Episode #4 – Derek Buckmaster and Steve Atkiss from Carbon Nexus

Carbon Fibre Wheel

In this fourth episode of the InnovaBuzz  podcast, Derek Buckmaster and Steve Atkiss of Carbon Nexus in Geelong talk about innovation in the advanced materials industry, an open-access, state of the art pilot production facility for carbon fibre, combined with a fundamental research facility.  Listen to the inteview to learn what Derek and Steve shared with us on the podcast.

Listen to the Podcast

Watch the Video

I’m giving away a copy of my “Seven Website Design Secrets to get you MORE Sales”  Workshop Video, Workbook and Resources Guide valued at $97.  Just tell us, in the comments below, what’s the most innovative use of carbon fibre technology that you know today and what benefits that carbon fibre is bringing  to that particular application. In few weeks I’ll ask Derek and Steve to swing by and award the prize.

Show Highlights

Some of the highlights of this episode include:

  • Carbon Nexus is a state of the art pilot production facility for carbon fibre, intended for open-access industry research
  • Carbon Nexus work closely with the research scientists at Deakin University and the Victorian Centre for Advanced Materials and Manufacturing, to form a world class centre of expertise in carbon fibre production and development
  • Research scientists working with operators on a production line and software engineers to design control systems, leads to a very strong cross-functional team, that drives innovation across all areas
  • A focus on solving customer problems and adding value through research

The Buzz – Our Innovation Round

Here are Derek and Steve’s answers to the questions of our Innovation round.  Watch the interview to get the full scoop.

  • #1 thing to be innovative – Ask more questions and listen
  • Best thing for new ideas – cross-functional teams and experiences as well as widely different viewpoints from people of different backgrounds and experience
  • Favourite tool for innovation – brainstorming with Post-It pads, as well as giving researchers and engineers first hand experience on the production line
  • Keep project / client on track – regular clear and accurate communication and feedback
  • Differentiate – unique equipment, combined with unique and highly skilled people that understand the customer problems

Reach Out

You can reach out and thank Derek and Steve via the Carbon Nexus website – carbonnexus.com.au

Suggested Guest

Derek suggested I interview Brian Hawkett from Sydney University – Brian, keep an eye on your Inbox for an invitation from me, for the Innovabuzz Podcast!

Competition Hint

Hint: to enter the competition, leave a comment under the video and tell us the most innovative use of carbon fibre technology that you know today and what benefits that carbon fibre is bringing  to that particular application.


Full Transcript

Click to read….

Hi, I’m Jürgen Strauss from Innovabiz. Welcome to Episode No 4 of the InnovaBuzz Podcast – designed to help smart businesses with an interest in innovation and the Internet of Things become even more innovative.

In this episode, our guests are Derek Buckmaster and Steve Atkiss from Carbon Nexus in Geelong, Australia and they are going to tell us about their brand new, open-access research facility, dedicated to carbon fibre research. This facility is setup to take advantage of world’s leading scientific expertise (at Deakin University) in advanced composite materials, combined with a state of the art pilot production facility that gives the researchers the ability to develop materials, conduct experiments on the pilot line and improve materials and processes at the same time.

Both Derek and Steve emphasize in the interview, that Carbon Nexus are not just about carbon fibre, but about providing solutions to their customers.  They talk about techniques that they use in the research and development community to be more innovative and particularly, the “technique of 5 Whys”.

Today’s innovation tip is indeed, based on the technique of the Five Whys.  This technique was originally devised by Toyota as the basis of their scientific method in the 1930s but was not widely used until the Total Quality movement of the 1970s and then gained more popularity as one of the tools within the Six Sigma methodology, both as problem solving tools.  Our tip, though, involves the use of the Five Whys technique in developing ideas.  The basic principle is that once you have a problem or need or idea defined that you wish to expand on, ask why five times, each time working with the answer to the last why.  At the end of five why questions, you will likely have a range of alternate ideas or approaches that can form the basis of new approaches to the original question or problem.  For example, consider the following software application  that is not getting a lot of paid users – initially the company began adding sharing buttons to the app – Why? Because they wanted to find more users. Why? Because existing users aren’t converting to paid users at a satisfactory rate.  Why? Because they are not engaged with the product.  Why? Because the training in use of the product is poor and user abandon the application after trying out for a short time.  Why is the training poor?  Because you’ve been too busy ironing out the bugs to develop the training.

So we now see that adding social apps may not get us the result we want.  Focusing our time and effort on ironing out the bugs and developing the training probably will have a greater effect in achieving the desired result.

So look a the Five Why’s technique, next time you are developing ideas or solutions to a need.

Before we meet Derek and Steve, I’ll announce this week’s competition prize, which is sponsored by Innovabiz – that is a copy of our workshop “Seven Website Design Secrets to Get you More Sales”  – that’s a video series together with the workbook and resources guide, so stick around for details on how you can enter the draw to win that prize later on in the video.

So stay with us, let’s get into the Innovation Hive and get the Buzz from Derek and Steve at Carbon Nexus.

Carbon Nexus

Jürgen: Hi I’m Jürgen Strauss and I’m pleased to have here with me today Derek Buckmaster who is the Director of Carbon Nexus in Geelong.  Welcome, Derek! It’s great to have you on the InnovaBuzz Podcast!

Derek: Thanks, Jurgen. It’s good to be here!

Jürgen: Now today we’re going to be talking about all things Innovation in advanced composite materials and how to build a business from an idea, technology and an expertise but before we do that, a quick competition announcement.  I’m going to be giving away a copy of my workshop “Seven Website Design Secrets to get you MORE Sales”. That’s a video series together with a workbook and resources guide. So, stay tuned later on in the interview to find out how you can enter the draw to win that prize.

Okay, Derek – so before we learn a little bit more about Carbon Nexus and some of the fantastic things you are doing there, tell us a little bit more of your background. When you were a young child, what did you want to be when you grow up?

Derek: Well, strangely enough when I was a really young child – I wanted to be a truck driver. Myself and a few of my mates were always in awe of the big freight liners and Macks  and white trucks that we’re driving around in our areas. So that was the epitomy of power and prestige to us.

Jürgen: Okay.

Derek: I pretty soon moved on to architect and then airline pilot.

Jürgen: Okay, Airline pilot – that’s an interesting transition from trucks to airlines?

Derek:  It was but again that was a pretty much the glamour of driving a 747 around.

Jürgen: So where did the journey take you then?

Derek: Well, you know I always enjoyed making things and I guess I picked some of that up from my father who was a very hands on sort of guy. So I ended up studying Engineering after leaving high school and getting into a number of interesting areas based on being a mechanical engineer.

Jürgen:  Okay and then you’ve got into the advanced materials industry very early on, right?

Derek: Yeah, when you make things you see at home – you end up using composites even without knowing it; wood and glue and the sort of things I was making which were model aircraft and boats or things like that actually needed composite materials to start with. So very early on, I knew what advanced composite materials were.

My career as I came out of the University, I started work in a manufacturing company in Australia – manufacturing heating equipment.  So that was a very interesting introduction to industry and then moved into a research position with the State Government Department at the Werribee Research Farm. We’re doing some research into aerial spraying of crops. That was pretty interesting and then an opportunity came with General Electric to go and train and do some work overseas in CAD CAM and that was around 1986-87 and CAD CAM was pretty interesting so I jumped into that opportunity.

Jürgen: Yeah, it was one of the big new things there, wasn’t it?

Derek: It was indeed. Yes we were using some fairly advanced computers but even though they were advanced, we often had to wait overnight for a job to complete and come in the morning to see what the results looked like.

Jürgen: That’s right -and if you made a mistake in the programming and on the way you will only find out the next day, wouldn’t you?

Derek:  That’s right, you have start up again.

Jürgen: So when did you get involved in the Carbon Fibre Industry and advanced composites of that nature?

Derek: Yeah, well advanced composites of carbon fibre really happened about 6 or 7 years ago. I’d been working in the plastics business in General Electric and that whole business was acquired by a Saudi-based company called SABIC and I moved to cross the headquarters of SABIC at that time and started working with them in building several businesses and carbon fibre was in my portfolio – so that’s how I was introduced deeply into carbon fibre.

Jürgen: Okay

Derek: We were tasked with building a 3 thousand tons carbon fibre plant essentially from scratch so that was an interesting project that kicked it all off.

Jürgen:  Well that would have given you an insight into everything around the whole thing right – from the material itself to production to building a big plant right?

Derek: Absolutely, we had to learn about the market, we had to learn about the product, we had to learn about the technology.  SABIC is a business that grows by acquiring technologies and they do a great a job of that so the very first thing that we had to do was go out and find who could offer us technology for producing carbon fibre.

Jürgen: Alright, that’s a good transition. So tell us a little bit about Carbon Nexus then?

Derek: Well Carbon Nexus is an interesting centre. It’s essentially an open access research facility which is based in a University. It’s open access because its intended that industry should come and spend a lot of time and you know, looking how to solve their problem using the equipment and the capabilities that we have created here at Carbon Nexus. It’s really the only facility of its type in the world.  There’s a similar facility in the US but it’s not quite so open access and it’s not in the University environment – where there’s fundamental research going on.

So the idea really came up from Associate Professor Bronwyn Fox and Brad Dunston from Deakin University who did a lot of work in advanced composite materials for so many years at the Victorian Centre for Advanced Materials and Manufacturing.  Together, they had this vision of introducing a new research capability which would not only put Australia at the forefront of advanced composite research but also offer up opportunities for the local industry to really get into advanced composite manufacturing including the fibre itself and also composite parts. The idea began 3 or 4 years ago. As it grew and developed they found some backing from the Victorian State government, from the Australian Federal government and from the University.   Basically they’ve worked from there and gathered a team of experts, specified what the facility should look like and built it. I started a month ago and you know, am one of the beneficiaries really of all of the work that Bronwyn Fox and Brad Dunston put in to get the centre up and running.

Jürgen: Now I had the privilege of actually touring through the centre last week and really, it’s a state of the art facility and it’s a pity we don’t have Steve on the interview. Steve is the General Manager and who’s the brains behind the pilot line that’s out there and I will be interviewing Bronwyn Fox whom Derek mentioned, in a future podcast.  So we’ll learn a little bit more about the research from her.  Derek, tell us a little bit about the pilot line facility out there.

Derek: So the Pilot line facility – again this is unique. It’s a carbon fibre factory. It’s a small scale factory. We have the same equipment which is installed in wide scale factories around the world for industrial scale carbon fibre production. Our lines are slightly smaller scale. It’s not as wide and it doesn’t have quite the same capacity but if you walk into a carbon fibre factory, you would recognize all the same equipment. So what that gives us the ability to do is to really solve a lot of problems the industry has in processing and manufacturing the carbon fibre itself and alongside the pilot scale one, we have a single laboratory scale line which is also in a similar vein that can be used for solving problems and answering questions . But it’s also very useful for a very basic research when you want to try out something completely new that you are not even sure, it will work.

And so we’ve got these two pilot lines side by side both focused on researching into the challenges and the uses around the industry.  And a lot of these issues are around how to reduce the cost of producing carbon fibre so we focused a lot on reducing the amount of energy which has to go into the process for manufacturing the fibre. And we are also looking at how we make the challenges on improving the performance of carbon fibre. And that might be making it stronger or larger but it also might be targeting the properties to achieve a certain performance level rather than making it super strong or super flexible.

Jürgen: Yeah, what I really like about the whole set up there, is this really state of the art pilot facility as you have described, associated  with  the fundamental research and the  people doing the fundamental research were actually learning  how to run the line. So, I was told that the research scientists will actually run the line. They’ll understand the process better and their fundamental research then will not only address the fundamentals which a lot of time there for research and the production and the reality is a little bit separate so, here it’s all integrated. So it’s really a beautiful model.

Derek: That’s quite right. We bring the research into the industrial type of environment and they understand it and really for the first time I think research has had the ability to access this sort of equipment on the fundamental level and also in the industrial level.

Jürgen: And the other thing I like about that model is it leverages the know-how you have out there. The intellectual capability, the ideas and the experience and know-how together with the production facility, in a way that you know can be a competitive advantage for Australian industry.

Derek:  It can indeed! That’s one of the big challenges now that we’ve got is the know how and the people and the research which is going on here at Deakin is really world class. There is this ground breaking research in advanced composites both in producing carbon fibre from the very fundamental chemistry that’s involved to the processing issues on production lines – all the way through advanced composites and how they’re used in different applications from cars, to aviation, to wind turbine blades. So it’s a unique facility with world class work and research going on. Our goal or our challenge is really to connect that research capability and those wonderful researchers with the local industry and with the global industry to make an impact in the industry.

Jürgen:  Yeah, and there’s huge opportunity there for industry but you know we are constantly bombarded in the press about bad news and  about industries closing down but this is a really good news story that’s exciting  and that has all the  possibilities that you have mentioned.

Derek: Indeed, and we want to be a catalyst. We’re not  so much able to create lots of jobs ourselves, but  by having this research facility and this capability and this know how here in Australia, we think we’ll attract companies to come and invest here and there’s already some early sign that  might be happening.

Jürgen: Can you share with us some of the people or some of the companies you are actually doing work with?

Derek: Well one of the companies that we are working with and who is in fact building a factory next door to us is Carbon Revolution. So I’m sure a lot of people have heard about Carbon Revolution and their unique single piece Carbon Fibre wheels for high performance cars. Carbon Revolution has really come out of Deakin University and has been supported by the University and they’ve been doing a fantastic job in setting up their business here in Geelong and helping to form of the basis of carbon production precinct if you like. And also, I think a lot of people are aware that DowAksa  which is a joint venture between the Dow Chemical Company and Aksa which is the world’s largest acrylic fibre company. That joint venture is also considering installing a Carbon Fibre Production plant in Geelong so we’re very enthusiastic to support them and hopeful that they’ll proceed with that activity.

Jürgen: That’s really exciting isn’t it?

Derek: It is indeed.

Jürgen: So what do you spend your time doing day to day Derek?

Derek:  Well, day to day it’s really about promoting the centre, and aligning our strategy to match the needs that the industry has. So I spend a lot of time now contacting companies around the world that I’ve dealt with in the past and making sure they understand what we are capable of doing. Luckily that’s pretty enjoyable and they are very interested and want to get quotations for doing research work and the other thing is spending a lot of time aligning our strategies. As we are building the team and as we are building new capabilities, we want to make sure that those strategies match up with what industry partners are looking for.

Jürgen: Yeah,  That’s refreshing change from , you know – it’s quite some time when I was involved in Universities but the fundamental research and the connection to industry and  what industry was looking for was always a bit of a disconnect.

Derek: That’s right.

Jürgen: We’ve just been joined by Steve Atkiss. He is the General Manager of the Carbon Nexus Facility there. So how are you going Steve?

Steve: I’m very well. Thank you very much.

Jürgen: How is your wife doing?

Steve: She is improving. Now she has the right drugs and the back is getting a little straighter.

Jürgen: Okay, it’s good to hear she’s improving. Anyway it’s great that you could make it to the podcast. So we’ve just been talking about Carbon Nexus and all the exciting things going on. We did touch a little bit on the production facility which is now I know, it’s your baby. So tell us a little bit more about the production facility there Steve?

Steve: Yeah, we’ve got a pretty unique facility here – a 55 tonne commercial carbon fibre line which is kind of tailored to satisfy the needs of research and development in the carbon fibre world. It allows us to basically conduct experiments on every stage of manufacturing carbon fibre. But also allows us to gain results which are pretty easy to commercialise. So it’s not blue sky stuff. This is extremely relevant and you know when customer comes to us and conduct their experiments, they know they get extremely good value for money. And also the single tote facility as well, where we basically conduct advanced research on pre-cursors and new pre-cursors that are coming in the market – which is very exciting.

We can put them into the line – basically one spool of fibre and again we can oxidize the fibre, carbonize it. It’s basically a line that has been scaled down from the pilot facility that we have here: 4 to 1. So a nice and slow process and again at every point of the process we can extract some samples to get them into the laboratory while we are running and extract data which we can then use that data to focus on what to do next rather than guessing.

So it’s pretty exciting stuff, all the researchers here are blown away by capability of the facility. Another thing in the past work has been done on bench top you know, bucket science shall we call it – stuff that was done at the back of the garage and we’re taking it now to the point of the results that they get are extremely realistic and extremely credible and very exciting.

Jürgen: And I’ve mentioned earlier that I toured the facility last week and certainly it is the state of the art facility. It is really exciting to see that the scientists who work at the bench actually not only understand the process and as you said have the ability to extract samples and relate their fundamental discoveries into real life production but also they get to run the production facility, don’t they?

Steve: Well that’s right, they get real life training and on the job training as well. Well that’s what Nexus is all about. It’s bringing industry and researchers together – which is kind of a unique thing. I mean, generally researchers have been working in their laboratories away from the industry, not really understanding  the full requirements and focus in the commercial world.  We basically, bring a little bit of reality from the manufacturers the difficulties that they face, the problems that they need solutions for and makes it better to give a much better focus on what the researchers’ findings are all about. So it’s pretty good.

Jürgen: And what I really like about it , not only  for carbon fibre or advanced fibre materials industry, this is a model for research anywhere in the world  but  certainly in Australia – how to gain a competitive edge in research that’s actually practical and relevant to an advanced industry that  could be sustainable long  term in Australia.

Steve: Absolutely yes. This is a very good model, almost a blue-print on how a future carbon fibre industry should actually grow up to be. Employing the best advanced technology and high performance technology to make a high performance fibre.  It’s no longer about going for the cheap option. It’s no longer about flooding things with labour. This is all about using technology to really expose the capability of carbon fibre. I mean, today we’ve probably exposed around about 10% of the capability of what carbon fibre could offer the world. So we’ve got about 90% bucket to go and play with – which is absolutely fantastic.

Jürgen: Yeah, it’s great really – exciting stuff. So are there things that keep you guys awake at night? That you worry about?

Steve: Yeah, I mean you know the cost of energy. Energy is always a concern wherever you look at putting various industries. It drives a lot of our projects and is a key focus of many of our projects.  They may not necessarily be totally focussed on energy, they may be looking for something else – but we always try to drive the energy side of it. Reduce the consumption of energy in every single part of the process, every single experiment you do, you always have that at the back of your mind that this process is going to consume energy. So we need to get that down. That obviously has a knock on effect reducing the cost of a kilo of carbon fibre. I mean, historically the carbon fibre has basically been put on this pedestal of a really expensive material to use. We are kind of questioning that because a lot of information that was used to come up with the term expensive material carbon fibre was based on manufacturers who were operating aging technologies, using aging techniques – not really fully understanding the processes. So you know we challenge every step of the way and employ technology wherever we can to give us a visual on energy – basically converting energy into dollars so that the researchers understand that every kilowatt counts.

Jürgen:  Yeah, so how do you power the facility there right now? Just off the grid?

Steve: It is off the mains but we have things like emergency generator backup. But generally it’s off the mains – but we do a lot of energy recovery and also energy recovery simulation studies as well. So whenever we experiment, we always have a look at, so here is a handful of kilowatts that we are using to keep this part of the process. Where can we get that energy source from possibly using things like the abatement system which destroys the gases, the off-gassing from the process which we have to do to comply with the EPA standards but that energy is consumed to destroy those gases we can recover that and harness it straight back into other parts of the process.

Derek: Yeah, luckily our line is small enough that we can run directly off the grid. It’s not a major user of energy in the Geelong region. A production scale in fact would be a very major user of energy and that’s the same sense trying to find ways to reuse and utilize any waste heat out from the process as an input back into the process is really critical in the whole exercise.  I think the other thing that keeps us awake at night is just we got this new facility and our goal is really to attract this many companies to come and do research where it is possible.  So making our schedule full is a big priority that we have to make sure that companies now will be utilising the facility to the maximum extent – not having it sitting idle.

Jürgen:  Yeah, hopefully that opportunity will not be let go begging by industry here and certainly I mean one of the objectives of this podcast is to highlight to everybody that technology, advanced technologies is a huge opportunity particularly in terms of competitive advantage for Australia as well.

Derek: Exactly, yeah.

Jürgen: So what do you see as the biggest challenge going forward with Carbon Nexus?

Steve:  You know probably one of the issues of the industry suffers from, is that carbon fibre historically has been wrapped with all the secrecy?  Trying to get this approach that we are an open access facility and get people to believe that and then also companies coming in here and conducting their experiments and keeping all that information confidential as is – that’s a challenge but you know if more people see, more people work with this and they realise, yes it’s open access but we’re incredibly secure. So we’re breaking those barriers down. You still get the access to this facility but at the same time we’ll maintain the confidentiality and protect our clients IP.

Derek: Yeah, I think it’s really all about awareness now that it is a new facility that we’ve just opened back in May and the challenge now is to show the world what we are capable of, to show companies that we can deliver and solve their problems, to show companies that we can add a lot value to their processes by doing research with us, so it’s getting out and getting the message to the world and to the local industry – to come up participate in the activities here.

Jürgen: Okay, so what’s the role does the internet plays in all the technology and everything you do?

Derek: Well, it’s interesting. The first thing, for our equipment is that, we are very careful not to be connected to the internet – part of it because of the secrecy but also because there are some technologies that have to be carefully controlled and monitored.

So the equipment itself and the line are kept secure.  But I think it’s through facilities like podcasts like this, through online communications, we have a pretty static website talking about the capabilities that we have. We are also doing a lot of international web conferencing and that sort of thing to promote the facility and then during our programs, we often use Skype or web conference tools for running projects with overseas companies so, that they can essentially be here and see things – and  be in contact with the researchers.  So it’s about communications and it’s about being be closer to our customers.  You know, Australia is not necessarily in the same time zone with some of our target customers and it helps us get closer to our customers in that respect.

Jürgen: Yeah, so it’s reducing the world’s barriers enabling you to basically work with people internationally.

Derek: It is indeed, yeah. It would be quite difficult to do that without the facilities we’ve got. I mean Deakin University which is part of this – and very innovative in terms of connectivity and connectedness.  We’re luckily able to participate in that and utilise that to its fullest.

Jurgen:  Yeah, and I think that’s really important message because we hear a lot about Australia being  so far away in terms of distance making it difficult to work with people internationally and work with the big companies that are out in the global market but we  have technology today that we can break down those barriers.

Jürgen: Alright, what are some of things you do then using the internet in an innovative way? I mean you’ve talked about communication. What about the production lines – you said you deliberately have not connected those to the internet?  But I’m sure you’ve some sort of Intranet or system whereby – because I know a lot of it is fully automated – whereby, you run through an intranet or something like that?

Steve: Yeah, we have a PLC platform that we use. It is completely isolated from any other facility even in Deakin – so it’s kind of cocooned inside the facility.  We’ve got to control the information generated on that line quite closely. It’s quite important we maintain that isolation but yes it’s a fully automated system used the very latest PLC Platform technology.

Derek: Yeah, and a lot of that has to do with intellectual property and confidentiality but the system is marvellous in terms of monitoring and recording all of the operating parameters on the line. So at anytime we can call up and view what’s happening. We’ve got many ovens as you saw, we’ve got several furnaces which operate at extremely high temperatures, several thousands of degrees and we can look at what’s going on inside and at a given time we record that history so that data is all available and as we report to our customers and as people are interested to see what’s going on, we have that data available that can be utilised later.

Jürgen: Yeah, and as you say it’s certainly is a very high tech thing that runs automated and the beauty as Steve pointed out earlier, you can extract samples on the line, whilst it’s running, conduct experiments, come back and make adjustments according to what the experiment tells you which is brilliant.

So how do you guys stay balanced? What do you do when you’re not living Carbon Fibre?

Steve: Life without carbon fibre?

Derek: I never heard of life without carbon fibre. In fact I lay out pieces of carbon fibre in my garage.

Jurgen: Okay, building model planes?

Derek: I like to sail yachts and also I like to build them so whenever I get the chance, I’m in the garage building a yacht and sailing and also as you mentioned, I like to restore old aircraft as well. So it’s the engineer in me I guess.

Steve: I’m going through a young family phase at the moment. I’ve got an 8 year old and 9 year old that keep me extremely busy. I’m chasing after them and that’s my life outside of Carbon.

Jürgen: Yeah, that gives you balance then. Keeping you sane when things are getting a bit frustrating.

Steve: Absolutely. They bring you back down again. Although they are always interested to know what else we put carbon fibre in to!

Jürgen: Yeah, well I did a 50 kilometre bike ride this morning and I was on a carbon fibre bike – so it sort of touches everybody’s lives everywhere.

Derek: Absolutely, now it’s a lot more pervasive than people imagine. So if you play tennis, or if you ride a bike or if you play golf or if you ever drive across the West Gate bridge, you are using carbon fibre.

Jürgen: That’s right.  So have you read any books lately that you can recommend to our audience?

Steve: Interesting books, I haven’t personally.

Derek: I’ve read a lot of history and that sort of stuff. One history book that I did find really interesting which might be of use is this book – I’ve forgotten the name of the book. I think it’s called The Mathematicians but basically it’s the life story in condensed version of about 20 of the world’s greatest mathematicians.

They all sort of appeared around 1600’s or the 1700’s.  What’s really interesting was that these guys were actually – even though they are in Italy and the UK or England and France and Germany, they all communicated with each other. That wouldn’t have been expected.  So a lot of these guys – you know Newton, Kepler, they were writing letters or they were looking at the publications. You know all of those publications in those days were Latin – because that was the common language around Europe for Scientific communications but it was fascinating to see how these guys fed off each other and how their ideas really built up. You know somebody had a question and all these guys went out to try and answer it. It all begun with a question and then the fact that these guys of course – all of them were extraordinary in terms of how they could think and  probably the opposite end of having that in terms of how they could communicate or get on personally. That was a really interesting book that I thought was great and how they really innovated in developing their ideas by feeding off each other.

Jürgen: Yeah, it’s a big message there really isn’t it? Because you think of these guys as Newton and so on – as amazing as their journey is – you kind of think that they did this amazing stuff in isolation – they didn’t. They fed off each other so there’s a message to that today with all of the modern communication that we have.  You know there’s a lot of synergy to be learned by sharing information by feeding off one another and building on a platform – so don’t just try and do it yourself.

Derek: Exactly, that’s right. And those guys had to wait months for letters to go to and from and had to wait years for publications to come to them.  You know in our environment it happens overnight of course and it’’s easy to understand why innovation and development has accelerated so dramatically.

Jürgen:  Yeah, that’s right. So if you could wave a magic wand right now and fix something in the business at Carbon Nexus, what would it be?

Derek: I think we’d like to see every carbon fibre company lined up at the front door and every company that uses carbon fibre lined up at the front door but more importantly, it’s the companies that don’t use carbon fibre whom we want to learn about it.

And as Steve said that there’s a lot of energy that goes in the making of carbon fibre as we solve those problems and make carbon fibre less expensive to produce. As we solve the problems of manufacturing parts of carbon fibre and make the production process less expensive as well – then we think carbon fibre will go into more areas where it’s previously not been used. That’s really the interesting thing for us. So it seems companies who don’t use carbon fibre suddenly understand the value that is offered to them whether they need light weight or strong or particular electrical properties or shielding properties. There’s a lot of ways that carbon fibre can be used that will revolutionise a lot of industries.

Steve: We also need to get the message across quite clearly that there’s more than one carbon fibre! There are as many carbon fibre types as there are steel types, or alloy types. I mean here in Carbon Nexus, we have the ability to invent a different type of carbon fibre every hour – if you just can make the process.

The important thing is we can tailor this material to the end use requirements.  So it’s not the case that you have and go to a catalogue and use a material available in the market. If you’ve got a fairly large volume of this fibre required into a certain product, we can tailor that – get a recipe evolved out of our systems, which basically ties in with the education on how did you make it, how much did it cost, what else can you do with that particular recipe in the future.  So you’re future proofing your own material.  So it’s really the education – it’s getting to know the material, getting familiar with the terms that we use and also getting connected with our potential partners to collaborate developing their products. There are a lot of people involved in making of components for example. It’s not just one party involved or two parties. It’s usually 5 or 6 different parties that are involved, right from the beginning of designing the component up to the point of actually fitting into a vehicle and even driving the vehicle – so education and collaboration.

Jürgen: Yeah, well there are lots of good messages there and it comes back, you know that collaboration and exchange of ideas and experience coming back to the book that Derek mentioned about the Mathematicians. Even the geniuses made progress through communicating with one another. Also in terms of the possibilities with carbon fibre and tailoring the material to an application – because the flexibility there must be a lot greater than making steel, you know different steel type or making different alloy types.

Derek: Well that’s right this is when you talk about advanced manufacturing you want to be using materials which are actually designed to do  what you want . Of course steel is primarily a refining process where you start with an ore and then of course you can blend them and mix it and tailor it to what suits your requirements – but carbon fibre we’re actually starting with the molecule with designing the polyacrylonitrile molecule and then we’re turning that into a fibre and then we’re turning them into carbonized fibres with the strengthened potential properties that people are looking for. So it’s really in this new world where we are actually making materials according to what we need than digging the mountain and refining them – having used what’s available.

Jürgen: Yeah and that’s really exciting.

Alright, that’s terrific Derek and Steve.  So  let’s move on to The Buzz – I’m calling it our innovation round, which is designed to help our audience who  are primarily innovative leaders in their field with some tips from your experience . It’s 6 questions with hopefully you’ll give us 1 or 2 line answers that will absolutely blow the audience away and inspire them to do some stuff.

So the first one is; what’s the number one thing anyone needs to do to be more innovative?

Derek: I think, the simple answer for me  is ask more questions. Don’t just take things for granted. Ask more questions. Why is this red? Why these chairs do not move out from under the desk correctly? Why you do I sit in my car? Why can’t I sit up properly? All those sort of things – and simply by asking those questions rather than just taking things for granted, then start to say, well maybe I should have a camera in my car that shows me every angle and then where’s that pole that I’m about to strike without being able to see it because it’s too short. You know, for me it’s just asking more questions and sometimes you need a structure or process to ask the questions – because you don’t always think of the right questions.  For me, that’s where innovation comes from.

Steve: The point I quite enjoy, I enjoy people, I enjoy looking at the skills that people have and discussing problems and issues that are out there in the world today and listening to their opinion even if they’re not related to something like carbon fibre. You start talking to them and throw out a problem to them – you never know, there’s no such thing as stupid comment or a stupid question.  If you listen carefully, there’s little bits in those questions that might just spark something off.  As I say we come from a diverse group of people.  Don’t work in isolation, talk to people and discuss the problem openly. Try not to bore them. Don’t get carried away with the carbon fibre thing – but then take an interest in some of their things as well. You know share your ideas and how to solve the problems and you come up with the solution.

Jürgen:  Yeah they’re great suggestions because I was talking to and will publish this interview tomorrow with Johnson Ongking from Pacific Paints in the Philippines and they’ve got a fabulous product that absorbs Nitrous oxide from the atmosphere and actually reduces the level of gases in the atmosphere and they’ve commercialised this in the Philippines. And that came about from the catalytic converter industry because they use technology that was being used there and asked why and why don’t we put this in paint? And how could we make it into a paint that could actually work in the way that we wanted it to work? So yeah that’s a really good lesson.

It’s a little bit like a 2 or 3 year olds are all asking why, why, why and why – unfortunately the parents like us and all the people get fed up with that. So at some point you get the – just because, so we kind of teach people not to do that don’t we?

Derek:  Yeah, at some point we stop asking why?

Jürgen: Exactly, yeah.

Derek: That’s one of the great, you know in terms of generating ideas that was one of the tricks that I landed at GE – is actually you have to continually ask why and  ask why 5 times before you can be satisfied with an answer that you might have.  So the rule of ask why 5 times.

Jürgen: Yeah, that’s great advice thanks. What’s the best thing you’ve done to develop new ideas or product or some new things around, what you’re doing at Carbon Nexus?

Steve: For me personally, I’ve been quite fortunate. I haven’t got stuck in a rut and stayed in one specific area. I’ve moved all the way through – you know coming into carbon fibre started off as a resident engineer in a building site – building a carbon fibre factory for a company SGL Carbon Group.

Eventually, I was asked if I wanted to come aboard as maintenance manager.  I said yes, sure I’ll do maintenance, no problem. In my youth, I was a maintenance technician in the Royal Air Force so I had a few skills there. Then there was an opportunity in the engineering manager role so I said okay, it’s sort of moving off into slightly different area. A few years after that – it was about running production. Now crossing over from engineering to production is like moving from one country to another – two different cultures, more barriers up and a few walls on the way.  But it was great to kick those walls down and show technical engineers with us as well and the technicians with me into production and show them there’s another angle that they can go into and get the results from. When you get exposure and understanding as well and then taking back into design and I mean to research and so you know, covering many, many bases. Don’t get stuck in a rut – my basic message for them all.

Jürgen: Yeah, that’s great advice. And it brings up in my mind the idea of cross functional teams as well because the traditional model within the industry is kind of – everybody is in silos like you’ve mentioned, the production guys and the engineers and the research people and so on.  So the idea of cross functional team which does necessitate people moving around into different roles.

Steve: Yeah, that’s one reason why Nexus is so exciting because you have that again this cross function of having researchers getting really heavily involved in industry and with industry partners getting heavily involved in research . So we can all see the value of each other’s roles in this industry.

Derek. Yeah, you know the thing for me that I’ve always found valuable to develop new ideas and new products has been not only on the cross functionality thing but also with people with different viewpoints – so whether that’s physically diverse in terms of different countries or different cultures or different religions or different races, it’s always good. I find to have – I think with different viewpoints to generate different ideas because if you go get the same background, you know you answer these questions the same way and it’s when you’ve got people who’ve got different experiences and different backgrounds that they answer the questions in different ways and generate more ideas than if you have the same people. I guess it’s the same thing as cross functional teams as well. That they are approaching a problem or a solution or trying to find a solution from different perspectives so it’s the different perspectives and bringing together those different perspectives I think, that always helps.

In GE, I was lucky enough to work in different countries and different roles as well but I always try to pull together a diverse team, men and women with different country backgrounds, different ages and you always get a better outcome.

Jürgen: That’s great advice. So you mentioned earlier Derek about a structured process for asking why, a structured process is needed following through ideas or investigating things.  Do you have a favourite tool or system you use there or is it something you have built internally?

Derek: There’s a few brainstorming techniques to try to tease out ideas, you know. I think the tool I find the simpler – the best is actually the Post It because what you do when brainstorming, you’re looking for ideas. Give people 5 minutes to work in silence. Write their ideas down and then put them away on the board and on that way – the shy people in the room are not handicapped or not taken up by the boisterous people in the room. That’s the great way to tease out people’s ideas. Post It notes on how we can do or how we can solve this or what questions should we ask or who can we go to? It’s giving people the opportunity to work but first of all – silence if you like.

Writing down what they would think and then you make sure that you’ve got this sort of democratic process to go through and every one there space and their time.  The other tool I like being a mechanical engineer – as you know, mechanical engineers are designers and inventors by training.

That’s what you learn to do at university. There’s a lot of process there. But one of the processes that I didn’t learn from a university was one called predictive design and that’s really an interesting process whereby instead of just writing down the design equation or designing a part you know, given certain assumptions, what you do is you inject uncertainty into the assumptions – and you may do that in some sort of computer simulation where you are injecting in probabilities of different outcomes versus an exact number for a particular outcome or your injecting a probability distribution for the stress loadings instead of just one number for the stress loadings or could  be that you are  looking at whole lot of a different people in terms of what height should we be designing this particular product or what age group. So thinking about predictive design and how do you take uncertainty of your assumptions and put that into your design process.

Jürgen: That’s a fascinating technique. I could see that applying across the board in business. You know business applications, not necessarily engineering applications as well.

Derek: Oh, indeed. You know anything you’re doing with people and the process with variations and the inputs and the outputs really should be utilized.

Steve: That kind of touches the input I’d like to make. That is, I like to throw engineers onto the production line. I like them to get dirty.

A lot of these guys really do a lot in front of the computer, bashed out calculations and looked at the theory and basically see how it will actually work! I love them to go and walk along side operators. Operators are a fountain of information and it’s just fabulous when you work on beside them. They’re there in the thick of it. They see problems, they recognise opportunities all the time but this is very seldom actually – that they get to discuss it because they may sound like they’re moaning about something but they’re not.

These guys have really fresh ideas and fresh angles on things.  They are not necessarily too strong on the theory behind things – but they’ve got some great ideas that when you marry up the engineer and the operator together, they make a fabulous team.

You saw actual evidence of this on the control system. The HMI Interface for the line, that was born out of the software engineer spending many, many years on the line itself working alongside of the operators.  He got to the point that he could actually handle the majority of Carbon Fibre manufacturing tasks that the operators gets on with.

But he listened to the operators,listened to their problems and listened to some of their ideas and solutions and then would go away and try to make it a reality and the result is exactly what you’ve seen. It is an interface where the operator now can do his job better, employing more technology, making the operators’ lives easier.

So, great results like that. But I really do believe getting down, getting dirty on the line, getting involved with the existing process, understanding those processes is a great way forward.

Jürgen: That’s great yeah – for the benefit of our listeners, what Steve is talking about there is, along these production lines there are a number of tablets. Tablet PCs that are hooked up to the production line that actually run it – and on the tablet PC you can switch from the interface from a process map which  is kind of the traditional way that these – any production line has been run in the past – you can switch to a very visual representation that looks like a picture of the production line in front of you. So, you can actually pick up a part of the production line, click on that on the attached pad and then pull up on the expanded view of that particular component and have a look, for example; you can pull up an oven, you can look inside the oven, you can have a look at the fan, you can have a look at the temperature that’s been produced, the speed of the fan and all kinds of other information there.  So it’s very visual, which of course allows people that are not necessarily engineers to visualize and make a lot easier for them to run on the line in a smart way. Does that capture it reasonably well?

Steve:  Yes, that’s spot on. Very good.

Jürgen: Thanks. What’s the best way you know to keep a project or client on track?

Derek: I think regular communication and feedback. If you’re progressing well against milestones you’ve still got to talk about what the milestones are, you know the right milestones.  If you are not progressing to the milestones, you need to be feeding back and then adjusting based on that feedback to see the different things that we should be adjusting and you know if the client is happy with all the different things that we are going to propose because they may or may not result in the time frame being kept. So it’s communicating and letting people know what’s going on. By letting people know and  giving them a voice in the process that you are not taking as a problem going away, working  independently and  coming back and saying here’s a solution or coming back and say we can’t solve that.

Jürgen: Yeah, that’s great.

Steve: I agree – and also making sure the brave guy who takes on the title of project manager is fully empowered and you know, assessed to be capable of handling the problems and the stresses of the job and delivering and again some great communications goes back up to the clients and making sure the client is told the truth. There’s nothing worse than being told “Oh yes everything is on schedule, all is great” but actually you are 6 weeks behind schedule and over budget. So keep telling the truth and make sure that you’ve got a great team around you. So the project manager for me is absolutely the key.

Jürgen:  Alright, thanks and finally what’s the number one thing that you can do to differentiate yourself?

Derek: Well we’ve got a great team and unique facilities, so we kind of are already differentiated.  But I think the key for us is really showing customers that we can solve their problems and that we work with them to add value in their research. You know I think for us it’s where a new team and new facility and we need to get out there and show people that we can deliver and I think that that will differentiate us because we’ve got equipment that no one else has and we need to show people that that equipment can give them the results that they are looking for on an industrial meaningful scale.

Jürgen: So basically you’ve got the capability to understand your clients’ problems and be then to deliver on that because of the expertise you have. So it’s not about carbon fibre, it’s all about solving problems for your clients.

Derek:  Exactly. It’s the equipment and the researchers to people, the team – the two things that go together as the unique capability.

Jürgen: Excellent! What do you see as the future for Carbon Nexus?

Derek: Well we’re a young team. There’s been a group of people here establishing the facility building – the building specifying and installing the equipment and starting it up and that’s taken two or three years and  now we are in a different phase.  Now we are really operational and moving out into the industry and  I think the industry is becoming aware we’re here and I think now the phase that they’re coming and  trying things out and  actually seeing the  benefits of what to do with Carbon Nexus.

So I think the future for us is continuing to align the capabilities with what the industry is looking for but at the same time bringing some new things.

So  we wanted research that helps solves the questions and  problems of the industry today but we are also doing research which is going to be solving how to take carbon fibre as the new applications of tomorrow as we said with lower cost  to a higher strength to targeted properties or improved efficiency. There are a number of different areas that we are focusing on the fundamental level which will take us in the new areas.

Steve: And I talked earlier a little bit about this 10% realization of carbon fibre’s current potential,so of course 90% to play around with.  You know executing as much of the 90% as we can is what our future is – this is pretty well laid and it’s not just about carbon fibre – it’s adding things to fibre, it’s looking at the processing of new fibre. There are all sorts of things to look at. So we really want to get those components produced in less than 60 seconds which will be fantastic and what we want to do is to consume the least amount of energy and consume the least possible resources as well. So we’re going to be pretty busy reducing, reducing, reducing and expanding consumption of our the actual material and then putting in as many plants as we possibly can around the world.

Jürgen: Well you’re kind of answered my next question actually which is what do you see is the future of the industry that carbon fibre and advanced material industry?

Steve: Yeah, basically if it has got metal in it and is heavy, let’s replace that with the carbon fibre. And as we see, I mean where almost every day we have somebody knocking at the door or on the phone or over the net talking to us about a new product what have we think about this, what we think about that, from every walk of life we can imagine. Everything from medical to sports, to aircraft, to cars, to concrete, you name it. It’s basically, if it has got metal in it – it’s time to replace it with carbon fibre.

Derek: Yes, essentially we wanted to see how we can help move carbon fibre  from the advanced materials industry to the standard materials industry without losing the value of the product – that figuring out how we solve the problems of  educating design engineers and  making them comfortable in using composites and solving the problems of production, production rights and  solving the problem of costs so it does stretch or penetrate into that 90% of potential that is still not being used.

Jürgen: Okay, well that’s great. That’s been a  really fascinating innovation round so I just like to go back to our competition and remind our viewers and listeners that  today I’m giving away a copy of my “Seven Website Design Secrets to Get you More Sales”  – so that’s a video workshop together with the work book and resources guide and in order to enter into this competition, what I’d like you to do is comment at the bottom of the video recorder and tell us  what’s the most innovative use of carbon fibre technology that you know today and what benefits that carbon fibre is bringing  to that particular application. So if you could do that and describe a little bit more in detail, hopefully that will prompt new ideas for Carbon Nexus as well to kind of take that and ask a lot of “why” questions and take some ideas away from that and I’ll get Steve and Derek to come back in a couple of weeks time and have a look at those comments and nominate the winner of that prize. Is that okay guys?

Derek: We’d love to.

Steve: Yeah, very much.

Jürgen: Alright so in conclusion then, what is the number one piece of advice you’d give any business who wants to be a leader in innovation and in Dereproductivity?

Derek: Keep asking those questions. Don’t accept the status quo.

Steve: Yeah certainly agree. Keep asking questions and open your mind. Keep your mind wide open. Just because you have done something like that for 10 or 20 years doesn’t mean it’s the right way of doing it -and talk to people – talk, talk, talk.

Jürgen: Yeah we never stop learning don’t we?

Alright and finally who would you like me to interview in this InnovaBuzz Podcast in the future and why?

Derek: Oh, That’s a new question that we have not talked about. You know I would be looking for similar ourselves where there’s good link in the industry because they’re out solving practical problems. We came across a gentleman from Sydney University yesterday who had some very interesting applications of some new polarization technology that was Brian Hawkett from Sydney University.  I think he would have some interesting stories to tell.

Jürgen: Alright Brian, I’ll try to connect with you and invite you to a future episode of the InnovaBuzz Podcast. Thanks for that.

So gentlemen this has been absolutely fabulous. It’s fascinating and I’m really excited by this stuff you’re doing in Carbon Nexus. So I’d like to thank you again for spending time with us today on the Innovabuzz Podcast. I wish you all the best at Carbon Nexus. I’m really excited to see what develops out there and what direction this great initiative takes.

Now, where can people reach out to you and can say thank you for the time and information that you’ve shared today?

Derek: Well they can find us on the web that’s https://carbonnexus.com.au. It’s pretty easy to find this. If you are passing by Deakin University, in Waurn Ponds, we do welcome industry visitors to come through at times. So that’s how to find us.

Jürgen: Okay and I’ll certainly post the link on the website underneath the video here on the post.

Thanks again Steve and Derek. It’s been a pleasure.

Derek: Thanks for your time.

Steve: Thank you very much indeed.


I hope you enjoyed meeting Derek and Steve as much as I enjoyed interviewing them on the podcast.  I learnt a lot about Carbon Nexus and of course previously had the opportunity to visit the facility and see the production lines.  Derek did say in the interview, that they welcome visitors at the centre, so contact them via their website if you would like to arrange a tour.

Of course, you can subscribe to the InnovaBuzz Podcast via iTunes or Stitcher, so that you’ll never miss an episode.

All the show notes for this episode will be at innovabiz.com.au/carbonnexus , that is C-A-R-B-O-N-N-E-X-U-S, all lowercase, all one word, innovabiz.com.au/carbonnexus for all of the links and everything we spoke about in this episode.  Remember, leave your comments underneath the video for your chance to win a copy of the “Seven Website Design Secrets to Get you More Sales”  workshop videos together with the work book and resources guide

Leave a comment under the video and tell us what’s the most innovative use of carbon fibre technology that you know today and what benefits that carbon fibre is bringing  to that particular application.  I’ll get Steve and Derek to come back in a couple of weeks time and have a look at those comments and nominate the winner of that prize.

If you like these podcast episodes, please give us a five star review over at iTunes.  It really helps us get more listeners.  Until next time.

Remember, if you don’t innovate, you stagnate, so think big, be adventurous and innovate on!

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Jürgen Strauss

Dr. Jürgen Strauss is The World's Best Human-Centred Podcasting Coach and the only Podcast Innovator with the signature bright yellow headphones, who masterfully crafts human connection for high-impact achievers in a vibrant community. You can find Jürgen on LinkedIn, The InnovaBuzz Podcast, The Flywheel Nation Community as well as on Innovabiz' InstagramTwitter, Facebook pages and his personal Photography website.  

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