Mick Staley is a visionary thinker.
For more than 20 years he has been improving processes, increasing efficiency and capability in industry with the power of automation.
Beginning as a small Ballarat business, Staley Automation has grown by harnessing the potential of changing technology, responding to and pre-empting industry needs.
Now his team is providing automation services for manufacturing, food and beverage, water, agricultural and mining industries throughout Victoria and interstate, with big visions for the future of automation and industry in Ballarat.
Mick Staley moved to Ballarat with family as a young boy and has lived around the city for most of his life.
After finishing high school, Mr Staley was one of the first employees to complete an apprenticeship at Mars as an electrician.
With a desire to continue his education journey, he studied electrical engineering at Ballarat University and developed a keen interest in automation and robots.
A few years on after working multiple jobs, travelling and getting married, Mr Staley returned to Ballarat to start a family and a business.
He could see the potential for automation in business.
"Working at a local confectionery firm I saw a progressive company spend a lot on automation," he said.
"When I got out of university I had the design skills and hands on skills for electrical. I could see the picture and I could talk about it to people."
I could see the potential for automation in business.- Mick Staley
Mr Staley envisioned a future for industry where automation was the norm.
"There was a real need for it then in and around manual handling where people were doing a lot of mundane tasks repetitively. They were getting strain injuries and they were jobs people really shouldn't do," he said.
"As time went on too you could see businesses were only ever going to survive if they put in a level of automation. The companies that were automating were staying viable. The cost of wages was not viable compared to competitors."
Twenty-two years on Mr Staley has established a reputation for his automation business that continues to adapt to changes and provide solutions for industry problems.
Staley Automation provides automation engineering services to industry, working with mechanical engineers to complete systems.
"The mechanical guys will build the machine and we put all the smarts and electrics on it to make it do what it is supposed to do," Mr Staley explains.
The company works with manufacturing, food and beverage, water, agricultural and mining industries to provide automation solutions.
Mr Staley said most automation solutions have an innovation link to improve processes or solve an industry problem.
An example of Staley Automation's work in the water industry is establishing automation systems that treat and clean water to produce a drinkable product.
The agricultural industry is using automation for irrigation systems that are programmed to water certain points at specific times rather than an entire area.
Manufacturing and food and beverage automation produces products from raw ingredients to packaging.
Mr Staley said technology has changed dramatically throughout the past 20 years and has increased capacity, speed, and ease of set up.
"We use these things called programmable logic controllers. The original ones I dealt with doing my apprenticeship in 1985 were big boxes. Each decade it went in leaps and bounds to crazy places. Now in the same sort of box size we could send a man to the moon," he said.
"Not only the power but networking abilities have changed. Now you can just run a cable and everything can run through that instead of a thousand wires.The aim is to make it as flexible and quick and easy to put in and innovative as possible.
We are just naturally people who want to question things and do it in a different way.- Mick Staley
"You need to keep fresh, bring in new people and be looking at new things all the time. You really need to push yourself all the time because once you are established you have your ways of doing things and to break out of that takes a fair bit of effort.
"I suppose we are lucky that is the head space we come from - we are just naturally people who want to question things and do it in a different way."
The company has received somes backlash from unions that are concerned automation is taking people's jobs. But Mr Staley argues automation is helping businesses prosper, which secures the jobs of an entire workforce.
"In all the places we have worked there haven't been job losses," he said.
"The companies have done well and prospered and the same number of people are there if not more.
"It is giving people opportunities and job role changes. And if a company has 100 people, you automate 20 jobs out of that and retain 80 people, is it better to do that than lose 100 because the whole business is not viable?
"If Australia is going to compete on a global scale we need to really gear up. That is where automation comes in. The 20 million of us can be better at what we do. That's my vision I suppose."
The next step for Staley Automation is to develop systems with reporting services that provide detailed information about processes in real time - for example production rate, machine performance, energy use and waste.
"The old way was to come to a board meeting and ask 'how did we go last month? Bad, this machine was down for weeks and we didn't know about it'," Mr Staley said.
"This is about bringing the information straight to you in real time. We are aiming for smarter factories where you can gather real time information at any time in relation to any part of the process to make really great decisions."
READ MORE: Business wants to work with unions on jobs
It is a level of efficiency and change that could ensure manufacturing in Australia remains competitive with an overseas market.
"This type of automation does create lean organisations. If you could make it lean enough you could combine organisations together and rather than worry about having 100 people making a product, you could have 100 people making any number of products," Mr Staley said.
"Then we have the ability to produce enough for a much bigger country than who we are. That does create a future for Australia doesn't it?"
BUSINESS IN BALLARAT
Mr Staley said it was difficult to recruit engineers with the capability to work in high level automation, an issue he describes as 'brain drain' from Ballarat.
It is an issue he has raised with Committee for Ballarat and Federation University and is working to be a part of the solution with the Ballarat Tech School.
"We have lost a number of people in the last 18 months. They migrate away, move on and head to Melbourne for what they perceive as a higher level of intensity and experience," he said.
"We don't have that critical mass of industry here to sustain them."
Opportunities for development in Ballarat are improving with the Ballarat Tech School and links to Federation University, but Mr Staley said more needed to be done to make Ballarat a 'smart city'.
"I think the future we could create here could almost be like a Silicon Valley," he said.
"We are not far from Melbourne, we are almost the central hub of Victoria - that creates a situation where we can serve all of that area from here - and it is a great place to live.
We need innovative industries that are doing something Melbourne is not.- Mick Staley
"If we can create this to be a smart city with a lot of smart people thinking about high level things like what can we do with recycling, what can we do with our agricultural systems, why would there be a need to go to Melbourne?
"This is something that needs to be led by education plus industry. The next challenge is how do we keep the amazing minds going through the Tech School and university here?
"We need innovative industries that are doing something Melbourne is not."
The Ballarat Tech School is preparing the region's high school students for the skills of the future.
Programs are focused on areas that are experiencing growth locally and are designed with the help of industry partners.
Ballarat Tech School associate director Sofia Fiusco said the school aimed to empower students by opening them up to the capabilities of technology.
"Our students have grown up having iPhones and mini computers in their hands, but it is about understanding how that has changed what we do, what it has enabled us to do and how then you can design, create and invent and make businesses to respond to that," she said.
The Ballarat Tech School focuses on science, technology, engineering and mathematics excellence by challenging students to solve real world problems.
It can be a challenge when you feel like you just need an answer, but it is about allowing them to explore- Sofia Fiusco, Ballarat Tech School
Focus industries expected to experience economic and employment growth locally include advanced manufacturing, creative industries, food and fibre, health sciences, information technology and new energy technologies.
Ms Fiusco said the Tech School focused on teaching an understanding of technical skills and the changing landscape of industry.
"With food for example there is a whole paddock to plate movement, but if you look at Masterchef and My Kitchen Rules they are focusing on bush foods, so we are getting students to understand and think about that and design for a customer."
"I think employers will see the benefits of that. Design thinking and using a design process is something that broadens people's way of imagining possibilities instead of having a predetermined outcome in mind."
Ms Fiusco said it could be challenging for students create ideas and think creatively and flexibly.
"It can be a challenge when you feel like you just need an answer, but it is about allowing them to explore," she said.
"We try to engage by showing students the big picture, then we try to define it by localising it down with industry examples and then we get them to learn skills. Once they can learn a skill they can apply it into a structure."
The Ballarat Tech School allows students access to 3D printers, a robotic garden, autopsy tables, a food room, robotics, laser cutters, science equipment, virtual reality and industry connections.
Thousands of students from 15 Ballarat secondary schools visit the Tech School each year to take part in specialised learning.
A focus on skills shortages is needed to prepare for the future of work and sustainable population growth in Ballarat, the city's thought leaders and employment services say.
Employment service providers have told The Courier skills shortages were notable for boiler makers, fabricators, welders, fitters and engineers in Ballarat.
Committee for Ballarat has encouraged discussions on whether Ballarat is prepared and equipped for the changing nature of work and industry.
The question remains, how do we keep skilled people in Ballarat and create long-term opportunities for high achievers after they finish study?
Some have suggested a better understanding of Ballarat's employment profile to inform students of skills shortages and opportunities, paired with innovative industry development to provide career pathways for those who may otherwise leave Ballarat for Melbourne.
Many in the business network including leaders at City of Ballarat, Runway, Federation University and the Ballarat Tech School are advocating for improved collaboration to think more broadly about creating benefits and opportunities for Ballarat as a city rather than individual businesses.
As the saying goes, 'the rising tide rises all ships'.
The Courier's series Ballarat Innovation features stories each week that showcase and celebrate industry, business, innovation and entrepreneurship in Ballarat.
The new series comes as part two of the More than Gold series that told the stories of Ballarat's diverse community members last year.
This new branch continues the aim of More than Gold to create a sense of pride in Ballarat's achievements and celebrate the fantastic people that make this city great.
In partnership with Committee for Ballarat, we hope these stories help create a sense of aspiration, a sense of excitement at the possibilities of what can be achieved in Ballarat, and a sense of confidence to take a risk.
We want to move past the buzz word idea of innovation and instead celebrate the diversity the word offers by telling the stories of new startups, long established businesses that are innovatively responding to change and challenges, and experimentation with technology.
As we tell the stories of Ballarat's innovators, we will also be asking the harder questions: what is needed to support and promote growth in industry in Ballarat?; how does Ballarat address the skills shortages that are holding so many business back?; how do we create the estimated 15,000 new jobs that are needed in the region by 2030 to support the projected population increase?; how do we ensure our education offerings are prepared for the changing nature of jobs; and how do we create more high level career pathways for Ballarat's youth?.
We hope you enjoy the journey, as we explore and celebrate innovation in Ballarat each Saturday.
READ OTHER STORIES IN THE BALLARAT INNOVATION SERIES:
Rochelle covers court and has a particular interest in social issues including homelessness, food security and family violence.
Rochelle covers court and has a particular interest in social issues including homelessness, food security and family violence.
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