with the highest levels of quality, while keeping costs down.

ASSA ABLOY NZ also took a novel approach to combatting fear of change, by engaging workers with a naming competition for their new co-bot colleague. This simple step helped integrate the co-bot into the team as just another ‘co-worker’. Once those on the production floor also realised that ‘Victoria’ would improve their health and safety, by performing the laborious and repetitive work of  picking, packing, and screwing the company’s lock bodies, it helped drive even greater positivity.

To succeed in the modern age, more businesses in the region need to explore new technologies and develop a roadmap for the future. Those that embrace technology and innovation will accelerate growth and drive success. If businesses in the region fail to do so, Australia and New Zealand risk further innovation decline.