Military uniforms get next-gen innovation

Appearing in Australian Financial Review, Defence feature, 8 March 2017


“I like to think that we have played a role in the distinctive look of Australian service-men and -women,” says Matt Graham, CEO of Australian Defence Apparel, the largest manufacturer of uniforms and related equipment to the ADF. “It’s a look recognised and respected all over the world. We’ve been doing it for over a hundred years, and our focus has always been on integrating form and function. Whether soldiers or firefighters, any job is easier in the right uniform.”

ADA, based in Melbourne, manufactures more than 500,000 uniforms across a range of contracts every year. For the ADF, this includes the Standard Combat Uniform, Operational Combat Uniform, Soldier Combat Ensemble, Load Carriage Equipment and Flyers Ensembles. Including specialised items such as Tiered Body Armour System vests and pouches ADA produces between 750,000 and one million units per year.

“When most of the manufacturing sector in Australia is going backwards we are on a growth path,” Graham says. “We have put a lot of resources into R&D, and the next generation of products is really exciting. In particular, 3D printing adds a new dimension to prototyping and testing.”

One of the products that has come out of research is an innovative pack frame that can be easily adjusted to the wearer’s weight and height has been developed. Known as the One299 backpack frame, the product won the 2016 Land Defence Australia – National Industry Innovation Award last September. Over 30,000 frames have been supplied to the ADF, and there has been international interest as well.

ADA is working with the ADF to develop the next generation of uniforms using e­-textiles, in which communication data is passed through fibres embedding in the clothing. This would eliminate the need for cables and reduce the weight a soldier would have to carry.

Another hi-tech project designed to improve soldier performance is a titanium exoskeleton that would wrap around a soldier’s body, and would help take the weight of a backpack. The technology is being developed with the US Army’s elite special operations command, and could be rolled out to the general army in 2018. The project is being run with ADA’s parent company Logistik Unicorp, a global specialist uniform company headquartered in Canada. 

“The first version is not powered but we are working on a battery-powered one for the US,” says Graham. “The powered suit would sense muscle reflexes and activate to take the weight of the soldier’s movement. In the US, they are calling it the Iron Man project. It might sound sci-fi but the potential is enormous, especially given the number of injuries that soldiers incur by carrying heavy weight. There are other applications in the health and disability sector as well. You can see the potential.

“When we come up something new, we protect it. ADA is one of the few uniform companies that regularly patents the innovations we create.”

Graham notes that liaison with the ADF is ongoing, and cites the organisation Diggerworks within the ADF procurement system as a key partner. Diggerworks is designed to collect, analyse and utilise feedback from soldiers in the field, and Graham sees the link with field operations as crucial in ensuring that soldiers get what they need. The current emphasis is on giving soldiers flexibility in weapons, protection and communications without adding to the weight they have to carry.

Even though the defence sector is in a growth phase Graham sees diversification as a crucial strategy for the long term. He believes that the company’s good reputation as an ADF supplier can be parlayed into other fields.

“We have had good success with uniforms for firefighters and emergency services workers, for example. There is a lot of cross-over in the materials technology, and we can point to our work with the ADF as proof that we can handle both specialised product runs as well as large contracts.”

One of ADA’s largest non-defence projects was the contract to provide a new uniform range for New South Wales Health, with more than 80,000 uniformed staff. This entailed rollout across the state with full end-to-end inventory and supply chain management.

Another piece of the diversification strategy was the recent acquisition of LE Gear, a leading supplier of law enforcement, military, public safety and outdoor sports products.

“It complements our manufacturing and apparel business, and opens the door to new markets, new brands and new suppliers,” says Graham. “It also gives us a proven e-commerce platform for direct to consumer distribution across Australia and New Zealand. That’s a new direction for us, but that’s the point. You have to keep trying new things, keep going with innovation, keep applying technology. That’s how you stay ahead.”

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