Why Iot Matters

IoT, or ‘Internet of Things’ is a powerful game changer for many industries , opening a new era of possibilities in user interaction and business models for both consumers and brand owners. By connecting people and products through almost limitless control, IoT will facilitate the merging of product as service, and service as product. But what exactly is IoT, and how can it be integrated effectively?

Most people are familiar with the way smart phones and have moved beyond simply making phone calls. They know their devices seamlessly connect via cellular networks (and Wi-Fi, Bluetooth etc.) to access all sorts of services.  IoT is similar, but applied to more traditional products (or things) which are then monitored and operated through a phone app, laptop or desktop PC. This allows:

  • Users – unprecedented levels of convenience and control of their device remotely via a user-centred interface
  • Manufacturers – new levels of features, value-add possibilities and even payment models (i.e. pay-for-use, subscription etc.)

While the under-the-bonnet workings of IoT are advanced and technical to create, done well IoT products can be ‘frictionlessly easy’ to use.  Many are already using this technology even if the terminology is only now becoming commonplace. Some common examples of IoT today include:

  • Consumer products such as laser printers that print wirelessly from your desktop or mobile – even if you’re not in the office. These printers will also let users know when ink is running low and facilitate ordering replacements.
  • Industrial equipment such as bus ticketing machines that can communicate in both ways with the system operator; offering real time customer feedback, status or failure notifications, payment processing, software and firmware updates, etc.
  • Other common products such as security alarms, smart home systems and object tracker tags

But while IoT is around us more than we think, we’ve only scratched the surface of its true potential. Products and user-experiences (UX) can be truly reimagined to better meet current and future user needs. Products can become more integrated into people’s lives, and brand-owners can offer more flexible/profitable delivery models.

Designing IoT

A complete IoT system requires a number of elements that work closely together. These elements include creative and UX approaches (design), technical implementation (engineering) and ongoing service support (service suppliers). A user-centred design approach is the key for these elements to work cohesively as an integrated whole.

A typical system might include:

  • Service (or Experience) Design: The design/integration of the total system
  • Industrial Design, Mechanical Engineering: The core physical product (such as a home alarm, or a cow-mounted GPS)
  • Information Design, App Design: Development of the Graphic User Interface (GUI) for both the product and app, and any other specialised product display sound or haptic notifications
  • Electronics Design, Software Engineering: Development of the electronics, firmware/software, wireless communications, power management etc. systems.
  • Data Engineering: ‘Cloud’ platforms that collect/process data for both operator and user operations.

A Cobalt IoT Case Study

At Cobalt, the integration of IoT in our product design has been at the forefront of many projects. For instance, the eShepherd virtual herding system, engineered for agri-tech innovator Agersons is a cattle collar that allows farmers to remotely manage and monitor their livestock from any smart device. Cobalt created the heart of the system to be a wireless IoT GPS device, and this allows farmers to construct virtual fences that define grazing areas. The seamless integration of IoT in this project ensures that the livestock are safely, reliably and humanely controlled, and that the welfare of the farmers is also at a priority.

Additionally, Cobalt’s KickerTube design for Concave Sports is an interactive point-of-sale installation where customers can have their kicking speed measured and displayed.

Mechanically, the KickerTube is designed for quick and portable set-ups, and its integrated GUI offers users with instant speed statistics, single and multi-player modes, links to social media and comparison with champion players. This IoT integration provides an immersive physical experience that is unique and memorable.

Cobalt have also successfully integrated IoT into a number of more GUI centred designs, including the Setec Drifter and BM Pro mobile home management devices,  where the IoT systems manage all battery-powered functions for users with a limited tech background.

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A new home for innovation, right on our doorstep

Although Melbourne recently lost its record-breaking title as the world’s most liveable city, perhaps a new innovation precinct, being built literally on Cobalt’s doorstep, will help win back the title.

The new Arden innovation precinct will be located at the western-end of North Melbourne. Once complete it will be home to 15,000 new residents and more than 34,000 jobs, most of them in knowledge industries.  The development will have a focus on innovation technology fields including life sciences, health and education sectors.

The development brings together several ‘smart cities’ initiatives, including sustainability, transport, recreational open spaces and accessible housing.  A cornerstone element will be a new underground station located less than 300m from Cobalt’s offices.

The Metro tunnel line will realign Melbourne’s creative landscape, by further connecting this area with the rest of the city and beyond. The new flagship station will directly link Cobalt and the innovation precinct with key university and health precincts, the city and the St Kilda Rd business district.  As well, the new rail line is planned to extend into the direct city to airport rail connection, allowing staff and clients to be speeding to the airport within a moment’s walk from our offices.

As a company built on collaboration and the ideals of socially responsible design, it will be energising to have access to the range of facilities and transport connections of this new precinct as it evolves in front of our eyes.

Regardless of whether Melbourne regains its title as the world’s most liveable city (although being the second most liveable is pretty good too!), with new initiatives like the Arden precinct  and the innovation, creativity and design it will inspire, we’re sure Melbourne will remain a recognised ‘global knowledge city’.

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Cobalt's Staff Values

Cobalt: Teamwork Unplugged

Cobalt Teamwork Unplugged

A couple of years back, Cobalt undertook a programme with Leading Teams. The process was tremendously inspiring, not surprising, given that whole books have been written about the results Leading Teams have achieved at the highest corporate and elite sports levels.

So a couple of years on, we feel we have enough perspective to give a brief overview of our motivation and outcomes in undertaking our own Leading Teams programme.

For our group, the Leading Teams programme has helped us be our best; professionally and collectively. For our clients and suppliers we hope these have flowed through to better project outcomes. But, recognising internal philosophies can be difficult to see from the outside. We’d like to share these statements (tenets) which we at Cobalt have collectively subscribed to.


Trademarks which define us

Our shared values (Trademarks) are Innovation, Professionalism and Passion. We apply these across our business, and within any role; from Admin to Design to Engineering.

Real support

Meeting deadlines, “Technical challenges,” Engaging with clients and high-pressure situations. Everyone at Cobalt works to support each other and share the load in these peak periods. Actions like cutting some slack, a cup of tea or an offer to stay back late are great examples of our team’s support. At Cobalt, there’s no ‘them’ or ‘me’; there is only ‘us.’

Think “team”; value feedback

Cobalt’s strength lies in our people and each project team. Thinking in teams means valuing and respecting everyone, maintaining solid working relationships and having the right conversations with the right people at the right time. Feedback is given and received positively and maturely, ensuring that the team is putting their best foot forward for the project’s success.

Service the client

Cobalt has one purpose— we exist for our clients. On a company-wide level, we value our client’s needs and wants, being professional, friendly and helpful at all times under every circumstance.

Set your own strategies

Multitasking and managing incoming demands/information is the nature of our business. Being individually organised gives every team member the flexibility to ensure that they and others can get their jobs done. On many tasks Principals or Project Leaders will outline what we need on client projects. At an individual level everyone needs to manage how, when and what is done to achieve these tasks.


We should all expect to go to work and enjoy the experience. Being valued and respected is the standard at Cobalt. We show value and respect by taking care of our own responsibilities, not taking others for granted, being helpful and approachable, being polite and never losing your cool.


While our tenets may seem like obvious factors to consider in any good creative team, it takes conviction and balance to maintain these as aspirations people can rely upon. Every member of our team takes these to heart for in the countless actions, decisions, and steps toward the completion of each client project we undertake. They are what have driven us over our twenty-two years of design practice.

Cobalt is more than just a faceless creative development group — we’re a team. We’re always ready to improve, and we’re ready for any challenge that comes our way.

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KeepCup vs KeepCopy- Is Imitation the Highest Form of Flattery?

Good design has the potential to change behaviours, disrupt established markets or create entirely new ones. When Cobalt started working with KeepCup 10 years ago, we could only dream that it would resonate as much as it has, and launch a whole new product category of barista-standard reusable cups.

However, with success comes others who are bound to take notice.

KeepCup certainly didn’t invent the concept of a reusable cup, but our design and KeepCup’s unwavering drive definitely made it ‘cool’ to bring your own reusable cup to a cafe.

Before Cobalt designed the KeepCup, the few reusable cups the few that existed looked more suited to a picnic than something you’d walk into work with. Once it was clear KeepCup had tapped an unmet need, it wasn’t long before similar products appeared on the market.

Last year, KeepCup called-out coffee giant Gloria Jean’s for copying.
Cobalt developed the original KeepCup Brew, the first ever reusable coffee cup with a commercial quality tempered glass body, natural cork band and overmoulded lid. Gloria Jean, instead of investing in their own design or innovation, took the questionable route of releasing a product that was a dead ringer for KeepCup’s.

A Fight for (Intellectual Property) Rights

KeepCup’s managing director Abigail Forsyth told Broadsheet, “The case boiled down to conduct which causes confusion in the minds of consumers, exploiting the reputation of KeepCup’s products and market presence to take sales. It’s a classic ‘piggybacking’ case.”

Fortunately on this occasion, justice prevailed and Gloria Jean’s removed their ‘KeepCopy’ from sale. But unfortunately, others have and will continue to follow in their footsteps.

In any market, competition is important- it prevents monopoly, and encourages competitors to provide the best product and value to the market. However, when competition involves blatant copying, there are no long-term winners.

Sure, consumers may be attracted by a lower price, but all races to the bottom eventually result in quality so poor, and innovation so thin that consumers are left dissatisfied.

To be clear, Cobalt supports competition including genuine benchmarking where the best products are analysed so they can be improved upon.  And that’s the difference; good design demands real improvement and uniqueness, which is diametrically opposed to a cheap ‘rip-off’ approach.

Despite the boom in this new category, KeepCup is happy to share the market, as long as their competitors aren’t directly plagiarising their products. Back in 2012, KeepCup’s founder Abigail Forsyth told Dumbo Feather magazine, “what KeepCup is about is getting people to stop using disposable coffee cups, so it’s fantastic if anyone makes a product who can help with that”

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2017 Year in Review

2017- Cobalt’s Year in Review

2017 has been a big year, full of laughter, tears, and a brand new version of Photoshop which our design team is all over right now. Here at Cobalt, it’s been a big year for us too- we’ve grown, taken on more projects than ever and finalized projects that have been years in the making. Like the end of every design project, it’s always good to take a look back on the year that happened and evaluate your progress.

This year alone we’ve taken on 62 new projects, ranging from long-term partnerships to shorter workshops and even a pro-bono project for the Peter McCallum Cancer Centre. Alongside this, we’ve wrapped up 38 projects; finalising designs and shipping off prototypes ready for mass production. It’s safe to say that everyone from our design, engineering and admin teams has been busier than ever, and we have them to thank for this year’s grand success.

We’ve had the opportunity to work with so many amazing clients in the past year. We’ve reconvened with returning clients like HeartSine Technologies and V-Core, working on improving existing projects or starting new ventures together. Alongside these returning faces, we’ve made so many more connections with brand new clients like MOG laboratories, the Gentle Roller Company and Drue Vickery, paving the way for new projects and inspiring brand new creations.

In 2017 the Cobalt family has grown, welcoming Kate Bednarz as Project Leader, who joins to the Design team having worked in a manufacturing company for the last 8 years. Ethan Catt also joins us as a Media and Communications intern, ready to manage Cobalt’s social media, website and socially responsible design blog ‘Less by Design.’ This article you’re reading right now? I- uh, I mean “He,” wrote it. You’re welcome.

So thank you to all our wonderful clients, suppliers, contractors and staff for working with us this year. And here’s to an even brighter 2018 for all.

This year, we at Cobalt are feeling humble and reflective. We’d like to take a moment to thank all of our wonderful clients for giving us one of our most successful years, and we’d like to thank all of our wonderful designers, engineers and admin team for making all this success possible.

Happy holidays!

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Peter MacCallum Christmas Ornament 2017

The Peter MacCallum Christmas Ornament: a project in the spirit of the season

This year, the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre partnered with Cobalt to create a decorative ornament to be hung on the Government House Christmas Tree. When Peter Mac approached Cobalt for the partnership, we were thrilled to provide our experience and expertise completely pro-bono, in the spirit of the giving season.

Two Peter Mac patients; Anastasia and Chianna worked directly alongside Cobalt to bring their ideas to life. They put their passions for design and creativity to work, brainstorming ideas and concepts that truly represented Peter Mac’s services and facilities, and we at Cobalt in turn provided our resources and experience with product development and manufacturing to help make the ornament a reality.

The key concept behind the ornament was “Soft on the inside; hard on the outside,” representing how patients at Peter Mac can feel both fragile and supported at the same time. The glass bauble is filled with swirling feathers and reflective curves, symbolising the fog of treatment and the introspection patients can encounter during their difficult times. The ornament is topped by a large, angular cap, representing and inspired by Peter Mac and their purple branding.

“Our first reaction was to think like professional designers,” says Cobalt principal Steve Martinuzzo, who lead the project, “but after our first working meeting we realised our role was to facilitate what Chiana and Anastasia wanted to do.”

“They had some insightful themes they wanted to convey. One was how they experienced both fragility and strength. They also wanted to explore the notion of reflection; how we all see things differently through the prism of cancer.”

To support Anastasia and Chiana’s ideas, Cobalt used their experience and resources to help bring their concepts to life. The bauble is topped with a 3D printed cap, specifically designed to represent Peter Mac and their resources. The internal mirror symbolising the idea of ‘reflection’ has been crafted into a spiral shape, twisting the clouded feathers inside the clear glass sphere.

We at Cobalt are very proud to have been given the opportunity to work on such a meaningful project, and we’re overjoyed to have shared this experience with Anastasia and Chianna. The ornament was presented to the governor on Friday the 15th, and will be hung for all to see on the Government House Christmas Tree.

piles of trash bottles coloured grey and blue



Sustainability has rightly grown from a fringe idea about being ‘green’ to being a positive movement affecting all areas of our lives.

Within its wider definition of ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’, the idea of sustainability has expanded to also consider outcomes that are environmentally, socially and financially responsible for the world as a whole.

Given the enormity of this and the range of values and competing positions which could be considered within this definition, sustainable design is not an easy objective to fully resolve.

However, the scale of the challenge shouldn’t be an excuse as to not try. Whilst total sustainability may be a near-impossible dream, it is possible and readily achievable to do things better than we have in the past and to improve our world’s sustainability through good design.

Design: Problem or Solution

Most designers, at their core, want to improve the world. But design and new product development are activities within our wider and imperfect world, so at times, and especially in the past, designers have been part of the problem and not the solution.

New products can bring true benefits to people; people individually, people within companies or collectively within a society. For example, advances in diagnostic and therapeutic devices have improved health outcomes and the quality of life for most people in developed countries. There are countless other everyday examples. Although less noble, products like cordless kettles, multi-geared bicycles or quick-drying footwear are products that improve our daily lives through good design.

As well benefiting consumers, the very development and manufacture of products can also bring overall wealth and meaning to societies as witnessed in places such as Japan, Singapore and Eastern Europe- just to name a few.

But design, along with corporate, marketing and economic agendas, continues to be used as an agent for meaningless change, pandering to developed societies’ insecurities and selfishness. Like the societies in which it operates, elements of design have become tools for wasteful consumption.

In these ways design is a contributor to the problem of sustainability. But for us, design that is exclusive, indulgent and aesthetically-driven is contrary to our core values and our view of design.

Good design = Green design

For some products, up to 80% of a product’s environmental impact is defined during design and engineering stages, so careful design makes sense all round.

Good design principles, and Cobalt’s socially responsible approach can have a substantial, positive impact on a product’s sustainability performance. Some of these principles include:

  • Performance. Functionality and ‘fitness-for-purpose’ are paramount to good design. When a user has their needs met by a well-designed product they are more likely to keep and use the product without replacement or augmentation. In contrast, a product that does not deliver on its implied purpose through poor performance or design is likely to be replaced or discarded prematurely.

  • Simplicity. To us good design seeks to be elegantly simple. A common mantra is ‘less is more’. As a rule we will always seek to develop designs with the minimum number of parts, processes and materials necessary to perform the required functions.
  • Manufacturing. Design for Manufacturing and Assembly (DFMA) is another basic design objective we use and equates to easy assembly and disassembly- a prerequisite for effective recycling.

Green design = Mainstream business

It’s no coincidence these principles also make good business in terms of reduced cost of goods, brand-appeal and product quality.

And there’s no doubt ‘sustainability’ is rapidly rising as a purchasing criteria for more and more consumers. Even if businesses don’t believe in the ideals, it simply makes business sense to give the market what it wants; more sustainable alternatives.

Over the next few years there will be a rise in overtly sustainable products, like water-saving plant pots or fair-trade homewares. Already here and growing quickly, sustainability as a product attribute will be absolutely mainstream, much in the same way that ‘quality’ and ‘safety’ have become standard within successful brands rather than an extra bonus

What are we doing about it?

We make it our business to learn, improve and keep trying to improve our response to the challenge of being more sustainable.

New sustainability tools to help guide designs are being developed constantly. Here at Cobalt we use a variety of databases and online tools so that we have current information for:

  • Material properties (recyclability status, energy and water consumption rates)
  • LCA tools to help decide between design alternatives
  • Latest materials and products (low-power LEDs, motors, low-VOC paints)
  • International standards (RHOS2, WEEE)
  • Recycling acceptance and conventions

Design Integration for Business

Design Integration for Business

Design to Business (D2B) Integration is a structured audit, planning and mentoring programme which helps companies build design into their business activities in order to become more innovative and achieve sustained competitiveness and growth, especially through export opportunities.

The programme does this by allowing participating firms to build their own capabilities in design management, making design central and integrated within their business. Cobalt was one of the first Australian consultancies involved in the programme, with Managing Director Steve Martinuzzo being an Auditor since it was first piloted in Victoria in 2011.

D2B Integration is yet another successful New Zealand export, that Australians are making their own. It originated from the highly successful ‘Better by Design’ programme developed over 10 years ago by a small group of senior Kiwi design and business practitioners who decided business needed more support in understanding how to use design. Since then the programme has been tuned and run several times in Australia at both state and Commonwealth levels.

Straight from the CEO’s mouth

Other similar programmes, such as Britain’s Design Leadership Programme also focus on making design an integral part of business and supercharging their drive for innovation and user centred offerings. Like these, most of the NZ and Australian companies who have participated in the programme have benefited, and some have had truly astonishing successes. Consequently the CEOs of these organisations end up becoming the biggest advocates of the programme, and champion design thinking throughout their organisations. Some of these stories include:

Phil & Teds: Baby Buggies, NZ. CEO Campbell Gower credits the programme for providing clarity that allowed them to align their brand and product design. The result: a 10-fold increase in turnover in less than 5yrs.

Centor: Windows and Door Systems, Qld. After Nigel Spork undertook the D2B programme (called Ulysses in Qld) he transformed his financially crippled family business into a booming global leader by embracing new product development and truly understanding the end user of their products. They have since been recognised by multiple business and product awards and launching its products in the US and UK to international acclaim.

Branach Ladders: Specialised Ladders, Victoria. CEO Mike Walsh credits the programme’s audit and on-going mentoring with committing the company to serious technical research and energising company with a vision of what they could become.

According to Steve Martinuzzo, the audit and plan phases include a series of interviews with the client’s senior management and key personnel over four days. The audit team consists of three highly experienced professionals; a business analyst, a product designer and a brand designer. The process is not for the faint hearted with participants challenged to have their culture, strategy, product, process and brand aligned as well as bullishly aimed at being the best in the world in the business they choose to operate.

The result is a plan to address and build on the key issues, challenges and opportunities from which the company can build from. To support and build capabilities with the key people within the organisation, the programme offers 12 months of mentoring where regular input from an appointed mentor and structured workshops guide the company toward truly embedding new thinking and capabilities within their own team and processes.

Firms which qualify for the Victorian funded programme receive audit and mentoring services valued at approximately $80,000, whilst only investing $9,000.

“Unlike other programmes I’ve seen, D2B works by embedding a strong design philosophy throughout the entire company, starting with its senior management team. It’s not about designers telling them what to do, it’s about the business building their own capabilities themselves” says Steve. “Once positive results of this integrated approach start to be realised the internal appetite for innovation and user-centred products really flourish. For companies with courage, D2B can be the kickstart they need to transform their focus to be world’s best in their chosen space”.

For more information or to apply for the D2B Integration programme contact:

Leonard Carrillo
Design to Business Program Manager

Entrepreneur mum


Mum’s the Word

A month ago it was a term we had only heard once or twice. Since then it is everywhere. Like it or not, ‘Mumpreneur’ is the word.

The concept of mums who decide to develop a new business has been trending into all sorts of business and social discussions. But don’t worry if this is the first time you have heard the term; mumpreneur was only been listed in the Collins Dictionary since 2011.

According to Fiona Lewis founder of Ausmumpreneurs Online, a mumpreneur is: “A woman who starts a business to follow a vision, to make money, and to be the master of her own soul in a way that will allow her to fulfil her role as a parent in a way that she desires”. Business woman and ‘business coach for the brave’, Maureen Pound believes “there’s a lot of polarisation around whether the term mumpreneur is patronising or empowering, but also concedes “that people in Australia still don’t like the word entrepreneur”.

Fertile conditions

Without knowing the term, it turns out over the years we have worked with several women with ideas and determination (mumpreneurs) and helped them develop their idea through the critical design stage. But recently the numbers have begun to rise, and it’s interesting to note some of the likely reasons that have combined to suit these new entrants into the world of new product development:

Smart. Many mums are very clever, and had successful professional careers before children. Like anyone, mums don’t stop being smart when children come along!

Opportunity. Being smart is a given, but mum’s are faced with a new world of needs, challenges and products that babies and children blissfully generate. And mum’s generally have time to think about these and use their smarts to think about ‘what if’. The old proverb ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ should be updated with ‘…and mumpreneurs are the people that will do the inventing’

Work/Life Balance. Increasingly we are all becoming aware of building balance into our lives, and having children just reinforces this. Unlike re-entering the work force in a regular job, creating a business around your interests and circumstances offers lots of flexibility and the ability to scale-up or down to achieve the right work/life balance.

The Age of Open Manufacturing. The world has seen a transformation in the notion and availability of manufacturing. Manufacturing especially from emerging economies like China, and aided by CAD related technologies and digital communications means that never before has it been as accessible and affordable for local newcomers to get products made. This change creates a perfect place for mumpreneurs to flourish.

Success stories

Our experience with mumpreneurs has included many ideas around baby’s needs. Some of these are new, whilst others are born from the frustration that  existing products don’t do what they should.

But mumpreneurs should not and do not confine themselves to the immediate world of being a mum. One of our most successful entrepreneurs is the co-founder of KeepCup, Abigail Forsyth. It took becoming a mum and taking time out on maternity leave to force Abigail to rethink her career. “It was that compulsory pause that gave me the courage to do KeepCup” Abigail said in a recent interview with Map Magazine.

Our five secrets for successful mumpreneurship

  • Think global. Research the state of the art wherever it is in the world, so you can leapfrog this. Even if your idea is all about local markets, aiming to be the best in the world in your way is the place to start.
  • Work with excellent local experts to develop the brand, product design and engineering, as well as intellectual property and licencing strategies. Form trust-based relationships and then consider their advice.
  • Be open minded to manufacturing options including using local and overseas suppliers and supply chains.
  • Remember the product idea is only one link in a longer chain. To build a sound business around a product it takes most elements to be functional and aligned. This includes financial, marketing, sales, distribution and legal. Don’t let this overwhelm you, but don’t ignore it either.
  • Utilise any local grants that governments have from time to time to encourage new business. Even if these are not in themselves great amounts, the intangibles of applying can really give your idea and business a kickstart in seed funding, publicity, contacts, information or access to other services. (Cobalt is a registered provider to one such scheme in Victoria, Australia, see link)Whether you like the term or not (BTW we are not sold on it, it’s too hard to spell!) ‘mumpreneurs’ are here to stay and we can only see more amazing products and businesses from this space happening into the future.

Design means business: Bus

Design Means Business

Design needed to invigorate economy

Recently Melbournians have noticed a new and distinctive vehicle zipping along the city’s tram tracks. The new tram is the first of 50 new E-Class vehicles scheduled for deployment across Melbourne’s tram network. The E-class is the longest tram ever to grace Melbourne’s tracks. With its size and striking design the tram has been turning heads of Melbourne café goers and tram-spotting gunzels alike.

The E-Class trams are truly innovative with, among other features, dedicated wheelchair spaces, low floors and external safety cameras. As stated by Victorian Premier, Denis Napthine; “The great thing about these E-Class trams is that they were designed in Melbourne, (and) built in Melbourne, for Melbourne conditions.”Melbourne has had trams in continuous operation since 1884 and currently boasts the largest urban tram network in the world. Given this history and Melbourne’s strength in transport design and manufacturing, it’s interesting that these are the city’s first locally designed and manufactured trams.

Manufacturing’s decline

Australia, like many western countries, has witnessed a dwindling in the profitability of its manufacturing sector over recent decades. This has driven companies to announce closures of their Victorian operations in the last five years, including Pac Brands and more recently Ford Motor Company. These closures are of particular concern for the Victorian economy. The $30.8 billion manufacturing sector is the largest single full-time employer in Victoria. If the challenges facing the manufacturing sector cannot be addressed soon, Victoria may experience a period of significant economic stress.

Tapping into our inherent innovation

For many years the Australian economy has been an oligopoly, insulating businesses from the rigours of fierce competition. This environment has bred a generation of companies in Australia that have been able to achieve success without the need for world standard innovation. Despite this, as a nation we are an exceptionally creative and innovative people with a heritage of innovative thinking that has changed the world as we know it. The use of stainless steel tanks in the wine industry and the ‘black box’ in-flight recorder are two particular examples of Australian innovations that have made a significant contribution to the modern world.

Design is the process used to develop creative ideas into innovative solutions that create value for a business and an economy. Design leads to the development of Intellectual Property (IP) and generates new opportunities for manufacturers, while giving business a unique competitive advantage. Design is the key to the commercialisation of Research & Development (R&D). Our world class design capabilities cannot be effectively utilised without appropriate investment in R&D. Alarmingly, given the threat to our manufacturing sector, Australia has seen a reduction in R&D investment. In FY2012 Australia’s $18.3 billion R&D spend decreased from 1.28% to 1.24% of GDP. Most disturbing is the trend of R&D spending in the manufacturing sector, reducing from 36% of total R&D spending to 24% in the 6 years from 2006.

The UK government’s 2005 Cox Review examined how British industry could use design to ensure the nation’s long-term economic success. The report is highly relevant for Australia as both countries have strong design industries that have been underutilised in the development of innovative and implementable solutions. The Cox Review advocated the use of design to revitalise Small to Medium Enterprises (SMEs). Given SMEs contributed 46% of Australia’s GDP in 2006, the findings are clearly relevant. The Cox Review recommends that one source of stimulation for the local manufacturing sector is through public procurement – driving more innovative, locally designed and locally manufactured products. State and Federal government organisations can play a key role in reversing Australia’s recent trend of R&D spending reductions.

Using design; A win, win, win

As announced by Denis Napthine in July of this year, the E-Class tram resulted in the creation of 500 jobs at manufacturer Bombardier. The local content requirements of the E-class tram tender process are a perfect example of how government organisations can drive the use of local design to develop innovative solutions and create local manufacturing jobs. In addition to boosting the manufacturing sector, using Australian design, made the vehicle a genuinely local product, improving operator and end user ‘buy-in’, while creating local jobs within the product design industry.

There is little doubt that effective design can drive the development of products that create manufacturing opportunities and contribute to growth for businesses, sectors and economies. Within the spirit of the Cox Review, the new Melbourne E-Class tram is a successful Australian example of deliberate planning and good design leading to new and real jobs. However, Australia needs more brave and long-sighted policy and legislation to support the use of design in invigorating our economy. In 2005 the Cox Review suggested there was a 5-10 year window of opportunity, for the use of design to drive economic success. If it is not already too late for us here in Australia, we are definitely on borrowed time.