After nearly a century of operations in Australia, the automotive industry has until recently been firmly embedded as a key player in Australian manufacturing – however, change is afoot. The Shifting Gear exhibition now on at the National Gallery of Victoria comes at the end of an era.
The Ford Motor Company, General Motors and Toyota have all recently announced they will be closing local manufacturing operations in Australia. While the exhibition celebrates the innovative genius of past eras, the future of the automotive industry is becoming increasingly uncertain.
Although the end of car production is now imminent, the innovation that brought the Australian car industry this far should be acknowledged and celebrated. It is a commendable feat to produce cars – they are one of the most complex and nuanced domestically available products and, for better or worse, one that has significantly shaped our urban environment and socio-cultural psyche.
The highly skilled, locally grown workforce who cultivate creative content, choreograph complex systems of production, manage extensive infrastructure, direct information and material flows and try to make sense of a multifaceted financial ecosystem, have without doubt demonstrated innovation at the highest level. The question is whether this innovation is still being aimed in the right direction.
A core reason for our innovation has been the necessity to make do.
Australia’s local market is smaller than that of other global players and, while our manufacturers are part of larger parent companies, vehicle production in the domestic market has needed to support itself. Our products have sat comfortably alongside vehicles made by international companies who have access to greater resources, facilities, market reach and production volumes – despite our limits, we have competed on price, quality and vehicle attributes.
From first-hand experience as an automotive designer, Australian car makers have not only competed on the global stage, they have done so with fewer resources, time, money and technology. This situation has resulted in iconic cars such as the 1934 Ford Coupe Utility, FJ Holden and Chrysler R/T E49 Charger – as showcased in Shifting Gear.
To our credit, local automotive design studios employ a high number of locally trained designers.
Internationally, the larger representation of automotive manufacturers has given rise to dedicated degrees in automotive design. By contrast, Australian universities do not have the student volumes to support specialised automotive design courses, so they offer elective streams within more general industrial design degrees. This often means the opportunity to practise styling skills is somewhat restricted compared to the overseas competition.
As a result, our designers graduate as all-rounders, which has actually worked in our favour. These new employees bring broad perspectives and experience into the mix and are highly valued internationally when designing production-ready vehicles.
A changing transport landscape
Henry Ford achieved the democratisation of products through labour division, standardisation and economies of scale. It’s interesting that a century later our automotive manufacturers now claim they are falling victim to this economy – perhaps emphasising a shift in global competitiveness and consumer attitudes towards vehicle design.
Compounding the issue, economies of scope are becoming increasingly desirable. New technologies and cultures, such as 3D printing, generative software and Maker culture, conflate divisions in labour and achieve the democratisation of manufacturing through open and mutable design. This allows anyone with a good idea to make and market one-off artefacts.
Chris Anderson’s notion of the “long tail” is relevant here – that is, millions of small user-generated creative outputs (for example, products purchased directly from artists, designers and makers via Etsy) rather than large production runs of “big hits” (or mass produced products controlled and marketed by large companies). This shift is being aided by technologies aimed at democratising production, such as domestic 3D printers, CNC machines and laser cutters, and is sparking the rise of microfactories, greater diversity and consequently greater consumer choice.
While a dramatic shift economies of scale to scope means we stand to lose a wealth of knowledge, skills and infrastructure in mass production, it also opens a space for new innovation.
A century ago the car met the needs of a society looking for personal freedom in the midst of the Second Industrial Revolution. Now, changing social paradigms are taking individualism to new strengths within an increasingly connected society. Production innovation and the knowledge economy mean consumers can now dictate the content of the products they use.
In this context, we’re seeing a new and diverse breed of transport providers emerging from outside the existing industry: Local Motors, where individuals anywhere around the globe can contribute to vehicle designs with the aim of 3D printing them in microfactories, is just one such project.
Tesla motors, an electric car maker known for its innovations in adaptive automated production, recently announced its intention to release a battery system for home energy; there’s Google Car, an autonomous vehicle designed by Google that operates within a digitally mediated transport network; there’s The Future People, an artist couple who make human-powered road vehicles in low volumes as shown in the 2015 Detroit Motor Show.
This is likely to be just the beginning of a new transport landscape – one that is shaping up to be rich, diverse and innovative. Vehicle design and manufacturing is not dead in Australia yet; it might just look a little different in the future. Here’s hoping our Aussie “doing more with less” approach will help us design unique and sustainable solutions.
Shifting Gear is on display at the National Gallery of Victoria until July 12 2015. Details here.