Imagining potential futures where we create advantage through collaboration.

Based on the paper, Royal Australian Air Force and 3D Printing Co-Creating for the Future Workforce
by Christopher Kourloufas, Luke Houghton, Matthew Jennings, Bernard Rolfe, Alice Paton, William Sowry and Jennifer Loy

As an Aeronautical Engineering officer in the Royal Australian Air Force, the greatest challenges I’ve faced have only been solved with multidisciplinary teams. They have involved a great deal of complexity and ambiguity. These challenges have been in a high-performance aircraft setting as well as with short delivery timelines.

Through these experiences, I've realised that we have a vast body of knowledge when it comes to the response of traditional materials to degradation and fatigue. There’s a huge gap in understanding of how composite materials respond and even less about how emerging materials will respond to service loads and environments. So our RAAF workforce that maintains and operates equipment incorporating novel materials needs to be prepared for what is to come.

But this is still a passive mindset – one of a customer that receives equipment made from novel materials. I also see that there is much more opportunity for us if we were to truly embrace 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR) technologies and seek military advantage from their benefits. The RAAF has been on a learning journey over the past few years to determine how best to capitalise on the advantages of 4IR technologies. If we desire to derive 4IR military advantage in the future, we must constantly innovate and seek opportunities for us to change the work.

3D Printing has been selected as the exemplar technology to explore digital transformation and convergence within the RAAF context. This is because it has an ever-increasing accessibility to users and a level of tangibility compared to other 4IR technologies. As a result, we have gained a great deal of insight into our own workforce, our operational needs and visions of the future that are preferable to us.

The purpose of the RAAF’s ‘Smart Manufacture’ research is to explore both the technological and sociological considerations in making this possible. The outcome will be to recommend an organisational framework that bridges the aspirational goals and the current paradigm.

Imagine an operational scenario in the near future where we are responding to a natural disaster in the Indo-Pacific. We have a network of 3D designers across the country ready to take on jobs that they are trained and accredited to handle. They are sent 3D scans from the operational area and tasking to design or adapt products that will be printed on the ship en-route, printed on a neighbouring island nation’s infrastructure or by a deployable printer in the field.

In this kind of scenario, the air force would be operating like a Formula 1 team – designing, testing, manufacturing, travelling, operating and iterating in high performance, high risk environments. This scenario relies on us leveraging the advantages of 3D printing and design such as: democratisation of design; mass customisation, and distributed manufacturing. Currently, our capability in the RAAF to do this is limited, in spite of advances in industry over the last decade and the best efforts of some of our early adopters.

Such a response to the scenario is a huge challenge.

The Smart Manufacture vision for the RAAF is an organisation that leverages a networked, collaborative support-systems-model of distributed design and fabrication based on a user-centred, co-creation community of practice. In doing so, we would be changing the way the RAAF operates so that it is more in line with technological and sociological workforce trends and user expectations. So our organisation needs to take a more proactive and strategic approach to seize the opportunity that comes from digital transformation and the convergence of technologies. We are building the capacity to rapidly create novel products and solutions to operational scenarios. What we've come to understand from the literature and industry practice is that we could benefit from a technology platform. Our insights are that:

First, a technology platform provides an effective structure for shared practice and scaling up the accessibility of the technology.

Second, individuals will independently create innovative solutions to bespoke problems when provided with the means to realise their ideas.

Third, a shared community of practice will build on each other’s ideas and can be used as the basis for iterative design development.

Fourth, the availability of industry-standard machines (such as for metal 3D printing) provides a driver for independent and community upskilling.

The research project has identified key elements required for the RAAF for this capability to be realised:

- Identifying early adopters
- Creating visibility for innovators for recognition
- Overcoming risk aversion
- Create support structures for innovators to operate
- Encouraging managed and connected disruptive innovation through 3D printing technologies
- Incentivising innovation and encouraging a culture that is psychologically safe when it comes to experimentation
- Building digital technology expertise
- Creating bespoke collaborative technology platforms
- Identifying strategies for relevant organisational change

Organisations need to take ownership and not just expect industry to hand them a turn-key solution. By doing so, the RAAF has begun a learning journey to understand the true capabilities of the technologies. This unlocks ideas and by collaborating with academia and industry, we can create an advantage.

Importantly, our collaboration with academia has created a shared language for us to better understand one another. It has also helped the Air Force have productive internal conversations about the shape of the future. This is certainly an investment that takes time and energy to build.This investment in our people, organisation and relationship helps us go beyond the theoretical vision and co-create a new reality.


This research is a collaboration between the Commonwealth of Australia (represented by RAAF)
and Griffith University through a Defence Science Partnerships Agreement.


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