They say necessity is the mother of invention and there is perhaps no more pressing necessity than to survive a global conflict. Throughout history, war has been a catalyst for innovation.

From the Renaissance, when da Vinci sketched out the first wetsuit and diving gear, designed to enable troops to silently swim underwater and sneak up on the enemy, through to radar, global positioning systems and simple things such as duct tape and the ubiquitous “jerry can”; the industry of war and defence has delivered technological advances that have later become part and parcel of peacetime living.

It is little wonder then that Australian States have battled hard to attract and retain defence industries.  

Beyond the significant immediate benefits of investment and employment, attracting and holding on to projects such as submarine, warship, aircraft and military vehicle development and construction can fire up top level skills development for generations of workers and build inventive, entrepreneurial communities that have the ability to adapt and capitalise on opportunities. 

Professor David CropleyUniSA systems engineer and expert in creative thinking, Professor David Cropley says, in peacetime and in war, engineers have always been the great problem solvers and sometimes, the trickier the problem, the stronger the desire for an elegant solution.

In his book Creativity in Engineering: Novel Solutions to Complex Problems, among the moments in world defence history that Prof Cropley explores, are the wartime hurdles that spurred innovations, and some of them have clear links to South Australia’s submarine project.

“Under mounting pressure from allied bombing, the Germans needed to find another way to construct their highly efficient submarines, away from the vulnerable dockyards,” Prof Cropley says. 

“In that environment of urgency, two engineers developed a modular approach to construction, not only solving the problem of being vulnerable to destruction, but also cutting build times down by two-thirds and laying the groundwork for today’s ship and sub building methods.    

“The subs we build in South Australia, some 71 years after the end of WWII, will benefit from that German innovation.”

Prof Cropley says while there will not be oppor-tunities for such radical innovations in the defence projects based in Adelaide, creativity and problem solving will still be vital.

“What we find with large-scale, modern projects like the submarine project, is that while the major construction parameters and designs are set, there will be little innovations throughout construction, adaptations and local improvements that all come about because a problem needs to be solved,” he says.   

“For our engineers and technical experts, the opportunity to work on these projects in South Australia is hugely important. These are genuinely world-class builds and they hone skills to world-class standards.”

Federal Minister for Defence Industry and South Australian local, Christopher Pyne, couldn’t agree more.

“For the first time in our history, we’ve committed to a continuous naval shipbuilding program including the Future Submarine Program, Offshore Patrol Vessels, Future Frigate Program and the Pacific Patrol Boats,” Minister Pyne says. 

“It is an $89 billion spend and will ensure the creation of thousands of jobs across Australia. 

“I want to make sure the money is spent locally, using local industry capabilities, our steel and wherever possible to maximise the potential for Australian jobs. 

“It’s particularly important to South Australia, especially following the downturn in car manu-facturing in the past decade. It will generate local jobs now but will also sustain that work into the future. 

“I believe the flow-on effects will be enormous. 

“There will be opportunities for Australian industries in both the construction and sustainment activities for our current and future naval vessels.”

But just what it will take to make the most of these opportunities is something that needs to go much deeper than co-locating industries.

Chancellor Jim McDowellAccording to UniSA Chancellor Jim McDowell, the real challenge for SA is to build a community that is “fit-for-purpose”, one that can take full advantage of long-term industry transformation.

“What we don’t want to happen is a 20 or 30-year period of engagement in the defence industry space, followed by a void when the projects are finished,” McDowell says.

“This is an enormous opportunity for South Australia but we need to connect innovation and enterprise to make the most of it and we need to break some bad habits.

“South Australia needs to become less conservative in its business approach. We also need to shake off the stereotype of being the mendicant state and start thinking that maybe there are other ways to get good ideas off the ground, rather than expecting government to pay for everything.

“Governments – both State and Federal – are our key investors but we need second tier investment from business-minded people who can see opportunities and are willing to back new ideas.”

McDowell says being a small city should be no barrier to success. 

Boulder, Colorado has only 100,000 people but in 2012 appeared on Forbes magazine’s list of Best Places for Business and Careers, and is a city he says is attracting high-level investment in technology innovation.

“This is about considering how we leverage the money that will come into the State because of defence industries,” McDowell says

Professor Jana Matthews from UniSA’s Centre for Business Growth is working with businesses now to develop growth strategies and that is exactly what local companies should be considering – how do we grow and where are the opportunities – opportunities that will carry us beyond current defence contracts and carry us to new and future industries.

“There is a great deal a university like ours can bring to the table in business, education and technology to support growth.”

McDowell says there are more lines of computer code being used in the air warfare destroyer project than there were on the space shuttle.

“We have the skills that can deliver on those sorts of requirements; we certainly have capacity to innovate in areas such as communications, big data systems, and intelligence systems. The trick is to see how we can adapt that defence-honed knowledge and find other applications and markets for it.

“If ever there was a time to develop a ‘can-do’ attitude, it is now.”  

Brodie RyanAt 31-years-old, Mildura-born systems engineer Brodie Ryan believes South Australia is well on the way to creating one of the best environ-ments for defence industry business and innovation in the nation.

A Bachelor of Computer Systems Engineering and Finance graduate, Ryan started his career at Raytheon Australia before honing his expertise with a UniSA master’s degree in military systems integration, a degree program he says has benefitted enormously from strong local liaison with defence industry players.

“Because the program was created with industry and for industry, it could deliver graduates the specialist expertise they needed to tackle the complexity, size and scale of defence industry projects,” Ryan says.

“The degree had a distinct military acquisitions flavour so that everything we were learning about systems technologies and applications could be understood in the military context.” 

Now a leader in systems safety for the air warfare destroyer project, he says there is still a wide range of scope for ingenuity and innovation, even when defence contracts are for “off the shelf” products.

“There is often a huge amount of adaptation in ship construction because they need to be adapted to local conditions of operation, and it is in those hundreds of adaptations that engineers and other experts come to the fore,” Ryan says.

“That innovation is vital for these projects but may also spark new ideas that have applications beyond defence.” 

He says the Federal Government’s new Centre for Defence Industry Capability (CDIC), to be based in Adelaide, will offer important opportunities for small to medium enterprises to find a place in the supply chains that deliver to the local shipbuilding projects.

“I think any experience gained through projects like the air warfare destroyer and the submarine project will be invaluable,” he says.

So where to start?

According to Minister Pyne, a new Defence Industry Hub will bring together defence, industry, academia and research organisations to collaborate on innovative technologies that can deliver better defence outcomes.

“The CDIC Innovation Portal will provide a single entry point for Australia’s small to medium enterprises to explore innovation opportunities within defence,”
Minister Pyne says. 

“We have adopted this approach to make it easier for Australian industry to engage with defence – and more frequently – on the Government’s innovation priorities.

“Yes, we want to strengthen the relationship between defence and industry, but we also want to harness the innovation potential of Australian industries.

“Universities can register their interest in the Future Submarine Project with DCNS, but longer term, through their leadership they can encourage students to better engage with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects, so that our workforce and our business leaders have the STEM skills and understanding needed for a global economy.”

McDowell says the University is determined to play its part in ensuring that South Australia is “skills-ready” for the large-scale defence projects that will be delivered in the State in the coming years.

“UniSA has the longest-standing partnership with the Defence Science and Technology Group of any Australian university and through strong and positive collaborations we will be making our expertise and innovation in technology and human factors research available,” he says.

“Partnership with the defence sector, developed through listening to the priorities of companies such as SAAB, ASC, Lockheed, BAE Systems and many others and then responding to them, has always been UniSA’s approach.

“We look forward to building on that track record to deepen current partnerships and develop new ones with more recently arrived players in South Australia such as DCNS.”