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ACS Australia hits 30

Advanced Composite Structures Australia (ACS Australia) recently celebrated its 30th. birthday. The company is delivering unique, high-value composite materials engineering and manufacturing solutions for clients based around the world. It has also been developing a body of expertise and a trained workforce that are just as important in many ways as the products and technologies it has developed.

At the time of writing Australia’s aerospace and defence communities are awaiting Government announcements about the Defence Strategic Review (DSR) and the two pillars of the AUKUS (Australia-UK-US) agreement: Nuclear-Powered submarines and what the partners term ‘Advanced Capabilities’.

The likelihood is that Australia and its partners will invest heavily in a range of capabilities of direct relevance to ACS-A’s IP and expertise and the people it has trained over the years: guided weapons; hypersonics; autonomous air, ground and underwater vehicles. Without the pioneering work begun more than 30 years ago by the CRC for Aerospace Structures, Australia would lack much of the intellectual capital and trained workforce necessary to pursue the opportunities these new capabilities are expected to present.

Port Melbourne-based ACS Australia (or ACS-A) began life in 1991 as one of the 15 founding Cooperative Research Centres (CRC), and then launched as a spinoff in 2008. When the CRC for Advanced Composite Structures’ commission ended in 2014, ownership was passed to the employees and directors of ACS-A which has since expanded into series manufacture and is about to move to a larger nearby facility, still in Port Melbourne, that was vacated recently by Leonardo.

The company specialises in the assembly of high-value, composite products and has made strategic investments into advanced manufacturing equipment including automated machining and additive manufacturing.

In August last year, ACS-A was awarded a $240,000 Defence Global Competitiveness Grant to support the development of Australia’s sovereign capability in Ultra-High Temperature Composites for hypersonic aerospace structures. While Defence and aerospace clients are among its largest customers, ACS-A is also contributing to three major renewable energy and aquaculture projects as a partner of the Blue Economy CRC.

The relevance of the work done by ACS-A and, before this, the CRC for Aerospace Structures and then the CRC for Advanced Composite Structures, as it became, is illustrated particularly by one project. The Boeing 787 airliner’s trailing edge devices are manufactured by Boeing Aerostructures Australia in Port Melbourne from carbon fibre composites using a Liquid Resin Infusion process developed at the CRC and refined still more by ACS-A. Thanks to this work Melbourne has become the leading centre in the world for the technology which Boeing is understood to have since applied on several other aerospace projects, many of them highly classified.

The membership of the CRC has included DSTO (now DSTG), Hawker de Havilland and Aerospace Technologies of Australia, now both part of Boeing Aerostructures Australia, Airbus, Malaysian petrochemicals giant Petronas and Thales Australia.

Some major milestones were achieved over the twelve year period, from 2003 to 2015 many of them returns on investments made years earlier. This echoes the comment made by Chief Defence Scientist Dr Tanya Monro AC: “Some science is decadal and takes a long time. The reason Australia is distinctively good at hypersonics, for example, is because we’ve been doing it for decades. So, you’re never going to be able to say, “I want something fundamentally new” and have it in a year or two. You need to be planning well in advance.”

This is why Australia is positioned to pursue the opportunities that are expected to flow in guided weapons, hypersonics and autonomous vehicles. It’s also why Australia can be a productive partner in programs such as the Boeing MQ-28A Ghost bat and Anduril’s Ghost Shark Extra Large Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (XL-AUV), both of which are being developed in close cooperation with Defence.

The key composites technologies that the CRC has successfully transitioned to industry include Liquid Resin Infusion, double-diaphragm forming, component co-curing, postbuckling design, bird-strike simulation and optimum repair design. The continuing success of the B787-related manufacturing activities at Boeing’s Port Melbourne facility is testament to the impact of this initial work.

In 2008 the CRC’s rapidly growing commercial activities were formalised by the establishment of the original spin-out company, Advanced Composite Structures Australia – a wholly-owned subsidiary of CRC-ACS, with Murray Scott as Managing Director, who is still currently Chairman. This entity was restructured in 2010 to formally position it as the successor to CRC-ACS when it concluded its mission after 24 years. The company is now led by General Manager Paul Falzon with Rodney Thomson as Engineering Manager, Andre Duarte as Business Development Manager, and Tess Kirkpatrick as Administration Manager.

At the core of the organisation remain some of the key people who kicked it all off over 30 years ago, working alongside a young talented team still engaging in cutting-edge research and practical implementation in products and services.

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