SPECIAL REPORT: Defence work is providing opportunities for businesses with oil and gas prowess such as Matrix Composites & Engineering.
Defence work is providing opportunities for businesses with oil and gas prowess such as Matrix Composites & Engineering.
Improving the stealth capability of Australian submarines is one big goal for Henderson-based Matrix Composites & Engineering, which is broadening its focus from offshore energy into defence.
Matrix was an industry partner with British business Qinetiq and local universities awarded a $1.5 million grant in March to develop stealth materials that will make submarines harder to detect.
Quieter submarines improve both survivability and operational effectiveness.
The cash was from the Next Generation Technologies Fund the federal government established in 2016, which will allocate $730 million over a decade on innovation in areas such as quantum science and autonomous systems.
Previous Western Australian funding recipients have included the University of Western Australia’s Microelectronics Research Group, which attracted $2.9 million in funding for work countering improvised threats.
Matrix chief executive Aaron Begley said the company had a number of opportunities in defence.
“There’s opportunity for us on the frigates that are being built in Adelaide, the existing fleet of submarines and the new submarines,” Mr Begley said.
The existing Collins Class submarines have been in operation for around two decades.
Their replacement, the Attack Class vessels, (also known as the Shortfin Barracuda) are currently in the design phase.
The Attack Class vessels will be built by Naval Group, with which Matrix is in early discussions.
Mr Begley said hull coating materials with acoustic damping properties was one example of what Matrix was working on, while other options were buoyant materials and structural work.
Structural work could include carbon fibre or reinforced glass fibre for the hulls of submarines.
Matrix has also developed a material called kinetica, used to absorb energy.
It is designed to crush under impact, to protect structures such as crash barriers or blast walls.
“If you can imagine a detonation … that kinetic energy is absorbed by the kinetica material,” Mr Begley said.
“It doesn’t transmit any energy to what it’s protecting.”
Mr Begley said his team had made the decision to diversify the 20-year-old ASX-listed business beyond oil and gas about four years ago.
“With the industry downturn it was pretty clear we had to diversify,” he said
“We looked at adjacent industries that could use our technology, manufacturing processes and skills.
“The maritime defence sector fits pretty well because the type of work we did historically was maritime oil and gas, subsea equipment in particular.
“Those skills are definitely transferable to the defence space.”
Matrix has downsized its workforce during its transition, with current staff of 150, less than half the peak level.
As with many businesses undertaking to win defence contracts, Mr Begley said there was a process to be navigated to demonstrate capability.
But he was confident Matrix had the right credentials.
“In terms of capacity, we’re the largest composite materials company in Australia,” Mr Begley said.
“Most of our income is derived from export sales; we export all around the world – to the US, up into South Korea, Europe, South-East Asia, Brazil.”
Those deals have included defence contracts.
“We’ve probably produced close to $1 billion of export revenue (over the company’s life),” Mr Begley said.
“We’re globally competitive with what we do … that opens up opportunities for us.
“Being on the radar of the prime contractors that way really does open up channels to market.”
One further boost for the company was through the federal government’s capability improvement grants, from which it received four amounts totalling $256,000.
Mr Begley said the government’s thinking behind the grants was partly to support businesses transition into defence and partly to build industrial capability more generally.
“There’s a very cyclical defence spend,” he said.
“It’s probably very different in sustainment, that’s where you can be a bit more defence focused.
“But when you’re looking at getting involved in capital spend, they tend to like companies like ours who do things other than purely defence work.”
Matrix isn’t the only oil and gas business shifting towards defence.
Perhaps the most notable example is Civmec, which bought east coast shipbuilder Forgacs Marine and Defence and built an $80 million facility in Henderson as part of the shift.
Civmec was richly rewarded, winning a share of the $2.8 billion Offshore Patrol Vessel build led by Luerssen.