Is the end nigh for manufacturing in Australia? That has been the question asked in recent days after Ford announced its plans to end decades of car manufacturing in Australia.
It's a sad outcome, especially for the many workers and their families who will be affected.
The closure is a reminder of the harsh economic realities. The value of our currency remains high, more Australians are buying imported cars and the world is a far more competitive place to do business.
Recent data by the Australian Bureau of Statistics confirms a transformation of the Australian economy. The manufacturing sector shrank last year, and has gone backwards for two of the past three years. It has grown a mere 0.2 per cent over the past five years.
So do we have a manufacturing future in the country?
My answer is a definite yes- but not in traditional areas, which are in relative economic decline.
To ensure we have industries generating clever jobs, global jobs and well-paid jobs, we must be prepared to embrace change and build on our comparative advantages.
I believe our strength, which we have yet to fully take advantage of, is in the high-tech fields of plant and equipment design, servicing and remote technologies in support of the mining and energy industries.
We need to manufacture the ideas and the technology that will put us, and keep us, at the forefront of the global resources sector.
Australia, particularly WA, is regarded across the world as a leader in the resources and energy sector. Not just because we are fortunate to have vast reserves of high quality minerals and energy that the world demands, but also because we have a highly sophisticated and innovative support and services industry.
The tens of billions of dollars being invested in WA on new gas projects have helped evolve the State's economy.
WA has had among the highest rates of economic growth, lowest levels of unemployment and one of the fastest growing populations in the country.
Some of this prosperity is driven by the construction boom, but the huge capital investments of today will require equally huge maintenance and servicing expenditures over projected project life spans of three or four decades.
This presents an enormous opportunity in which local knowledge and geographic proximity count.
This is an area in which we have already carved out an international reputation.
For example, University of WA academics, in partnership with leading oil and gas companies, operating here and abroad, are undertaking world-leading research into the most effective anchoring systems for offshore oil and gas projects, along with designing pipelines that can withstand the extreme conditions deep below the sea.
This research and knowledge will not just be beneficial to local projects, but also can be exported to the world. If done right, the world will come to WA to access our expertise.
So what's standing in our way?
From my perspective, not much. The key missing ingredient is the commitment to succeed.
We need political champions who will work with industry and research organisations such as universities to develop a blueprint to ensure our full potential is realised.
I will be raising these issues with senior political figures to discuss this once in a generation opportunity to invest in the skills needed for a new type of ‘manufacturing' industry - one that produces ideas and technological solutions - and explore how we can make it happen.
WA is in a position to become a global centre of excellence in research, design and development for offshore engineers and floating systems - and in many other areas of support for our resources industries.
So rather than asking the question, does manufacturing have a future in Australia, we should be asking, do we support the development of a new 21st century industry what will entrench the State as a global resources leader?
I am sure you will join me in answering "yes".
By Professor Paul Johnson, Vice-Chancellor, UWA
(first printed in The West Australian - 4 June 2013)