The Commonwealth Government sponsored Rail Manufacturing CRC is looking to create more partnerships between rail businesses and universities in its final open funding round. Rail Express spoke with Chief Executive Officer Dr Stuart Thomson about the CRC’s model, and what could be next for the organisation.
The proposal to form a Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) for Australia’s rail manufacturing sector came from the ‘On Track to 2040’ program.
Subsequently, the Rail Manufacturing CRC was established in 2014 and will operate for a period of six years, funded by the Business Cooperative Research Centres Programme of the Australian Government’s Department of Industry, Innovation and Science.
Since commencing, the Rail Manufacturing CRC has held two funding rounds, and now embarks on its third and final round, with submissions due early next year.
“Our focus is set by industry,” Dr Thomson told Rail Express. “It’s very industry-led. Part of [On Track to 2040] was developing a 30-year strategy for the rail industry, and three specific research areas were identified, which we’ve committed to as our three key objectives.”
The CRC’s three research program themes are ‘power and propulsion’, ‘materials and manufacturing’, and ‘design, modelling and simulation’. Within each theme there are already several ongoing projects, which each see at least one industry member partnered with a university or research institution.
“When the Centre began, we had an initial number of members who joined the Centre,” Thomson explained. “Our membership ranged from the tier-one manufacturers, right through the SMEs, and now we have operators on board as well … because they are clients for a lot of our work.”
Companies already undertaking CRC-driven projects include Knorr-Bremse, Bombardier, UGL, OneSteel, Downer, CRRC, and Sydney Trains. Academic and research institutions include the University of Technology Sydney, the CSIRO, the University of Queensland, the University of Wollongong, CQ University, QUT, Deakin University, Swinburne, Monash University and RMIT.
To take part in research, companies are invited to approach the CRC with an idea for new R&D. The CRC will match their funding – with grants worth up to $1 million in this third round of funding – and help partner those companies up with the most suitable universities and researchers.
“We’re set up to provide capacity for business who want to undertake research that, perhaps is either very high risk [technically], or requires extra skillsets, for organisations which typically may not have those people working inhouse.
“Australia has an excellent research history. It punches well above its weight globally. I think that’s underutilised at the moment within the rail industry, and our focus is really to ensure that rail makes the most of those skillsets and opportunities.”
The CRC’s third round of funding is open to applications until early March 2018.
“We work with rail businesses to identify innovation opportunities and introduce them to identify the universities they could partner with,” Thomson explained. “Then we start to engage with the universities to find the right people, and develop a project brief.”
Thomson says the CRC will match any amount of funding, “whether it’s $50,000, or $1 million,” for the right project.
“The money is then used to fund activities and supply equipment for that project,” he explained. “Typically, the money goes to support labour costs within the university undertaking the project.
“Obviously, because it’s taxpayers’ money, there must be a benefit to Australia, so a lot of the support is for either projects that are specific to Australia, or would help the development of intellectual property and technologies that are going to have a distinct benefit to Australia.”
The CRC helps coordinate the intellectual property (IP) and technology ownership agreements between the industry participant and university in each project upfront, and Thomson says these deals are established early in each project’s development.
“Our model is very simple,” he explained. “We don’t take any ownership of any of the IP. The IP terms and conditions, and the commercialisation rights, will be negotiated between the parties – the university and the industry participant. That’s specified in the agreements, and is all done prior to the project starting. It’s very much a commercial contract.”
With over a dozen ongoing projects, there is no limit to how many – or how few – the CRC may take on in its third and final funding round.
“There’s no set number,” Thomson said. “It’s really about the quality of the projects. Where we feel that it’s answering a need, there’s a benefit for Australia, and there’s going to be a benefit to the industry, we will support those projects.”
The CRC has a prescribed lifetime of six years, and has just passed the halfway point. After the final round of projects are selected, they will be expected to commence in April 2018, and run for up to 18 months.
“The success of the [CRC] will really be borne out by the outcomes of the projects, and we have a number of them ongoing,” Thomson said.
“The CRC has two missions: one is to develop projects with industry, and the second is to train the next tier of postgraduate researchers for the rail industry. We currently have over 20 PhD students, and so our current focus is keeping them within the rail industry, making sure they engage with the industry participants we’re dealing with and increase the knowledge within the industry.”
Longer term, the CRC will be seeking to establish a new proposal to take to the Commonwealth and will be seeking continued funding for the rail sector.
Thomson believes the continued development of Australia’s intellectual property will help it continue to thrive in the rail space.
“It’s clear that the next ten years is really going to be a golden era for rail. I think events like this become more and more important, given the amount of work that’s on, but also in helping the industry to shape its thoughts and strategies,” he said.
“Because we’ve got this period where the [work] pipeline is going to be full for an extended period of time, it creates both challenges and opportunities for the rail sector. Keeping and retaining qualified staff in the industry is just one example of this.
“Traditional manufacturing is one thing that will benefit over the next few years, but there’s also a period of time we’re reaching, where business can look to diversify what they’re doing to develop niche technologies,” he said.
“Through intellectual property – and the protection of that intellectual property – we can create new industries, that will hopefully create new export opportunities. So it’s an exciting time for rail, and AusRAIL helps play a major part in shaping how we’ll go forward in the future.”
Applications for Rail Manufacturing CRC’s third funding round close on March 9, 2018. Visit www.rmcrc.com.au/register-your-project to find out more.