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Conventions, casinos and culture

An overseas experience can be a great business pick-me-up. The food and grocery organisation chose Melbourne for its annual conference, staged in the Crown convention and casino complex.

That in itself shows prescience, giving delegates a taste of what Auckland could become if only the government can shift a gear and get on with the job.

As it happens, it was the government’s top ideas man (even if his talents are unjustifiably overlooked) who kicked off proceedings with an upbeat vision of the future, particularly manufacturing, mobility and microchips.

Yes, we’re talking about Maurice Williamson, who had to return from a private trip from Australia for a day before coming to Melbourne to meet ministerial cabinet rules.

It is customary for the government, not conference hosts, to pay for such travel and he couldn’t mix a private trip with a work one.

His conference session was called, “Why buy it? Just print it,” and dwelt, among many other things, on the ability of 3D printing to deliver a wide range of goods, thus destroying the old factory model. A model, by the way, that other politicians still cling to as the answer to the so-called “jobs crisis.”

Here’s how The Economist describes what’s in store:

Ask a factory today to make you a single hammer to your own design and you will be presented with a bill for thousands of dollars. The makers would have to produce a mould, cast the head, machine it to a suitable finish, turn a wooden handle and then assemble the parts.

To do that for one hammer would be prohibitively expensive. If you are producing thousands of hammers, each one of them will be much cheaper, thanks to economies of scale.

For a 3D printer, though, economies of scale matter much less. Its software can be endlessly tweaked and it can make just about anything. The cost of setting up the machine is the same whether it makes one thing or as many things as can fit inside the machine…

Think about the implications. As wealthier country due its stronger “safe haven” currency, New Zealand can afford to be at the forefront of 3D printing and replace all those soon to be obsolete factories.

The Economist continues:

As the number of people directly employed in making things declines, the cost of labour as a proportion of the total cost of production will diminish too. This will encourage makers to move some of the work back to rich countries, not least because new manufacturing techniques make it cheaper and faster to respond to changing local tastes.

The materials being used to make things are changing as well. Carbon-fibre composites, for instance, are replacing steel and aluminium in products ranging from mountain bikes to airliners. And sometimes it will not be machines doing the making, but micro-organisms that have been genetically engineered for the task.

Mr Williamson demonstrated how even body parts and food are now being “printed” to order.

You hear little about these developments from politicians or even the government. Yet the economic implications are enormous, as it changes the debate completely about whether it’s wise to revert to a low-dollar economy exporting cheap goods.

Forget about the dollar
Certainly, the successful areas of the food industry are in no need of it, according to research by Coriolis for the information project that is part of the business growth agenda. <

Coriolis found the export-focused companies, which make up about half of the industry, are performing well above the 8% annual growth needed to double export income by 2025.

Managing director Tim Morris says these companies, which are mainly New Zealand owned, make niche products and use consumer-focused packaging, are also those in growth categories.

For some, the main problem is getting enough scale to meet demand, such as the salmon industry, which faces expansion and capacity constraints because of opposition from environmental groups.

Unlike many industry conferences, the Food & Grocery Council focused on finding external experts, who could provide perspectives on the economy, marketing and corporate leadership.

The All Blacks as cultural model
It was interesting to hear, for example, from “corporate anthropologist” Michael Henderson, in an Australian setting, of how the All Blacks are a “cultural” model rather than just an excellent team.

As Mr Henderson puts it, the All Blacks “culture” remains consistent no matter how many times the team changes its compsition. Joining the team is to have a “personality-based experience” and a “sense of belonging to a tribe.”

That experience, and the resulting performance, does not depend or change because of someone joining or leaving; the values stay the same. And for Mr Henderson, in anthropological terms, culture is the higher dictator of performance – good or bad – than the strategy.

An interview with John Clarke
Another benefit of taking off to Melbourne was the presence of expat John Clarke, whose dislike of air travel limits the chances of him visiting New Zealand any time soon.

Mr Clarke and old friend Ian Fraser chatted for 75 minutes in a revealing session that has been taped for posterity. Mr Clarke is a successful satirist on Australian TV, including a weekly interview where he “plays” the prime minister of the day.

He has studied the language, both verbal and body, of politicians for many years and has amazing insights that are hard to summarise in a few words.

But as Mr Fraser observed, the Fred Dagg of old has evolved into a focused revealer of the “dark arts” of political obfuscation, manipulation and sheer effrontery in face of the facts. The interview programme, which has run for many years on Channel 9 and now the ABC, is taped several times using the same basic script.

But the version that is played has to meet Mr Clarke’s high standards how those words are delivered.

He explains, "At 18, I went for the cheap laughs but then you could be hired by Hitler to deliver his message with humour. So I wanted to get to the pith and sinew of the argument," which he demonstrated by briefly taking on the persona of Julia Gillard, picking up Mr Fraser for calling her Mrs Gillard, and then ticking him off over questions about the carbon emissions tax.

In New Zealand, Mr Clarke is probably still best remembered, in recent times, for The Games, about the run up to the Sydney Olympics. He told how the satirical script was deliberately filmed by documentary makers rather than as drama, so the camera and where it was placed became a key part of the action.

Mr Clarke still considers himself as a New Zealander living in Australia. He also makes his living from documentaries, the latest being one about the history of sport in Australia. His Wikipedia entry reveals what we are missing by not seeing much more of him at home.

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