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Thales chasing big ADF contract win

On the grid: If Thales wins the Hawkei contract, the new vehicle will go into production alongside the established Bushmaster (left).

Boost for Aussie suppliers as Hawkei military vehicle opens up parts opportunities

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General News logo24 Sep 2013

THALES Australia, a key supplier of armoured vehicles to the Australian Defence Force, is scouring the local automotive supply sector in a bid to reinvent its production operations using the latest techniques and local suppliers.

The French-owned company is in a good position to win a $1 billion-plus contract to supply 1300 armoured vehicles to the ADF under its Land 121 project, which will see much of the ADF vehicle fleet replaced over a number of years.

Thales has been named as the preferred supplier for the Hawkei project after its design for an armoured six-seat vehicle was selected for further development and testing. The Hawkei is also one of Australia’s deadliest snakes.

The Thales proposal is not a certainty to win the contract as the ADF is still monitoring development of the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV), which is being developed in the US to replace the Humvee.

In 2009, Australia funded the construction of nine of the first 30 JLTV prototypes, before selecting Thales as the preferred Hawkei tenderer. The Thales design was selected under the ‘Manufactured and Supported in Australia’ option in the contract specification.

If the Thales proposal for the Hawkei ‘protected light vehicle’ wins the contract, Thales will have to thoroughly overhaul the current vehicle operations at its Bendigo plant, which currently produces the 10-seater Bushmaster troop carrier.

Thales has already reached out to the local automotive supply sector, thanks to invitations from GM Holden and Toyota to attend supplier forums earlier this year. The company is hoping to learn about the latest vehicle production techniques and procurement systems used in the car industry.

The interaction could be mutually beneficial, with the defence contractors potentially finding faster, cheaper suppliers and learning about the latest production techniques and procurement systems while the auto parts suppliers may gain extra production volume.

In fact, a recent tour of the Bendigo plant showed that Thales has already started lifting ideas from the mass-production sector.

On the Bushmaster assembly line, there are simple towers of plastic baskets about 150cm high. They are set on wheels so they can move easily up and down the line.

The baskets contain various pieces, parts and fixing systems needed to assemble the Bushmaster. The towers of baskets are not hi-tech, ergonomic or the least bit sophisticated. But the sign on top says it all. These are “Kanban Stations”.

They do not look like the kanban stations you see in Toyota plants, but they are a statement of intent for Thales. Kanban is the Japanese system used to achieve lean and just-in-time production.

“The kanban stations on the Bushmaster line are all part of the continuous improvement,” said Thales Australia director of strategy, sales and marketing Paul Harris, who conducted GoAuto’s tour of the Bendigo plant.

“We have done a lot of study and a lot of work to improve what we did with Bushmaster. The production team (members) have all been doing courses on lean manufacturing and other specialist manufacturing courses.” “What they are going to do is grab all these lessons learnt and have regular meetings. When a bright idea emerges they can incorporate it immediately.” Mr Harris said the advent of the Hawkei project would force a complete reorganisation of the vehicle assembly operations at Bendigo, and Thales wanted to take the opportunity to bring the operations right up to date.

“We have done a lot of study and a lot of work to improve what we did with Bushmaster. The production team (members) have all been doing courses on lean manufacturing and other specialist manufacturing courses.” In fact, several people at Bendigo have worked in the Holden, Toyota and Ford plants, although the scale of operations could hardly be more different.

While the car plants measure output in tens of thousands of units, the Thales plant has produced a little over 1000 Bushmasters in 14 years.

Mr Harris points out that many items and tasks on the Bushmaster and, in future, the Hawkei have to be done to military specifications (milspec).

“A lot of things on these vehicles you could not do on a Toyota production line because it is milspec,” he said. “Other aspects, yes, you can get straight from Ford or Toyota and just rip it in.

“How many Toyotas coming down the line have central tyre inflation systems? There’s quite a process in testing that as the vehicle moves down the line.” The Hawkei production contract has not been awarded yet, but six Thales prototypes are currently undergoing gruelling testing with the Army.

The public will get its first glimpse of the Thales Hawkei during the current touring car endurance racing season, with Thales hosting a Hawkei stand and showing some video at the first three races of the V8 Ute series: Sandown, Bathurst and Gold Coast.

The Thales Hawkei will eventually make its public debut at the Olympic Park V8 Ute race in Sydney on December 6-8, right next to the new Thales headquarters in Murray Rose Avenue, between corners 10 and 11.

“Where better to show off what Australia can do than at the Auto One V8 Ute series?” said Thales Australia chief executive Chris Jenkins. “The Hawkei is Aussie knowhow at its best.

“Focused on winning and being the best, protecting your mates, that’s Australia. That’s what the Hawkei is all about, and we think this Aussie beast is in good company with the iconic Aussie ute.” While much of the Hawkei’s structural specifications are closely guarded, the vehicle comprises a sturdy safety cell passenger compartment with spaceframes front and rear.

In the front spaceframe, the engine and transmission are placed side by to enable a flat floor in the cabin. The whole front section has been designed to be sacrificed – easily replaced if damaged – in the event of a blast.

The Hawkei is powered by a Steyr 3.2 litre turbo-diesel engine producing 200kW/610Nm and weighing only 240kg. Transmission is by a ZF six-speed automatic gearbox.

All up, the Hawkei weighs in at less than 7 tonnes despite what Mr Harris says is “a very high level of protection” built into the vehicle.

This weight was right on target. The vehicle had to come in under 7 tonnes as that is the maximum lift capacity of the ADF’s Chinook helicopters, which will be a key means of deployment for the Hawkei.

The Bendigo plant is the only vehicle manufacturing site in the €14.2 billion ($A20.3b) worldwide Thales group and is essentially self-reliant when it comes to vehicle design, procurement and production systems.

The Bushmaster is the only vehicle Thales makes at present, and it is used by the Australian and Netherlands armies. It has seen action in East Timor, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Production of the Bushmaster has totalled 1040 since it went into production in 1998. Military orders can be notoriously lumpy, but that suggests an average production rate of 69 Bushmasters a year, or five a month.

Production of 1300 Hawkeis is likely to be at a much faster rate than that, which is why Thales is working hard to improve its procurement and production abilities.

Under the Land 121 project, the ADF will acquire 7500 light, lightweight, medium and heavy-duty vehicles, both protected and unprotected.

The Hawkei segment is the last part of the Land 121 project. So far the ADF has ordered 2146 unprotected Mercedes-Benz G-Wagons and 2700 medium and heavy duty MAN trucks.

The G-Wagons and the Hawkei will replace the current fleet of protected and unprotected Land Rovers and the MAN trucks will replace a fleet of Unimog, Mack and S-Liner trucks.

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