BAE’s Sharon Wilson on embracing the digital revolution in defence


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By Melissa Keogh

Major defence and security company BAE Systems Australia’s Sharon Wilson is proud to play her part in South Australia’s high-tech jobs revolution.

Originally from the UK, Sharon and her husband chose SA to live and work in 30 years ago and was catapulted into the world of defence and shipbuilding almost from the get go.

She’s been with BAE Systems, one of the country’s largest defence contractors, since 1990 and is now the company’s head of industrial strategy.

“I think people will be surprised to know just how many women there are in our company,” Sharon says.

“We have some amazing women in senior roles, our management board is about 60/40 male to female which is very good by industry standards.”

BAE Systems’ new CEO, Gabby Costigan told a recent conference in Canberra that the company is using collaborative robots to build parts for the Joint Strike Fighter jets in Adelaide.

Gabby told the conference the use of such technology does not mean the removal of the human employee.

Sharon agrees and says it’s all a result of Industry 4.0, otherwise known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

The trend in automation, that is already transforming modern manufacturing, is relevant to shipbuilding in various ways, she says.

“(It) can range from something very simple in terms of tracking a part in a factory to measuring the efficiency and capability of machines in your factory,” Sharon says.

“It can be a virtual integrated schedule, so you know where things are without looking across lots of spreadsheets, basically automate the process as much as you can.

“In terms of a shipyard, safety is paramount. So how can we apply technology robotics automation to minimise risks as much as we possibly can?

“(In the future) we will still be having people doing manual labour and robotic programming. So the kinds of jobs will be very different and they’re already different.”

BAE Systems Australia’s head of industrial strategy Sharon Wilson is an I Choose SA ambassador for the shipbuilding and defence industries.

With Industry 4.0 comes a new wave of high-tech jobs, many of them in SA.

With the state secured as the epicentre of the national defence sector, SA will be the home of the majority of work involved in the nation’s $89 billion shipbuilding plan.

Projects within BAE Systems’ reach have the potential to be “groundbreaking”.

One of them is the $35 billion SEA 5000 Future Frigates contract, of which BAE Systems is one of three contenders.

The successful bidder, expected to be announced mid-2018, will deliver a new generation of warships for the Australian Navy.

Sharon says if BAE is successful it will also include the build of Australia’s first high-tech digital shipyard.

The digital shipyard would create a paperless ship build, with each of the nine ships replicated to allow real time accessibility to all aspects during design, build and maintenance.

BAE would base the SEA 5000 design on its Type 26 Global Combat Ship which is being built for the UK Navy “in SA with an SA workforce”.

Sharon says the Future Frigates program will be the “envy of the world”, regardless of who wins the contract.

“I think it’s very exciting for shipbuilders, SEA 5000 is going to be groundbreaking and will be the envy of shipyards around the world,” she says.

BAE Systems employs more than 3500 people in Australia, including 1000 in SA.

The company has two sites in Adelaide –  one at Edinburgh Park, the other at Technology Park.

Sharon says BAE Systems is “absolutely” set for a job rise “in the thousands” across the nation.

BAE System’s Edinburgh Park base is home to a machine that manufactures titanium tail components for the Joint Strike Fighters. It’s the only machine of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere.

“Machining titanium for aerospace is a very tricky business and the kinds of parts we manufacture are what they call ‘fracture critical parts’,” Sharon says.

“The whole process is very much quality controlled to ensure we don’t have any issues.”

In her 30 years in SA, Sharon says she’s pleased with the efforts of Defence SA and “progressive” State Governments that have solidified SA as the defence epicentre of Australia.

She says the state’s burgeoning industry will have nation-wide benefits.

“It’s going to be important for SA to be able to deliver what it needs to deliver, that’s the reality,” she adds.

Sharon is an I Choose SA ambassador for the shipbuilding and defence industries.

I Choose SA for Shipbuilding and Defence Industries stories are made possible by City of Salisbury:

Visit the I Choose SA for Industry website to learn more about key industry leaders, why they’ve chosen SA as a base and how the state is enabling them to succeed.


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