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Toyota’s exit provides a blank sheet for creative manufacturing

How about a stronger design and development sector within the car manufacturing industry? KimManleyOrt

Yesterday’s confirmation that Toyota will cease its car manufacturing in Australia by the end of 2017, combined with Holden and Ford’s withdrawal by 2017 and 2016, signals the end of car manufacturing in the country after more than half a century.

But can car manufacturing in Australia find a new – albeit different – home in the creative economy? Chances are there will be many people now looking for solutions and new directions. Companies such as Zoox, a Melbourne-based start-up design company, are already offering innovative ideas in this space, if not actual products.

The closure of Toyota – as announced by the company’s president – will create, directly, 2,500 unemployed people, totalling 6,000 jobs lost nationally from the car manufacturing industry alone, with the combined closures of Ford and Holden. Some estimates suggest the knock-on effect will impact 10,000 individuals or even 50,000, as ACTU Secretary Dave Oliver suggests, with the decreased demand of additional component manufacturing.

The concern for everyone in this environment is how those unemployed individuals will transition into new secure employment.

Joe Castro/AAP image.

The government’s Minister for Industry Ian Macfarlane commented yesterday afternoon that the government would “manage the transition” of the thousands of workers who will now be seeking new jobs. He also said the face of the industry would change from what we know it as today.

I have previously argued for the government to concentrate its efforts in the training and education of the Australian workforce to strengthen and develop its creative economy. Within the car manufacturing industry, this could be achieved by bolstering a stronger design and development sector.

Toyota Motor Corp. President Akio Toyoda. EPA/Kimimasa Mayama

Recent pressures facing other manufacturing sectors – such as the controversies surrounding SPC Ardmona last week – further call into question the viability of manufacturing in this country.

Australia, it seems, cannot compete with its manufacturing-savvy neighbours who produce items at a significantly reduced rate. Some economists, such as The Conversation columnist Jason Potts, argue the funding model of the government should follow the market demand and not “prop up” the economy.

In my view, the Abbott government should take the high road by seizing the closure of Toyota as an opportunity to transform the Australian manufacturing sector. This would equate to a significant shift of money from “old” manufacturing industry subsidies to the “new” educative creative economies.

The end of car manufacturing is precisely the moment for the Australian government to amp up its support for creative enterprise – the “blank-sheet” moment.

Ford Australia has already started thinking about the car manufacturing process differently and is actively seeking the input of some of the country’s most creative designers and developers. The semantic shift to maintain a presence in the car manufacturing industry is represented by not manufacturing the car in Australia, but designing and developing its operating systems.

Autonomous automobility is becoming a reality, with Nissan boasting it will have driverless cars on the road by 2020; and several states in the US have legislated the safe operation of driverless cars on their roads.

The Zoox Boz car. Zoox

The Melbourne design start-up Zoox is set to disrupt the car manufacturing industry – at least according to the company’s minimalist website.

They are not creating cars – they are creating “Level 4 mobility systems” (see artist’s impression above) – a term that stems from the US Department of Transport Policy on automated cars.

Toyota’s president Akio Toyoda noted on Monday that it was economically unsustainable for the Australian arm of the company to import car components, manufacture the cars, and export them. Zoox has significantly reduced the components on their units to around 10,000 pieces (Tim Kentley-Klay, the founder of Zoox, notes that current car designs comprise around 30,000 individual pieces). Minimising the design of automobility is just one way we might think about manufacturing differently in this country.

Some of Zoox’s creative design ideas include better aerodynamics, with no need for a driver windscreen due to driverless technology; and as a bi-directional unit, the need for reverse has been eliminated. Creative enterprise thinking of this – and similar – quality signifies how automobility could improve our manufacturing process and not merely provide a sector subsidy Band-Aid.

Sadly, the Zoox L4 mobility unit – supposedly to be on the road in the year 2021 – will not save the jobs of the thousands of Australian workers facing unemployment benefits, but it is a reminder to the Australian government of where it needs to concentrate its future development to avoid these industrial sector tragedies.

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