Article: The path to a successful career in manufacturing & making a positive impact

Australian Research Council (ARC) Laureate Professor Veena Sahajwalla is an internationally recognised materials scientist, engineer and inventor revolutionising recycling science. As a leading expert in the field of recycling science, and founding Director of the Centre for Sustainable Materials Research & Technology at UNSW, Veena is producing a new generation of green materials, products and resources made entirely, or primarily, from waste. Veena also heads the ARC Industrial Transformation Research Hub for ‘green manufacturing’ – a leading national research centre that works in collaboration with industry to ensure new science is translated into real world environmental and economic benefits. Veena has been extensively recognised for the innovation and significance of her work, including via election to be a Fellow of the esteemed Australian Academy of Science.

At the Women in Manufacturing Summit 2023, Veena will examine how to use sustainability and circular economy strategies to improve environmental, social, and financial bottom lines in manufacturing.

In advance of her session, we spoke with Veena about how she’s charted her career path, what others can learn from her example, and where she thinks the manufacturing industry is headed.

Can you briefly introduce yourself?

I grew up Mumbai, which is such a fabulous city with so much going on. As a child, it was about understanding, first and foremost, how people actually made a living. It always impressed me that people would do this by fixing shoes, clothes and all kinds of electronic stuff that we had at home. To me, the creation of all these products out of things that were supposedly broken was really fascinating. I see my work not just as science and engineering, but as wider social reform. I have lived with my family in Australia for almost 30 years.

What are you doing now?

I’m the Director of the UNSW Sustainable Materials Research and Technology (SMaRT) Centre where we are known for pioneering the high temperature transformation of waste in the production of a new generation of ‘green materials’. Our best known innovations are Green Steel, Polymer Injection Technology and also our various MICROfactorie Technologies. I’m also the director of the ARC Industrial Transformation Research Hub for ‘microrecycling’, a leading national research centre that works in collaboration with industry to ensure new recycling science is translated into real world environmental and economic benefits, and I’m the Leader the national NESP Sustainable Communities and Waste Hub.

What drives you to continue your work?

Working in successful partnerships with many industry members and organisations, playing leadership roles on a range of world-first industrial projects is very motivating for me. This has included providing an effective industry–staff–student ecosystem for innovation and pioneering research projects in collaboration with research end users across various industry settings. Over the years, our UNSW SMaRT Centre has built strong engagement and collaborative networks, with some key industry partners This innovative approach not only overcomes the technical limitations of conventional recycling technologies but finds new uses for waste items that usually end up in landfill and stockpiles because they are considered as having low or no value.

What are some of the larger impacts you hope to see from your work as a scientist and communicator in the future?

In relation to net zero, recovering critical and valuable materials from waste has a big role to play in electrifying the world as we move towards renewable energies and reducing our carbon footprint. Many of the commodities and critical materials needed for this electrification are being subject to record prices and supply constraint issues. Through innovative manufacturing practices, New South Wales can play a leading role when it comes to the growth in the components needed for electric vehicles, wind turbines, domestic solar systems and batteries.

Innovative supply chains based on new technologies, which align sectors by using waste as a feedstock for manufacturing, are needed to create a true circular economy and enhance sovereign capability. Businesses and organisations generally rely on traditional supply chains, where reformed materials are usually not part of the chain. We need to ensure that alternative solutions to current common supply chain practices adopt new and local supply chains that incorporate resources made from our own waste. We believe the future of global manufacturing lies in small-scale, decentralised technologies that will enable communities to produce many of the products, materials and resources they need locally, by largely using inputs that are unwanted or thought of as waste. The severe impact of COVID-19 on global supply chains presented a significant case for this transition.

What are the major trends you see influencing our world?

The mid-term future is going to be built on the back of existing assets, and we will be looking more and more into regional and local production and enabling more of our materials to be recycled locally.

The minute we start to consider local solutions, it opens up options. It doesn’t always have to be manufacturing from scratch, it can be repair and refurbishing parts and components as well. Particularly SMEs, being more agile and flexible, will be open to the possibilities of solutions like 3D printing. So, what is stopping us today is the availability of materials and the feedstock. Whether it be metal powder for metal 3D printing, or filament for plastic 3D printing, if we source them from our waste resources we will see an increase in the value of the source materials, which in this case would be waste.

People already know there is some value in waste metals, the question is: how do you connect the dots between knowing you have this material and understanding where the market is? Is it just being sold and bought in the ‘scrap’ format, like what is happening now, or will it be bought and sold by niche producers? For example, there is no stainless steel production in Australia, so refurb and remanufacturing businesses in that space need to access all of this feedstock coming in from waste resources. So localised and regionalised solutions become even more important.

And coupled with all of that are new kinds of jobs. It will not just be your council sending a truck once a quarter to pick up your rubbish on the street. When you see all this old furniture being thrown out, maybe the chair doesn’t work as a chair anymore, but the legs might be made of steel, and there could be fabric, textile, plastic, etcetera that still have value. Why do we have a system that just relies on the local council to offer that waste collection service? In most cases they’re not able to do that, and have to source that out to somebody else, hoping that those collected materials doesn’t go to landfill! So, we’ve created a supply chain that is not fit for purpose or sustainable. The fit-for-purpose supply chain should be that if there is a manufacturer in that chain that knows how to recycle and remanufacture that material, they should get first rights to come and buy that of you. This way it goes straight to the manufacturer, rather than this convoluted pathway we have now.

If we are going to have this decentralised approach, it will rely on access to these recycled materials within the region. And we’re already seeing that happen, there are already people in that ecosystem. Our UNSW SMaRT Centre-developed MICROfactorieTM Technologies, for example, are able to turn plastic waste into new filament for 3D printing, and there already is a demand for that reformed, high-quality material. The recycled filament was used to make new clamps for a project that needed a hundred of them, and we are able to do that very quickly.

What are some of the drivers behind your view of the future?

A key driver will be the limited and delayed access to products globally. If you’re waiting a long time for your furniture, battery, or whatever, you might reconsider and ask, ‘why are we not doing this ourselves?’ Part of that whole of system thinking could be something as basic as a piece of furniture, or something as complex as electronic devices. It might get made in China, but is there something stopping us from getting it refurbished and repaired here? We already get our glass screens on the phones retrofitted.

Some of this goes beyond repair, and it’s really reforming our products. In the case of a piece of furniture, if you can simply reuse it as a chair, that’s great because you’ll have saved on all of that resource not having to be sourced, transported and remanufactured. But say after some time it does fall apart, then we’re talking about the reform strategy so that the materials can still be used in a whole new way. And the work we are doing at the UNSW SMaRT Centre is looking at potential opportunities to reform, refurb and remanufacture, which we as a society will need at some stage.

So, a driver will come from the fact that we can’t afford to wait around forever for products to arrive, whether that be for consumers or industrial uses. We’re putting together houses, for example, we need affordable and sustainable housing, so where will all those materials come from? Our green ceramic tiles, for example, are made from waste glass and textiles that we make in our MICROfactorieTM. A lot of people that ask about this are already seeing the limitations as to where their imported products are going to come from. Supply chain issues mean projects are affected and completion dates are affected, so there is this ripple effect. People are going to get that wake-up call, and see the benefits of local manufacturing.

But people not only like that they can get our green ceramic tiles here and now, they also appreciate that our MICROfactoriesTM are making something that is unique and based on principles of sustainability, that you cannot buy anywhere else in the world. These waste textiles are giving it all these beautiful colours, so it’s got desirable aesthetics as well. There is so much more to it than just a regular tile from somewhere else. A recent installation of the green ceramic tiles happened at the change rooms in Olympic Park, which was specifically customised to represent the colours of the Olympics. All of these speciality things are a good thing for producers in a niche market. If we, as Australia, are a small market, we can be manufacturers that produce things in a decentralised way. So, the skill matches quite well here, for creating those local jobs.

The more we get on that pathway, the better we will be able to support local job creation and supply chains, while being more sustainable.

What advice would you give to others and especially women who aspire to make an impact?

The ethos at the UNSW SMaRT Centre is to engage with communities because, to make an impact, stakeholder engagement is crucial. Such engagement can not only highlight the work you do but help create new connections and opportunities, thus helps to create even more impact down the line. Great ways to share your messages can also be via podcasts, media stories and interviews and a range of speaking events. It is also about “paying it forward” in terms of sharing your experience and expertise, to help motivate others and share knowledge. People aspiring to make an impact could do these sorts of things.

Professor Veena Sahajwalla will join other inspirational women working at the forefront of the industry at the Women in Manufacturing Summit 2023, 28-30 November at the Aerial UTS Function Centre, Sydney. Learn more.

To access the detailed conference program, download the brochure here.