Rockwell Collins Australia rebranded earlier this year into Collins Aerospace in the wake of some major moves at the international level. ADM Managing Editor Katherine Ziesing caught up with Australian VP Nick Gibbs to check in about what it means at the local level.
ADM: The Collins business globally has gone through a lot of changes over the past 12-18 months. Can you walk us through what those are and what they mean for the Australian business?
Gibbs: There are two parts to this; first the global changes, and I’ll cover off those and then move on to what does they mean for activities in Australia. As people probably know, United Technologies acquired Rockwell Collins in November 2018 and merged Rockwell Collins with United Technologies Aerospace Systems, UTAS, as it was known and created Collins Aerospace, one of the largest aerospace component companies.
The intent of that acquisition and then merger was to create a new company with a mission to redefine aerospace, especially in the areas of intelligent aircraft, integrated and optimized aircraft products and services, and advanced defence systems. I think the way to look at it is that the leaders have brought together the best parts of the UTAS business and Rockwell Collins and created a truly great aerospace company, in terms of the breadth of capabilities that it can offer our customers globally.
The primary reason for that and the strategy behind it has been for the company to be better able to solve some of our customers’ toughest challenges through the breadth of technology and experience that we now have, effectively under the one roof.
How that’s translated into Australia? In order to be better positioned to satisfy our customers’ really tough challenges and strategic needs. The organisation has created some new functions and I transitioned into one of those from my role as the Managing Director for Rockwell Collins Australia to become the Vice President, Customer and Account Management of Australia, a role I moved into on day one.
That role was created in a handful of key markets of which Australia is one and the purpose of it is to actually be able to engage with our customer base in those markets and apply the broader capabilities of the organisation. So the important point is Australia and the ADF is a key customer for Collins Aerospace.
ADM: The Rockwell Collins business was quite well known in Australia before the acquisition and merger. What was the UTAS business like in Australia before the merge?
Gibbs: Their activities have mostly been selling products and MRO services from a distance. So they had some local BD people supporting key customers in the commercial and military area but they had a very light footprint in country. And I guess going back to the creation of Collins Aerospace, one of the things when I transition from that role, Sonny Foster stepped into the Managing Director position running what is now called Mission Systems in Australia, which is aligned with one of the six business units within Collins Aerospace, the others being Avionics, Aerostructures, Power & Controls, Interiors and Mechanical Systems.
ADM: What’s the split like between civil and military business? Is that likely to change much in the near future?
Gibbs: At a global level it’s about 25 per cent military, 75 per cent commercial. UTAS had a very large presence on commercial platforms, as did Rockwell Collins. So I think the answer is no, I mean the military is still a very, very large part of the work in Australia and is obviously a focus for the footprint that we have established in Australia through the Mission Systems business which pretty much solely deals with the military.
ADM: So does that 75/25 split hold true in Australia as well?
Gibbs: If you look at it on total revenue, as in content on commercial and military aircraft, yes, it’s probably pretty close. In terms of actual work being done in country, it’s probably more like 90 per cent military, 10 per cent commercial. Most of what we do in country today in terms of Australian workforce utilisation is military.
ADM: Collins in Australia is probably best known for its work with the fire control systems around AFATDS on Land 17 and then on related future Army programs like Hawkei. What is the portfolio of work like in Australia for Collins technologies, both in terms of new products and supporting the existing base?
Gibbs: Definitely with the breadth of the company’s capabilities we see it as an exciting time within Defence. We’re continuing to focus on the legacy work with radio products and GPS, as well as the targeting system we’ve provided to the ADF and the integration of those capabilities onto future platforms and so on.
I think there’s three new areas that we see great opportunity. One of them is in the ISR space, sensors and so on which we’ve not historically done work with. The other is in the live virtual and constructive (LVC) training and simulation and, finally, space. UTAS had quite a capability in space, providing space suits as well as a whole range of other technologies. We’re currently exploring what are the new areas of opportunity for the Collins Aerospace business in Australia.
ADM: You mentioned space there. Am I correct in understanding that Collins, they make the space suits for NASA which go up on the International Space Station?
Gibbs: Yes, that is correct. The current generation of space suits were manufactured by Collins Aerospace.
ADM: Is that something you would look to be bringing to Australia in any way, shape or form?
Gibbs: I think the Australian space aspirations are not so much oriented around manned space travel but more sensors, payloads, delivery systems and so on. So potentially not the space suits but obviously there’s a lot of technology and ancillary technologies that relate to that that we are looking to bring to the market here.
ADM: What does your work on the Chinook fleet encompass?
Gibbs: For more than three years now the company has had a performance based logistics support arrangement providing field service engineering and a range of other support services for that helicopter fleet, and the basis of that is that the avionics suite on that platform is a legacy Rockwell Collins product. The Avionics are highly integrated with all of the mission systems and capabilities of the platform, so keeping it in a high readiness state is really important in making sure that the platform is available at the highest availability levels.
ADM: What does your workforce in Australia look like in terms of the split of engineers and your wider skills base?
Gibbs: We have almost 100 people in Australia at the moment. Probably around a quarter of those are engineers working on ADF related engineering projects. Around another quarter are working on manufacturing and repair related activities, another quarter are administrative and BD type people and the other quarter are involved in support and logistics programs. So we’ve got a pretty diverse workforce and a range of programs, like we talked about, providing targeting systems, supporting Chinook helicopters and so on. It’s a very diverse capability.
ADM: What does the manufacturing capability look like?
Gibbs: We do system assembly for a range of Defence projects. We’re currently providing simulators for Joint Terminal Attack Control (JTAC)/Joint Fires Observer (JFO) training to the Army for the digital terminal control system that we just talked about earlier as part of Land 17. That’s been ongoing, building those systems, installing, commissioning those and then operating those for Army. And also manufacturing the optics for the DAS (Distributed Aperture System) on the F-35 aircraft.
ADM: The DAS work in Australia, why is that being done in Australia considering everything that Collins does globally?
Gibbs: Well a couple of reasons. One, strategically we saw an opportunity in the market around optics, and around supporting the F-35 in the long term. We made the strategic decision to establish the capability alongside our sister manufacturing plant in California to do the assembly of these lenses and use that as a basis to build up capability that could be used on other Defence activities, as well as future support of the F-35 in country.
ADM: When the F-35 starts its support and sustainment activities here in Australia in a big way, what will Collins be doing for the DAS there?
Gibbs: The DAS lens that we assemble is not a part that requires a lot of repair and maintenance. However, we’ve used the establishment of that capability, clean room, optics test equipment, training, upskilling people to establish other capabilities. We’re in the process at the moment of establishing a repair capability for the projectors that are used in the simulators on the F-35. So
before the end of the calendar year we’ll have a repair capability to support the RAAF F-35 simulators, as well as operators in the Asia-Pacific region.
Linking back to why we put the DAS capability here is we’re now looking at adding a manufacturing capability for some of the spare parts that are optics based in those projectors to support them through the life of the program. The simulators for these 5th generation platform see a huge amount of use, so there’s going to be a very significant demand for those spare parts and we’re planning on establishing that over the next year or two as well.
And then finally, the plan is to build off those capabilities to establish a support capability for the F-35 helmet.
ADM: Where else are those optics used? What else do you do with them?
Gibbs: So the optics in the DAS, are infrared optics so they are used in a very large range of sensor systems that are used by Defence. Whether it’s surveillance systems in Army applications, surveillance systems on UAS or aircraft or even surveillance systems that are space based.
ADM; Given the policy settings in the wake of the 2016 White Paper, how has that affected how you do business?
Gibbs: I think it’s definitely made some changes on the ground. A number of the things we just talked about including the DAS manufacturing we establishing many years ago are aligned with some of the new sovereign capabilities. As well as having industry engaged and available to support and supply the ADF with systems like the Land 17 targeting system and so on. We were already establishing engineering and manufacturing ahead of the White Paper and I think this has helped put some focus around developing broader Australian industry capability to provide sovereign support in the long term as well as create highly skilled jobs as well.
To me there is an opportunity for CASG and Defence in general to continue to accelerate and broaden the adoption of that type of philosophy.
ADM: Is Collins exporting from Australia?
Gibbs: 100 per cent of the DAS optical assembly we manufacture we export to the US. We also have developed some training systems, which are derivatives of what we’ve created for Army here, and we’ve sold those internationally as well. We do have a number of export opportunities and activities we have completed over the last few years. We’ve also provided system solutions to a number of customers in the Asia-Pacific region. So yes, we definitely export from our Australian base and want to continue doing that.
ADM: Do you use Australia as a base for Asia-Pacific operations? How are you approaching the Asia Pacific markets?
Gibbs: I wouldn’t say it’s the only base. I think it’s a base that we use when it makes sense. There are a number of areas where the Australian entity has a lot of skills and capability and we will lead activities in the region where it aligns with that but we’re not the regional headquarters.
ADM: What are the biggest challenges facing Defence Industry in the next 12 months?
Gibbs: I think the challenge at large for the industry is going to be what occurs over the next six months after the Federal election and how that may effect the business cycle of tenders being released, contracts being signed and extensions on contracts being exercised as changes happen within government.
ADM: From the outside looking in, how would you characterise the First Principles Review and the whole approach to One Defence? What has that meant for Collins day to day?
Gibbs: Bringing the industry closer in as a partner is really the only way to go. Defence needs to be more agile as threats and environments change more rapidly, so I think the FPR reforms are good. I think they’ve been implemented well. There’s still opportunity for some of those principles to be implemented more rapidly, especially on smaller, lower level activities. I believe we’re seeing change on the bigger programs, but that smaller activities are still a little bit left behind. We’re seeing change and I think there’s opportunity to continue to accelerate how that’s adopted across the whole of Defence government and industry.
This article first appeared in the June 2019 edition of ADM.