Albion’s jockey helmet project has been four years in the making.
The company is probably best known for making the iconic baggy green caps worn by the Australian cricket team, and for pioneering cricket helmets (first made for teams in Kerry Packer’s breakaway World Series Cricket competition in the 1970s.)
However, it has long been trying to deliver a ground-breaking, potentially lifesaving jockey helmet, with repeated delays for various reasons.
“It got to a stage where we were looking to commence manufacturing offshore, in China, and found that we couldn’t get that right,” Albion’s CEO and co-owner, Brendan Denning, told Manufacturers’ Monthly.
“[We] couldn’t get the consistency of the product, couldn’t get the consistency of the materials, consistency of the manufacturing process: all of those things, and we tried and tried and tried.”
There can be problems with offshoring, all well-known and discussed in detail elsewhere.
Attempts to outsource in India and China by Albion were troubled by a just-in-time culture leading to delays and issues around consistency respectively.
The helmets, which will be manufactured under Albion’s Coonan & Denlay brand, will go into batch tests next week across their range of sizes.
After all these years, the prototype of the high-tech, carbon-fibre based items was unveiled this week in the thick of the spring racing carnival period.
Getting to the production stage has not been easy, but Denning said that being exposed to other companies and to RMIT through META’s Sports Advanced Manufacturing Hub (SAMH), launched in July, had helped in a number of ways.
“META showed us the opportunity to bring these things back to Australia and we’re now taking the time to understand and meet the people in our own backyard who are exceptionally talented, bright individuals and companies,” he said.
From RMIT, said Denning, there was access to the university’s background IP in areas including material properties, optimising the density and weight in the helmets’ parts. From local companies, such as FCST, the benefits of a reliable, close-to-home supply chain has meant it’s now easier and – importantly – comparable in price to manufacture onshore.
“If you’d told me that 12 or 18 months ago I would’ve thought you had rocks in your head,” he offered.
Albert Goller, the chairman of META, hopes the first successful project for the sports hub will set an example for others in the industry that there are benefits from collaborating with others in the industry and with researchers.
According to the Australian Sports Technology Network (which Goller’s organisation partnered with to launch the SAMH), Australia exports only $286 million worth of sports goods a year, making up a mere 0.01 per cent of the global market.
According to those involved in the hub, a new approach is needed for Australia to contribute a larger share to the $300 billion market, including better linkages between companies and universities.
“To compete in the world we have to adopt methodologies and technologies faster than anyone else, because we have some natural disadvantages like distance and low [population] density and so on,” he told Manufacturers’ Monthly.
“We have to be a country that demonstrates that collaboration is nothing fancy or the flavour of the month but really brings value.”
The helmet, which will be put through its paces through testing simulating speeds of up to 60 kilometres an hour as per Australian Racing Board regulation, spreads and absorbs impact to a jockey’s head.
With 5,000 professional jockeys in Australia and – according to the National Jockeys Trust – 500 falls suffered by these a year, there is a market need for superior protection offering.
The dangers associated with the sport became obvious last week with two racing deaths in as many days.
The move into helmets has a back to the future ring to it, with Albion producing equestrian helmets in its early days in the 1940s, before concentrating on cricket in the 70s.
Albion will relocate its factory operations over the next weeks from Sydney to Melbourne. Denning hopes this, and the move into equestrian and racing protective gear and beyond, will begin a new and fruitful era for the company, which he joined in 2009 and has co-owned since late-2011.
“We certainly see the jockey helmet as being the first product off the production line,” said Denning.
“We’re trying to tick those boxes by Christmas with a view to commencing production as early as possible next year.
“[There’s] a view to then trying to do a lot more manufacturing here, with regard to personalisation, body protection, moving into protective apparel and some of those categories where we’ve got R&D happening at the moment.”
– Albion's advanced sports helmet
– Fabian Seibold, National Executive, Industry Engagement, META