Aussie manufacturers cracking American market

The Tonsley Innovation District in Adelaide, South Australia. Image credit: The Lead
Media Release

A growing number of South Australian manufacturers are expanding their footprint into the United States on the back of renewed interest in American and European markets.

Global engineering companies, tech firms and manufacturing businesses based out of the Tonsley Innovation District in Adelaide, South Australia are among those broadening their reach across the Pacific and opening offices in cities across the United States.

XFrame managing director Carsten Dethlefsen said they launched in the US last year at NeoCon in Chicago, one of the country’s largest commercial furniture conferences.

Without using a single nail or screw, the Tonsley-based business has invented a system of interlocking plywood that can be used to build shelters, office pods and studios.

“Within two weeks of that conference we had projects on our books,” Dethlefsen said.

“We delivered those projects within four weeks of that, so speed to market there. The type of clients I think caught us a little by surprise as well.”

Dethlefsen said there was a “big appetite” for their work post-COVID-19 because many offices needed reconfiguring. Their product allows companies to change their fit-out down the track without costly renovations.

Dethlefsen said construction of trade show booths and retail display stands were in hot demand. As a result, the company now has manufacturing partners in Michigan, Oregon, and Grand Junction, Colorado.

He said companies also wanted XFrame to build ancillary housing units to meet the huge demand for housing in the US.

“The booth we did for that conference was all manufactured in the States, so we used local manufacturing, local supply chains and local labour.

“We designed it up, sent it across the desert, they cut the components delivered to our team, they pre-assembled it and stood it up in the conference.

“That’s how we deliver projects. We don’t need to invest in manufacturing facilities over there, we just partner with existing companies that already have that capability and capacity.”

Dethlefsen manages these projects from his base at the Tonsley Innovation District, a massive repurposed area that once housed a Mitsubishi car assembly plant but is now home to more than 1700 workers in key industries including CleanTech and Renewable Energy, Medical devices, Mining and energy services and automation and simulation.

More recently, XFrame began working with prisons in California that train inmates by paying them to learn basic manufacturing skills.

The company is constructing phone booths that can be used for prisoners to have private conversations.

“The conversation that we’re having there is they can actually manufacture, assemble, install and distribute and we just provide them with the ingredients and the parts to deliver that product,” Dethlefsen said.

Tech commercialisation company Innovyz has recently opened a Chicago office to cater to the increased demand.

Co-founder Brett Jackson said the Tonsley-based business assists tech companies like XFrame to commercialise their ideas and turn them into structural businesses.

“We’ll double our footprint in Chicago in the next 12 months and we’ll be doing 12 technologies per annum,” Jackson said.

“Thanks to COVID-19, we’ve been able to create a phenomenal process of commercialising innovation, and we’ve got a really good model to fast-track commercialisation.

“We couldn’t do it face-to-face so we had to do it through Zoom and Teams, and these are the stepping stones because it’s been a massive benefit for us.”

Micro-X, an x-ray technology manufacturer also based at Tonsley to take advantage of the proximity to complementary businesses and Flinders University expertise, set up an office in Seattle on the back of an increased appetite for their work in the US.

Founded over a decade ago, Micro-X makes portable x-rays and machines with similar technology used in the detection of improvised explosive devices.

They are currently working with the US Department of Homeland Security on some self-checking airport scanners.

The reimagined checkpoint system uses advanced backscatter x-ray imaging technology to find explosives or prohibited items in a traveller’s bags.

The scanner runs an identity check using a passenger’s boarding pass, passport and facial recognition before examining their bags.

While the scanner is giving the carry-on luggage a once-over, it also checks the traveller for any concealed prohibited items.

Managing director Paul Rowlands said Micro-X was the only company with the technology to develop this product.

“The idea is all that happens without human intervention,” Rowlands said.

“The images will be read using automated threat detection software and if the software pulls up something it doesn’t like, it can refer the image back to the central control room where someone can review it.”

Rowlands said seven of Micro-X’s baggage portals have the same footprint as one traditional x-ray lane at an airport.

He said there was a “giant market” to tap into, given that more than 2,500 of these government-managed x-ray lanes across the United States.

“Homeland Security is convinced this is the way forward for all airports in the US,” Rowlands said.

“But the exciting thing is the passenger security, passenger experience and an improved security because you’re getting a CT image.”

While the core technology still comes out of Adelaide, their Seattle office allows a team of 12 people who implement the systems overseas.

In coming years, the company expects the US market to account for a larger share of its revenue through demand for security and medical products.

“The revenue we source from the US will grow much faster, it’s just a giant opportunity for us,” Rowlands said.

A South Australian government spokesperson said the state’s economy wasn’t just feeling the local impact of Tonsley but also its reach across global markets.

“Tonsley’s vision was to create an economic development engine with global reach. Seeing so many of Tonsley’s businesses expanding to the US shows us how that vision has turned into reality,” the spokesperson said.

“Export is an important aspect of a healthy economy, so it is fantastic to see this over-proportionate level of export activity, especially to countries like the US.”

A version of this first appeared in: The Lead