AUSTRALIA'S first industrial prototyping lab has been launched near Newcastle on Friday, with its backers forecasting it will inject $50 million into the economy over two years and unleash innovation in startups and corporates across the country.
Three years in the making, The Melt is a collaboration between the founders of national startup accelerator Slingshot, Lake Macquarie City Council's economic development company Dantia and Hunter-based, national engineering force Ampcontrol.
The ambitious venture was formally opened by former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull at its base in Warners Bay, on the shores of Lake Macquarie near Newcastle.
Mr Turnbull said The Melt, which received about $500,000 from the federal Department of Industry, Innovation and Science's incubator support grant scheme, was the country's first integrated industrial prototyping lab and innovation accelerator.
"I am a strong believer in innovation and it is accelerators like The Melt that will create the modern, dynamic economy that Australia needs," Mr Turnbull said.
The Melt founder Trent Bagnall said the multi-faceted lab, which helps startups and corporates rapidly develop and build hardware products, was a shot in the arm for "next tech" manufacturing and engineering in Australia.
"We see the Warners Bay site as a stepping stone to a number or larger sites across the Hunter and Australia, and The Melt also has global aspirations," Mr Bagnall said.
"It will be a game-changer and a critical part of the successful renewal of the manufacturing sector in the Hunter region and Australia-wide."
Housing state-of-the-art manufacturing equipment and a design studio with computer-aided engineering tools, The Melt's aims to transform ideas with a hardware component into products.
Mr Bagnall said the incubator facility was sorely needed in the Hunter and nationwide to assist both startups and corporates to develop and build prototypes for products to take to market at home and abroad.
I am a strong believer in innovation and it is accelerators like The Melt that will create the modern, dynamic economy that Australia need.
While most startups suffered high failure rates, he said those that were building hardware products were "even more susceptible" to failure.
"There is huge support in Australia for tech-based software companies to help grow the next Atlassian or Canva, however there is very little support for engineering startups building the next Cochlear implant, Catapult Sports performance technology or black box flight recorder," he said.
"The failure rate for hardware development is high, the process is often slow and the costs associated are significant."
Mr Bagnall said the The Melt had been designed to overcome this problem, helping both startups and corporates access funding, expertise, equipment and pathways to rapidly realise product development success.
The Melt operates on two levels: its "hardware accelerator" program helps startups with funding, tools and services to help them build their products; while its Melt Labs is a tailored research and development service for companies finding it tough to develop products while running a business.
"Strategic product development is key to survival for many corporate organisations in Australia but many struggle to identify disruptive opportunities and efficiently advance innovation projects," Mr Bagnall said.
"Even the most innovative companies struggle to get new ideas and products in the hands of customers."
Mr Bagnall said the corporate Melt Labs would speed up product development by building and testing products faster for large organisations.
"We are aiming to produce around 10 new products and fund around the same number of new startup businesses in the first year," Mr Bagnall said.
Ampcontrol chief executive officer Rod Henderson said The Melt was a critical lifeline for manufacturing and engineering in Australia.
"It is waning, there is no doubt about that, the lack of solid energy policy is a risk at driving heavy manufacturing out of our country once and for all," he said.
Ampcontrol has invested at least $500,000 in The Melt and relocated most of its Hunter R&D team of about 25 engineers to the Warners Bay site.
"If we can give entrepreneurs our expertise in helping them get a start-up going, the big benefit for us is there might be an opportunity to partner with them and get products to market," Mr Henderson said.
Mr Henderson said it was imperative Australia capitalised on its engineers and manufacturers: "We will lose that brainpower to other parts of the world - if they can't do it here, they will go elsewhere."
Using REMPLAN data, The Melt forecasts its total economic impact over its establishment years (FY2018-2019) at $4 million plus eight jobs, with a further $46m and 58 jobs during its operational phase (2019-2020).
The unveiling of The Melt will also serve as the formal launch of Dantia's commercially-driven Dashworks Makespace facility.
"It is a first in Australia in that it brings together a location for co-working and collaboration, the equipment, but most importantly the resources and personnel with the engineering capability to develop prototypes and products," Dantia CEO Peter Francis said.
The Morrison government's latest round of incubator support grants included The Melt and two other projects.
The first is Canobolas Ventures' Sparklabs Cultiv8 Stretch, a NSW program to support start-ups with crucial connections and networks.
The second is Victoria's Cyrise Accelerator, which runs world-class cyber bootcamps for aspiring start-up founders project to develop the skills needed to build and grow a global start-up.
Since 2016, $19.5 million has been invested under the Incubator Support initiative, part of the Coalition's Entrepreneurs' Programme.
Minister for Industry, Science and Technology Karen Andrews said supporting these ideas was vital to growing the nation's economy and creating jobs for Australians.
"These start-ups will be able to prototype, pilot and produce products, which can strengthen traditional industry in Australia, as well as be sold around the globe," she said.