NEXT GENERATION SKILLS FOR NEXT GENERATION SUSTAINMENT
By Kate O’Mara
The arrival of the F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter in the Hunter region is momentous.
It’s the most advanced fighter jet on the planet and creates opportunities the likes of which we’ve never seen. It brings an economy of its own and will create new and exciting jobs, jobs that will employ our children’s children – smart, high value jobs.
The Hunter is immensely proud to be its home and we’ve been preparing for its arrival for many years.
In 2015, global defence prime contractor BAE Systems was selected as the Southern Pacific regional Maintenance, Repair, Overhaul & Upgrade (MRO&U) provider and has since also been awarded assignments for Air Vehicle component repair and Regional Warehousing. BAE Systems plans to deliver the majority of these sustainment services from its Williamtown, NSW facility adjacent to the RAAF base.
The company’s F-35 Program Manager, Mr Andrew Chapman said, “We have invested more than $15 million to establish an F-35-specific component manufacturing facility and we’ll work alongside the Royal Australian Air Force to provide the most effective sustainment services available – ensuring the F-35 is prepared and ready to be deployed anytime, anywhere.”
“We expect that our F-35 sustainment activities at Williamtown will see about 400 jobs created over the next 10 years and a requirement for this level of employment over the 30 plus years of the contract, so guaranteeing a stream of skilled people to deliver the project has been a key consideration for us. We’ve been actively working in partnership with RDA Hunter since 2010 to cultivate a pool of future employees.” Mr Chapman continued.
So, what have we been doing to ensure that enough young people study STEM subjects and are ready for the jobs that BAE Systems needs to fill?
The Hunter region via Regional Development Australia (RDA) Hunter is one of only three locations in the country to receive funding from the Department of Defence to implement a Schools Pathway Program (SPP). Known in the Hunter as the ME Program, the SPP fosters partnerships between schools and defence industry to encourage students to study STEM and pursue careers in the ‘workforce behind the defence force’.
In collaboration with partners like BAE Systems, we implement the STEM-Ex work placement program, Defence & Aerospace Careers Days, the STEM Defence + Innovation Program and iSTEM, among other activities, to teach students the technical and enterprise skills they need for long-term defence industry careers.
But, without a jet to look at, touch and experience, how do we make it real? How do we excite high school students and help them understand the significant opportunities available in the defence industry? Virtual reality technology is helping.
VR has given BAE Systems a glimpse of its new reality and the company is sharing the experience with Hunter students.
Visiting BAE Systems’ Williamtown facility on behalf of the ME Program recently, I met the company’s VR team. The team was hosting Year 10 Newcastle Grammar School student Nicholas White as part of ME’s STEM-Ex work experience program.
As an introduction to the VR technology Nicholas was experiencing, I donned the goggles and found myself first in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest and then in BAE Systems’ maintenance hangar – teleporting between maintenance bays, and in and out of the Hawk’s pilot seat and F-35 cockpit.
Immersed in the virtual Washington State forest, I understood the veracity of VR technology when to my surprise (and annoyance), I couldn’t make myself step off a computer-simulated cliff ledge atop a computer-simulation of Vesper Peak.
On the mountain, throwing a stick to a cute but curious-looking virtual dog who promptly brought it back to me, I conceived of the applications of VR in industrial situations – its capacity to engender meaningful planning, risk mitigation and cost-savings. And, I understood the value of re-creating the maintenance hangar.
BAE Systems and RDA Hunter have partnered since the beginning of the SPP in 2010. I’ve visited the hangar many times in that time but, not once, had I considered the logistics of its layout; how the new F-35, that is much larger than the Hawk currently maintained by BAE, will fit in the same space; or how each maintenance bay will need to be re-configured for workability and efficiency.
Gavin Lewis, BAE Systems’ Engineering Manager explained, “In planning for the arrival of the F-35, spatial issues are critical. The new aircraft’s physical dimensions demand that the hangar’s layout changes, and so too the protocols we follow.
“Testing a proposed new design through virtual reality technology allows us to ‘try before we buy’, if you like. It gives us the power to understand actual hangar-floor scenarios before we make decisions that affect technical and human aspects of our business.
“It means we can construct situations, identify potential problems and mitigate safety risks. It gives us freedom to be adaptable and agile and, importantly for BAE Systems, it ensures we’re not spending money on untested solutions,” Mr Lewis continued.
According to BAE Systems’ VR Team Lead, Andrew McLean, commercially-available web-based virtual reality programs give the company reliable and usable information upon which to base serious decisions.
“Using technology to streamline processes is smart. Our VR is an ‘off-the-shelf’ system but we team it with VR specific modelling programs. This enables us to replicate our environment accurately enough to determine optimal operational procedures.
“The commercial use of VR is still in its infancy – we’ve been using it here at Williamtown for two years – but given the value its adding to our processes and its scope to impact other areas of our business, we’ll become increasingly reliant on it.”
BAE Systems’ VR utilisation is growing and, in the future, its capacity to expedite maintenance-staff training and protect the currency of skills means it will become more mainstream. The company is expanding its in-house skills base to meet the emerging demand. It has specialised VR expertise in different parts of Australia dependent on the requirements of its projects, with knowledge shared across the country and, indeed, its global sites.
Nicholas, who is studying RDA Hunter’s state-of-the-art high school subject, iSTEM, joined BAE Systems to experience what life is like ‘on-the-job’. Nic was there to discover the breadth of roles available at BAE Systems, the opportunities for career progression and to see first-hand whether VR was for him.
“I was so lucky to be able to do work experience at BAE. It gave me the chance to try a few options and see how they use VR. It’s a really exciting industry and to be able to have a long-term defence career in Newcastle is pretty awesome,” Nic said.
During his iSTEM study at ME Program partner school, Newcastle Grammar School, Nic was introduced to the idea of tackling science, maths, engineering and technology problems in an integrated way – as happens in workplaces like BAE Systems. iSTEM was developed by RDA Hunter for exactly that purpose – to help students prepare for the realities of work – in this case, sustaining the most high-tech military aircraft the world has ever seen.
Developed in support of iSTEM, STEM-Ex was established as part of RDA Hunter’s STEM Workforce development initiatives to direct students who show the right combination of skills into Hunter industries that need them. It exposes students who have an interest in developing their technical skills, in Nic’s case VR, to Hunter industries that are urgently looking for people with the enthusiasm and aptitude for defence industry jobs.
“RDA Hunter’s STEM Workforce initiatives have achieved success over many years because they are legitimately industry-led and produce school graduates that are job-ready. We follow industry’s advice and tailor experiences, activities and curriculum that shape the workforce of the future – our VR work-experience program is a prime, future-focused example,” said RDA Hunter’s Director of Regional Development and Executive Officer Mr Trevor John.
“BAE Systems Australia is a founding ME Program partner and we are very proud to be playing a role in supporting our partner company sustain the most technically advanced fighter jet on the planet,” Mr John continued.
For more information visit www.rdahunterstem.org.au
See the story in CAS-G Outlook https://issuu.com/faircountmediaasia-pacific/docs/cas_outlook_2019