Diggerworks doing the job

Appearing in Australian Financial Review, 23 June 2016


Closing the armed forces supply loop

Soldiers have been complaining about having to make do with inappropriate equipment since the time of the Romans but the Australian Defence Force has developed a means of effectively linking front-line troops with the procurement process. The Diggerworks unit, located in Victoria Barracks in Melbourne, has built a strong record of communication and liaison, as well as being an equipment innovator in its own right.

“The people on the ground are the ones best placed to know what they need,” says Colonel Richard Barrett, the director of Diggerworks. “Our role is to turn that information into practical equipment, bearing in mind that the past few years have seen the ADF operate in theatres as varied as East Timor and Iraq, and with a range of missions. Diggerworks is about solving problems. That’s our mission.”

Diggerworks was created after Senate estimates committee hearings in 2010 identified critical problems in the procurement and supply chain arrangements for the equipment and clothing used by Australian soldiers. Senior executives in the army, the Defence Materiel Organisation, and the Defence Science and Technology Organisation decided on a substantial overhaul, emphasising innovation and agility.

“Our focus has been on the individual combatant,” Barrett says. “You want to make sure that the soldier is as well protected as possible but also entirely capable of doing the job. There is no sense in simply weighing a digger down with more and more pieces of equipment – what I call the Christmas-tree effect. Especially for soldiers performing duties such as foot patrols, every extra kilo is a burden.”

Body armour has become essential, but the new approach is to have modular systems that can be adapted to environmental conditions and specific tasks, with Kevlar plates being added into pockets in the uniform. Soldiers manning checkpoints, for example, have less need of mobility and more need of heavier armour. Some armour is designed to protect against specific threats such as stabbing attacks.

The emphasis on effectiveness has seen a move away from single-purpose tools and towards flexible devices. One innovation being developed by Diggerworks is a multi-purpose tool for jungle use, to replace the heavy machete. The new, lighter tool can be configured for slashing, cutting, prying, and even breaking barbed wire. Prototypes have been made using a 3D printer, and the next step is to call in private sector companies to build further prototypes for testing, and eventually full-scale production.

“We try to get innovations into the hands of soldiers as quickly as possible but we are also aware of the need for testing,” says Barrett. “We often use training exercises for testing and conduct feedback interviews later. We also subject new items to the toughest treatment we can think of. Something we are doing at the moment is changing from the traditional webbing to a new material – it’s the same stuff used in Zodiac inflatable boats. We have subjected it to everything that it might encounter on a battlefield, as well as scientific and technical evaluation. We have to know that it will do its job.”

Speaking the language

Barrett notes that soldiers, when returning from a theatre, are interviewed for their views on equipment. Representatives of Diggerworks also visit ADF bases overseas and in Australia to connect with troops on the ground.

“My background is as an infantry commander,” he says. “My predecessors in this job had held similar positions. I think that hands-on experience is necessary in a job like this. You need to be able to speak the same language, be familiar with the issues.”

The equipment for soldiers is evolving towards more emphasis on communication, and the standard pack now includes a number of high-tech devices. A problem is that this requires power, and that means batteries.

“We are working on long-life batteries, and on ways to recharge equipment from a range of sources, even from portable solar panels,” Barrett says. “But traditional batteries are bulky and heavy. We are designing some which can fit easily into the uniform configuration.

“Another area we are examining is communication with allied forces, even if there is a language difference and the message itself needs to the encrypted. There are devices to do this but they are too big for our purposes. We want to take that technology and turn it into a portable packet. That is a part of looking at a soldier as an integrated system.”

Diggerworks is not the only organisation in the world’s militaries trying to improve equipment design and supply but it is one of the best regarded. Diggerworks representatives are in demand for conferences and co-operative projects, and the British army is soon to send a delegation to study the organisation.

“We are aware that Diggerworks has to keep adapting to stay healthy,” Barrett notes. “A long-term project for us is to look at our operational model. Something we want to develop is a system that can provide metrics on the effectiveness of particular changes. That requires a baseline, which is going to be hard to do, but it would be very valuable. It would help us determine what works best, how resources are best allocated, and how inputs are delivering outputs. That would be a big step.”

South China Sea dispute

Appearing in Australian Financial Review, 23 June 2016


South China Sea dispute: no solution in sight 

The territorial dispute in the South China Sea shows no signs of resolution, with China continuing to build artificial islands and increase its military strength in the area. The most recent attempt to deal with the issue through diplomatic means, the Asia Security Summit (known as the Shangri-La Dialogue, the name of the Singapore hotel where it was held) made no progress.

“I have little doubt that the Chinese officials at Shangri-La came away with the message that they could continue doing what they have been doing,” says Peter Jennings, head of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra. “The various attempts at push-back have not worked. There has been neither the will nor the practical means.”

Jennings believes that the expansion of China into the South China Sea has a range of objectives. One is to push other countries’ military forces, especially those of the US, as far away from the Chinese mainland as possible, including the submarine pens on Hainan Island. The South China Sea is also a crucial path for international shipping, and control means a major strategic advantage.

There is also an aspect, for the Chinese political leadership, of keeping the People’s Liberation Army on side by giving them the opportunity to flex their muscle. At the same time, the general population is very supportive of the government’s claim in the disputed area.

“But it should be understood that the Chinese really believe that this territory is theirs,” Jennings says. “The phrase they use is ‘since ancient times’ although in terms of international law their claim is actually pretty weak. Of course, that means nothing at all to them, given their historical approach. They hardly even acknowledge there is a dispute. In that sense, they are not interested in negotiations, and any idea of trading territory for stability is not on their agenda.”

Message undercut

Most countries, including Australia, have asserted the right of freedom of navigation in the area but so far only the US has sent ships through the region to underline the point. There have also been exercises involving Australian, US and Philippine defence forces near the disputed South China Sea waters, although any message might have been undercut by Washington saying that the exercises were not conducted with China in mind.

But the artificial islands are now so large that they are hard to ignore, with the airstrips capable of handling Chinese military aircraft. The island built on the once-tiny Fiery Cross Reef also has a soccer field and tennis courts, indicating that it is intended to be a permanent base even though the area is claimed by the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

The increasing militarisation of the area has raised the possibility of the conflict escalating into shooting. Jennings points to China’s recent placement of advanced HQ9 surface-to-air missiles, with a range of about 200 kilometres, on Woody Island in the Paracels group as a worrying sign.

“Those missiles are likely to be under the command of a relatively junior officer,” he says. “It’s the sort of situation in which things can get out of hand very quickly. Further militarisation plus more accelerated Chinese reclamation activities is also being driven by a view that it is best to do as much as possible before the US presidential election.”

Contributing to the atmosphere of brinkmanship, the US recently sent the guided missile destroyer USS William P. Lawrence within 12 nautical miles of Fiery Cross Reef as a freedom of navigation exercise. A week later, two Chinese fighter jets flew within 15 metres of a US surveillance plane during a patrol over the South China Sea, an action the US described as “unsafe”. The chances of an incident spiralling into shooting are increasing.

Treaty relationship

While Australia has consistently disputed China’s claim of sovereignty in the area the reality is that it could not provide much in the way of military assets if push came to shove in the area, although ADF forces could offer surveillance and logistical support. The Philippines is not strong in naval and air assets. Vietnam is relatively well-equipped but it might be unwilling to get involved in disputes not directly affecting it. That would leave action largely to the US.

“Much would depend on the nature of the accident, if there was one,” says Jennings. “If an American vessel or plane was destroyed, for example, that could activate Australia’s treaty relationship.

“But I do not think that the Chinese leaders are looking for a military confrontation. They do not want any talk of sanctions or isolation. If there was an accident, they would probably seek to de-escalate the conflict at the political level very quickly.”

Jennings does not see much prospect of improvement, and believes that the issue will continue to harm relations in the region. He would like Australia to play a more active role, such as undertaking freedom of navigation exercises. “We are paying the price of international inactivity over the past two years to send a message to China about its actions,” he says.


Technology exports of resources sector

Appearing in the Australian Financial Review, 14 March 2016

See http://www.afr.com/news/special-reports/resources/resource-sector-going-through-export-surge-on-back-of-local-technology-20160314-gnig07

Resource sector going through export surge on back of local technology

By Derek Parker

Mining has long been thought of as a business of shovels and sweat but in reality it is now driven by advanced technology and sophisticated software. Resources-linked technology is also one of the great unsung export success stories. At present, about 60 per cent of the mining software used around the world originates in Australia.

According to an Austrade report, “Mining Software and Related Technologies”, exploration and mining software (EMS) generates more than $600 million a year from mining-related revenues, more than $240 million of exports, and directly employs more than 2500 people.

The size and type of EMS firms varies, with 100 companies in the sector, ranging in size from less than $1 million to more than $100 million in annual sales. The sector is concentrated in Western Australia (45 per cent of businesses) and Queensland (30 per cent).

“Australia is seen as a world leader in this field,” says Simon Ratcliffe, product development director of Maptek, an Australian-based international company. “Australians have a can-do attitude and the capacity to think across traditional borders rather than in niches, and that is very important for global miners.”

Ratcliffe notes that Maptek was originally established to computerise a laborious manual task, with its first software package allowing geologists to create maps themselves rather than through expensive drafting offices and bureau firms.

Building on its early success, Maptek developed software which assisted in mine design and now includes scheduling, safety monitoring, design compliance and workflow optimisation. The software allows for the integration of information from various sources into a single package, without requiring complex retraining of mining specialists.

Ratcliffe nominates a software product, Vulcan Geological Modelling and Mine Planning, as a key advance.

“The crucial advantage of modelling is that you can explore multiple ‘what-if’ options,” he says. “If something doesn’t work in a model, nothing has been lost and maybe something has been learnt. If you make a mistake in the real mining world, it quickly gets expensive. Better to get it right at the start, in everything from drilling in the right place to taking account of occupational safety.”

A complementary direction for Maptek is the I-Site Laser Scanning System, which links a range of mining processes, including machinery control, with accurate 3D mapping.

Ratcliffe believes there is room for further growth in the resources sector in Australia and also points to global opportunities.

“We are doing well in the US, in metals as well as energy,” he says. “Copper and iron ore in South America. There are projects under way in Africa, and our new focus is Asia, including Indonesia and China. In some cases we can use existing products, in some cases we design something resource-specific, and sometimes we can adapt an existing tool to a new application. Operational efficiency, environmental compliance, operator safety and site rehabilitation are areas where demand is strong.”

The resources sector is looking more broadly at the use of advanced technology, with strong support for a new government-funded agency, National Energy Resources Australia (NERA), which is part of the Industry Growth Centre initiative. The new company is still getting up to speed but a number of significant industry figures have taken up board positions.

“NERA is focused on creating connections for growth,” says Ken Fitzpatrick, chairman of NERA. “The best companies use hardship as a catalyst for innovation and forming new partnerships. NERA will help create connections for growth across the sector to improve industry engagement, access, productivity and competitiveness. We want to enable growth through collaboration, innovation and knowledge sharing.

“Our aim is to provide a mechanism for greater industry collaboration and knowledge sharing. This means both collaboration between companies and the research sector as well as between companies themselves. This can take place on a case-by-case basis, joint industry programs or through licensing arrangements. Whatever works.”

Ken Fitzpatrick

Fitzpatrick believes the increased use of robotics, sensors and automation is likely to lead the next wave of productivity improvements, and algorithm-based business analytics are already starting to carve a role in the resources sector.

“Australia has the chance to seize a leadership role in several areas,” Fitzpatrick says. “When you look at operations maintenance in the LNG sector, we are already a major player. Expanding and consolidating that role will require a collaborative effort to be best in class in whatever we do.”

Looking to the future, Fitzpatrick sees an important area as the development of a skills base across the resources sector to ensure a stream of qualified people.  He also points to industry support for another new resources-related growth centre, the Mining, Equipment and Technical Services Growth Centre (known as METSignited) as representing another avenue for interaction with resources sector.