Memjet is a world-leading printing technology company. Now it’s helping to bring manufacturing back to Australia with advanced robotics.
The company is also committed to backing local supply chains and Australian innovation.
‘There’s big benefits to vertical integration in Australia,’ says Jason Thelander, Chief Technology Officer, Memjet. ‘We have a stable economy, great scientific and engineering capability as well as a highly skilled workforce. With new robotics and ultra-smart software, our manufacturing is competitive with Asia.’
Memjet’s new factory in North Ryde, Sydney will start producing the cores for commercial printing machines in December 2022.
‘Local manufacturing means a US$15–20 million increase on Australian value add per year,’ says Thelander. ‘And 100% of our output will be exported.’
Memjet is a pioneer of advanced digital ink-jet printing technologies. The printing ‘engines’ that Memjet creates are the brains in many of the world’s best-known printing machine brands. This includes brands like Canon, Konica Minolta, PCMC, MGI and Gallus.
Most of the company’s design and research and development (R&D) work is executed in Australia. Over the past 7 years, the company has registered 183 patents, with most held in Australia and the United States. Until recently, however, most print engine assembly was done overseas, in particular in northeast Asia.
‘A typical print engine might have print heads from Australia, inks from Japan, and other subsystems from Singapore and Malaysia,’ says Thelander. ‘The print engine would be assembled overseas and then exported to assembly plants around the world. For most models, about 70—80% of the value-add happened in Asia.’
In July 2021, Memjet finished the design of its latest print engine. Executives had to decide where to assemble it. Several factors made executives think again about investing in Asia.
One major factor played into the investment decision. Memjet wanted to consolidate its global supply chains.
‘Every country has been hit by supply chain issues over the past few years,’ says Thelander. ‘Like all companies we want to reduce risk.
‘The advantage of bringing manufacturing back to Australia and vertically integrating is you get more control. We are more in control of our supply chains and our margins.’
In July 2021, Memjet decided to bring four product lines for printer engines back from Asia. Memjet built a new factory in North Ryde, Sydney.
The company bought new artificial intelligence (AI)-powered robots from Germany and wrote software – called ‘the juggler’– that tells them how to prioritise work. This means the robots can switch between manufacturing tasks without human intervention. And it means the company can maximise the efficient use of time in a particular manufacturing cell.
Thelander says the new Australia-made strategy includes sourcing most components from suppliers in Australia.
‘When we reach full production about 80% of the parts for our Australia-built print engines will come from Australia,’ he says. ‘For example, we used to get most of our dye inks from international suppliers. Now, all of them will be sourced from Australia.
Thelander believes strongly in the future of advanced manufacturing in Australia.
‘Advanced manufacturing can deliver a big reduction in factory head-counts,’ says Thelander. ‘The combination of new robotics and smart software means we can reduce manual labour by a factor of between 4 and 7.
‘So, a printhead production line in Asia that used to require 106 people now needs just 28 here in Australia. And we think we can ultimately get that labour requirement down to 15. This means we can do more with the same headcount.
‘Advanced manufacturing makes Australia competitive with Asia. It is not that we are “taking jobs” with automation: these jobs would have never existed in Australia — they would have gone overseas along with the supply chain.’
Memjet’s breakthroughs in efficient manufacturing will mean it can help other innovators. The North Ryde factory will include a collaborative manufacturing centre, and house 140 engineers and scientists.
The key is agility. With new AI robotics, Memjet can quickly reconfigure its manufacturing spaces to execute small production runs for external organisations – such as medtechs and electronic-product developers. This helps innovators, startups and university spinoffs to make and test prototypes. Adaptable manufacturing spaces also enable innovators to refine their manufacturing processes.
‘This is a revolution in manufacturing,’ says Thelander. ‘It will take us just 90 minutes to reconfigure a production cell from manufacturing one product to another.’
This approach could deliver huge potential benefits to entrepreneurs, he explains. It means they can quickly assess the commercial potential of their prototypes without having to invest in their own manufacturing line. Entrepreneurs just need to configure “workstations” for their product and design the grippers. All other systems are already in the cell.
‘If you want to be competitive, you need the ability to effectively assemble parts with the lowest possible headcount,’ says Thelander.
‘Our new robots and ultra-smart software enable us to quickly manufacture high-tech, low-run components for other innovators,’ he adds. ‘We can also assemble parts with minimum human input. This is high-efficiency collaborative manufacturing — and it has a great future in Australia.’