Shaping ships and building bridges

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Malcolm Turnbull insists Australian manufacturing will benefit from the country’s largest peacetime upgrade in the history of its defence industry. However, more collaboration is necessary to see its true value. Steven Impey reports.


Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull struck a chord with Australian industry in the opening of the tenth Pacific International Maritime Exposition in October.

The world gathering was held at the International Conference Centre Sydney, welcoming 500 exhibitors as well as 85 naval delegates among a wealth of senior industry and military leaders.

“This is a crucially important gathering and it comes at an important time of enormous investment by my government here in Australia,” Turnbull told the conference.

“We are embarking on the largest ever peacetime upgrade to our defence capabilities – a massive shipbuilding program, which will deliver 54 new vessels to tackle the regional and global threats in the decades ahead.

“We are ensuring our national security while creating the certainty, the jobs and the opportunities that were missing in previous years.”

The Naval Shipbuilding Plan builds on the government’s 2016 Defence whitepaper, which Turnbull stresses will guarantee long-term employment for Australians working towards a sovereign shipbuilding and sustainment capability.

Availability and lethality

At the heart of this, Australia’s naval industry is seeking to strengthen and maintain the availability and lethality of its naval capability and to do it through the collaboration and unison of the existing industry.

It was only a handful of years ago when Australia’s workforce was considered a commodity rather than an integral part of the decision-making process, according to Captain Brad Smith, director of the Guided Missile Frigate Systems Program Office (FFGSPO), which provides seaworthy Guided Missile Frigates to the Royal Australian Navy.

Smith explained the importance of moving away from a “high transaction” culture, towards one that owns a more “outcome focus” on the roles and relationships between industry partners.

“I often say that industry is a mirror of us, and that, if we have negative behaviour, industry has no choice but to align itself to our behaviour,” Smith said.

“One of the leadership changes for us [FFGSPO] was to change our behaviour and to open up and sit down with industry to see what we can do [better].”

Industry 4.0 – including the advancement and sharing of data and technology – is considered a major step forward.

Sharon Wilson, head of Industry Strategy at BAE Systems Australia, discussed the importance of developing Australia’s small and medium businesses (SMEs) in light of the government’s multi-billion dollar defence budget.

“We need to develop Australian industry and to work with the industry to get away from only being component manufacturing, towards assembly, autonomy and further beyond,” she said.

“It is not impossible for Australian industry to do that but it is a big ask for a small company to get themselves up there.

“The further you go up the pyramid, the faster you become a strategic supplier and the reason we want that is because the majority of our money is spent in sustainment and typically goes to [manufacturers] at the top.”

There are two challenges to distributing the pie more proportionately, according to Wilson.

One is to engage SMEs with the latest technology capability and, secondly, to increase any given company’s business systems capability, an area Wilson says a lot of SMEs ignore because they are busy trying to manage “low-end” products.

“As we see defence industry going forward, it is those business systems capabilities that are going to become more important when they start to get into the digital management of the supply chain,” she continued.

“Right across the supply chain, we have seen companies develop their business off the back of that capability and it is those client contracts that tend to pull through SME development.”

Adjoining forces

Joining Smith at a FFG Sustainment seminar at Pacific 2017, a panel of naval partners from Thales Australia, BAE Systems Australia and the Royal Australian Navy – which make up the FFG Enterprise – explained why they have sought to go by respective strengths rather than grabbing what they can at the expense of a friend of industry.

“We spend a lot of time with the workforce trying to impress on them that, with everything we do, FFGSPO produces nothing – it is FFG Enterprise [and its partners] that produce everything,” Smith said.

“It’s an approach where, no matter who does it, everyone is sharing in that value, whether it is through awards or through projects.

“We have had a number of examples where we’ve walked into a meeting and said this is what we want to achieve as a customer and you, in a contract, go away and tell us who is going to do what and how you are going to bring it together.

“My job is to shape that around the edges but really it is all about allowing the industry to tell us what the best solution is.”

mt-pacificOne area where this is taking greater precedence is in the creation of digital shipyards, where industry players are contributing more to the design and development of Australia’s frigates.

This is considered an opportunity to invest further into the education stream, including Industry 4.0 graduation courses such as those at Swinburne University, in Melbourne.

Much like the role of the Shipbuilding Centre of Excellence in the US – where software is heavily used in shipbuilding – companies such as Siemens have heavily invested in domestic opportunities to ready Australia’s manufacturing industry.

“We are working with [shipbuilding] companies such as Austal and their digital position,” said Andrew Seal, head of Marine/Defence at Siemens. “It is a developing environment. However, it isn’t only about the tools we use but also the workforce that uses them.

“In the past, engineering set the manufacturing process at the design level, whereas now, when the design model is handed over to production, production now has its own flexibility to map its own processes.”

A “digital twin” allows ship-designers to simulate and archive all facets of a new frigate, right from the 3D-modelling stage to the layout and inventory of a manufacturing plant, capturing the big data that makes the maintenance of a modern vessel more efficient.

“For us, the interesting question is going to be – while we have already seen the development of the US workforce around this concept, how can we drive a broader industry and bring both the software and hardware sides of production closer together in Australia,” Seal added.

Digital defence

In his opening address, the Prime Minister announced that Saab Australia would develop a single combat management system as part of federal government investment worth more than $1 billion that aims to create hundreds of jobs across the defence industry.

The South Australia defence technology company will partner with CEA Technologies and Lockheed Martin Australia to support the missile and air warfare capabilities of the Future Frigate Program.

The move is part of Turnbull’s desire to mandate the way Australia’s Future Frigates are procured, meaning the government will move away from a “one-ship one-tender” approach.

“In the complex threat environment that our navy will face in the future, we need the best capability for our Future Frigates that can deal with contemporary threats both under and over the water,” Turnbull said.

“A capability that ensures we can share information on those threats with other assets, allies and partners – including the US Navy – and can be upgraded to meet emerging threats, supported and further developed through close ties with Australian industry.”

Dr Derek Rogers, head of Saab Australia’s Global Centre of Excellence in Autonomous Vessels, is working around the naval capability of unmanned vessels for dull, dirty and dangerous roles and spoke about the opportunities autonomous technologies are presenting the domestic supply chain.

“In terms of work for metal, plastics and rubber, I consciously use Australian suppliers and agents who have been particularly good in providing technology information,” he said. “When they have been asked to do things, there is a whole raft of areas where they have been able to help.

“Although this is not there traditional space, particularly in Adelaide – with the reduction of the car industry – this [technology] has been a fantastic opportunity to explore different instructions.”

By teaming with industry, manufacturers in the US are better equipped to learn how to digitalise the build of a 4,000-ton frigate from the tools in a plant to its design, manufacture and maintenance.

“Once you have manufactured it, you then have to sustain it,” said Tony King, Siemens’ director of Federal Services Product Lifestyle Management, in Virginia.

“With a digital twin, you can use big data to figure out when you have to increase things like your maintenance, etcetera. It means you are always trying to improve the operations of the product in one ‘central design depository’.”

To bring SMEs up to speed on this concept, Wilson says businesses must automate a lot of their processes before they can benefit from the digital supply chain – or, in this case, “Shipyard 4.0”.

“With a digital yard, if your equipment is electronically tagged, we should know where that equipment is,” Wilson said. “By doing this, you can see how digitalisation can help a naval enterprise by sharing workforce information.

“It can create a digital workforce marketplace. Export opportunities come from driving out cost and, if Australia wants to work on the international market, we are going to have to drive out cost.

“We need to balance defence needs and look for where they can introduce those Australian innovations, re-testing equipment, and setting up facilities. But that also needs the will of the customer to use Australian ideas.”