The increased number of domestic and commercial furniture imports in the past few years has been a game changer for Australian furniture manufacturers and designers. With loose furniture being imported cheaply from China, local manufacturers and furniture designers have tried to diversify their products, by expanding into built-in furniture and cabinetry. Interior designers are including more and more built-in furniture into their design concepts for both commercial and residential projects, especially in high-density housing projects and city apartments. While from a design perspective this can be seen as a positive move towards a greater variety of furniture products, there is a great danger of neglecting safety aspects of design and construction imposed by the Australian Consumer Law, as well as responsible selection of materials and their sources.
The design and manufacturing of built-in furniture require a separate set of skills and knowledge, as well as the inclusion of members from other industry sectors such as Environment, Agriculture, Engineering and Technology. Furniture products now come in all forms, pre-assembled, flat-packed and built in, as well as highly engineered space-saving products designed and manufactured in European countries such as Germany. These products take furniture design and construction to another level, requiring new skill sets to be incorporated in training, and are yet to be explored by Australian manufacturers as an opportunity for sector growth.
Educational organisations have a responsibility to identify these challenges and address them as part of their program design and delivery, to ensure that graduates in all fields of design and manufacturing studies understand their responsibilities towards the consumer, in regards to product safety. Australian Standards, material and manufacturing technology, as well as ergonomics are just as important (if not more important) as the functional and aesthetic aspects of a product and need to become a standard component of training products. To ensure quality outcomes for training, design and manufacturing, there is a need for regular collaboration and dialogue between training providers, suppliers and manufacturers, and the relevant industry bodies, such as the Australian Furniture Association (AFA).
Continuous professional development for teachers in Vocational Education in particular, in the form of Industry projects and student placement should become a standard in design programs with no formal work placement, such as the Diploma of Interior Design and Decoration. Such programs address kitchen design, and designing for people with disabilities, yet rarely do students have the opportunity to discuss their designs with suppliers and manufacturers, or better yet, with the end user. Training providers will often organise guest speakers for their students to address different learning outcomes. Most of the time, the emphasis is on design trends and project management, but rarely would suppliers or manufacturers be included in the conversation, to talk about new materials and processes, as well as safety standards in manufacturing. Training organisations should also collaborate and share resources to ensure they are serving the community by providing responsible, knowledgeable graduates, as well as maintain (and grow) the good reputation of Australian design and furniture products.
Technology and innovation is a key strategic objective for the Australian government both at state and federal levels, with funding for research and collaboration being made available, yet there is little evidence of translating innovation and research into practice here in Australia. The furniture manufacturing industry is yet to take advantage of and engage in applied research conducted in educational institutions through design and advanced manufacturing centres.
The Australian Furnishing Community of Practice Network (AFCoPN) provides an opportunity for these conversations to take place, for innovation to be at the centre of the collaboration between stakeholders, and the consumer as the main focus of the innovative outcomes. For more information on how to engage with the AFCoPN contact the AFA at firstname.lastname@example.org