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Chapter Fourteen

1988 to 1997 - Wormald Technology

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In 1988 I went to work for Wormald Electronics in Dee Why. This was a relief on two counts, firstly I had only a ten minutes drive to work and secondly I was once again working for a very big company. Wormald, I discovered, was a 99 year old Australian company which had developed a $3 billion a year worldwide business. They had been taken over in the eighties by a Hong Kong speculator called Lee Ming Tee who had done some strange things to the company and had sold it to the Riel Corporation, a group of Australian "industrialists" just a few days before the stock market crash of 1987.

The Riel Corporation, having taken a heavy loss in the crash, waited a year or two and sold at a profit to Tyco, a then small but ambitious American conglomerate which managed in a few years to turn the company into a $600 million a year company, quite an outstanding feat for people who claimed to be into growing assets.

The company suffered some considerable volatility in Head Office while the guys from Riel Corporation worked out what they wanted to do. At about this time, we had a visit from a very senior manager from Saab and my boss had to keep him "entertained" while the new MD finished a meeting. He tried to explain at some length what the new corporate structure was all about and when he finally finished the Swede said "I see. Your new owners are speculators rather than industrialist".

My job was Project Manager, Defence, in the manufacturing arm of the company and I was employed to turn a small and not very good factory which made fire panels into a world class military electronics factory. The project was to design and build, in conjunction with Saab Instruments of Sweden, the ships management system for the Collins class submarines which were to be built in Adelaide by a newly established Australian ship builder, the Australian Submarine Corporation, which was a joint venture company owned by Kockums, the Swedish submarine builder, an American project management company, the Australian Industry Development Corporation, a government instrumentality, and Wormald.

I had expected Wormald to be a well run and high quality organisation dedicated to "the protection of life and property". I found a ramshackle organisation with no coherence, no leadership and no idea what quality assurance meant. It was a bit of a shock but it was also an opportunity to achieve something substantial.

My immediate boss was a guy whose primary management tool was a production meeting held a week before the end of each month at which he "squeezed the toothpaste tube" to deliver as many outstanding jobs as possible. The purpose of this was to get good results for the month but the result was to have a hectic week of rushing jobs through followed but three weeks of comparative idleness while stock was assembled.

The thing that startled me most when I arrived at Wormald was that when the factory had moved to Dee Why from North Ryde where they had made a single product range of reasonably high class equipment, Head Office had merge it with a little backyard operation which made really dodgy products. There were two separate production control organisation running side by side with no coordination and considerable competition for resources. This made for a continual struggle and we had some pretty hairy times.

The new MD had complained that the sales brochures for the cheap panels showed two different colours of panels and we only made one colour for stock. Instead of having the brochure changed, he insisted that we stock both colours. We did the necessary drawing work and put a duplicate range of products in place but the question remained as to how many of each we should make. As at JNA, this question was left to the manufacturer to answer with no onus on the sales people and, of course, we could never get the balance right. The problem was eventually solved by the closing down of the cheap product line.

My boss had determined, or had been told, that we should use cheap SE Asian manufacturers instead of trying to make everything in house. He went overseas trying to find anyone in Hong Kong or Singapore who would make the tiny production runs we needed. The SE Asian factories were geared up to make production runs of tens or hundreds of thousands and we made from twenty to a thousand units at a time. He eventually placed an order for 10,000 of one item with a company in Hong Kong and one for 2,500 of another item with a company in Singapore. We suffered for months with product which was not up to standard. The only people who would do our work were the little companies who couldn't compete with the successful manufacturers. The savings in product cost were virtually all used up by rework and warranty costs. I don't think the boss ever realised why it had all gone wrong.

When Tyco took over in 1990, the company was reorganized and the defence electronics design and manufacturing activities, the special fire products activities and the smart buildings activities were amalgamated into a single entity, Wormald Technology and I got a new boss, David Robinson, who was himself an engineer. He asked me to take on the role of Manufacturing Manager and I agreed subject to one condition. I insisted that the factory be operated as a cost centre transferring its output at cost to the sales departments. The reason for this was that many of the problems of Wormald Electronics stemmed from the profit centre notion with the priorities set to maximize profit rather than product quality. To make world class military electronics, I believed that the priorities had to be quality, delivery and cost in that order. In the long run I was proved right. We made very high quality product and huge profits.

Wormald Technology, had three separate line of business with three separate sales and engineering activities all using the services of one factory. One of David's management techniques was to take his management team of about a dozen off site for a weekend planning meeting once a year. The first meeting had a considerable element of getting to know one another. After dinner, in a lull in the conversation I asked my colleagues what they thought our ethical stance should be. Considerable discussion ensued, some of it questioning why we should have an ethical position. Eventually common ground was found and we agreed that we shouldn't get involved in making chemical weapons! There was no chance of any agreement about such issues as paying bribes to customers.

On another occasion, David announced to the assembled management team that we were all going to do some abseiling together. I spoke up saying "I'm not!" And was quickly followed by all the others. David was quite taken aback as he believed we needed some kind of bonding process to make us work better as a team. His view of us was that we lacked teamwork. He consulted his adventure leaders and they devised an alternative activity. We all had to work together to get a man across a pretend river with only some rope and some short planks. We all got stuck into this exercise with a will and despite the odd broken collar bone, achieved the objective. On the following Monday, I asked David what he thought of the exercise and he looked puzzled. I asked him if he had noticed how good our teamwork had been. He asked me what I was getting at and I said that I thought that we had proved conclusively that we didn't lack the ability to work as a team when we had a common goal and that perhaps our lack of teamwork in the day to day business arose from the incompatible goals he set each of us. The conversation was cut short but we didn't have to do any team building exercises after that.

The submarine project was a very considerable exercise especially for manufacturing. Our customer, Saab, was intent on ensuring that we achieved their standard of quality and they constantly put us to the test. We put in place a very good quality assurance program and by the end of the project we were out-performing Saab.

There were some areas of the overall project where the specifications had not been met and this caused some concern. One of these areas was the noise signature of the submarines. I think the failure to meet the specification had more to do with an over ambitious specification than a noisy submarine. When the government set up the Macintosh inquiry to investigate the problems with the project, the report criticized some of the activities including the work on the weapons system software but identified three area where world class performance had been achieved. Our activity was one of them and the hull welding was another.

Later, when some of the submarines were in service, HMAS Collins, the first built was found to have deficiencies in the hull welding but the area in question had been built by Kockums in Sweden so once again, Australian companies had outperformed the overseas companies we were supposed to be learning from.

For reasons I don't understand, but which I assume had something to do with a personal problem with the CEO of the Australian Submarine Corporation, the Minister for Defence, John Moore, publicly panned the whole submarine project as a waste of money and left the Australian public convinced that the submarines were no good. I often have people ask me what it was like to work on the submarine project considering what a failure it was. When I tell them that, in war games with the Americans, the Collins class submarines have consistently beaten the defences of the American fleet and "destroyed" capital ships and that they are the best diesel-electric submarines and therefore the best attack submarines in the world, they are amazed.

When the submarine project was becoming pretty routine, we won a contract to manufacture some very specialized fire detection equipment for the new Light Armoured Vehicles being built by General Motors for the Australian army. This required us to embrace some new technology but even so we were able to transfer some of our skills to our American customers.

After the project was well under way, I was required to provide training for all the army techs who would have to maintain our equipment. I flew to Albury and took a taxi to the nominated training place in Bandiana. We had considerable trouble finding the place because we couldn't find anybody to ask the way. When we eventually arrived at the reception area, the guy who was supposed to be my host was too busy to see me. I was directed to the training room and wandered over to it unaccompanied. The class comprised everybody concerned with the equipment and they had travelled from all around Australia to be there. There were six of them.

At morning tea break I was surprised to find that most of the people in the mess were civilians though they obviously knew one another and the army guys. The explanation was that their jobs had been outsourced and that they had left the army and joined the companies who had won the contracts to do the work They were doing what they had always done except that they only worked 9 to 5 five days a week while their colleagues who had stayed in the army were on call 24 hours a day seven days a week.

At lunch time the senior trainee took me to the Sergeants Mess. We two were the only people eating and there were at least four staff. He had spent the night in the mess and was the only one at breakfast. Because there was so little use of the mess, it was planned to close it down. Presumably visiting sergeants would be put up in local motels and their meals and taxi fares would be paid for by the army.

In the afternoon, we visited the base where one of each type of armoured vehicles were kept. There was no army personnel in residence and there was no security of any kind. When the time came for me to return to Albury, the taxi drove right into the hangar without any question at all. It seems that in these "economically rational" times we cannot afford to provide even the most basic security for our military assets.

My last defence project was to build remotely operated underwater vehicles for the new minehunters. The Swedish prime was a small company with none of the systems appropriate to a manufacturer of military equipment and we had to help them get their records into some sort of order before we could carry out our tasks. Later in the project, this small company was taken over by a large Swedish defence manufacturer but things didn't get any better as they didn't apply the appropriate resources to what was, to them, a nuisance project.

A further demonstration of the total emaciation of our defence forces occurred when we went to do the demonstration testing of the ROVs in a tank at HMAS Waterhen. All one had to do to get into the base was to surrender ones drivers licence to the guard at the gate to enabled the guards to account for everyone on the base in case of evacuation. The tank we used for the testing was in a building which contained classified material. There was a yellow line on the floor of the building and a sign which required uncleared personnel not to look at the equipment in the classified area. No-one seemed to mind that the ROV was equipped with a high resolution camera which was quite capable of recording everything in the classified area.

As Manufacturing Manager, I was involved in all design reviews and came to know all the design engineers very well. I became convinced of a serious lack of breadth in the education of young engineers. Whereas I was able to bring my training and experience to bear on all aspects of the work, they were only able to think about their piece of the project in isolation. I tried to be mentor to these young men but only one responded. He had been a trainee engineer when I first met him and he developed into a well-rounded engineer with a proper view of the business of engineering.

I recall that my office at Wormald Technology was quite an eclectic place. The desk was dominated by a large workstation which gave me access to vast amounts of information and to many useful processes. A coffee maker would be on the go all day. Baroque music would be playing quietly in the background. On the walls there were clippings of photos of engineering marvels such as Sojourner which was exploring Mars at the time. In one corner there was a flowering spathyphilum. Meetings in my office were on the agenda of most of my colleagues. The music was used to great effect one day when my next door neighbour was being presented with a birthday cake by the ladies on his staff. I played, quite loudly, La Rejoussiance from Handel's Music for the Royal Fireworks. Everyone was most impressed.

In 1996, David Robinson resigned and he was replaced by an outsider who had no experience in either defence contracting or in manufacturing. He was a "modern manager" who could manage anything. In the two years I worked for him we never once talked about what I did or what my factory did. He knew from the financial reports that the factory made no profit so he deduced that it made no contribution to the business. If ever I took a problem to him, we didn't talk about my problem but he would lumber me with one of his problems to solve. I quickly learned to stay well out of his way.

In training exercises, the Navy uses an exercise mine which detects targets like a real mine but, instead of blowing up, sends a sonar signal to the target to tell them that they are dead. The Navy wanted a more dramatic signal than a message on a screen and had done a lot of work at DSTO to prove the feasibility of attaching a device to the mine which would float to the surface and release a large pyrotechnic device which would flash and bang to tell the sailors they had been hit.

A small group of us worked hard to develop a tender for the contract. We did some serious analysis of the specification and of the results achieved in the DSTO trials and concluded that meeting all of the specification requirements might be beyond the limits of the laws of physics. We offered a non-compliant bid but included a thorough analysis showing where the problem lay and a proposal for solving the dilemma. When the tenders were assessed we were unsuccessful despite being much cheaper than the competition and despite the acceptance of our analysis and proposed solution by the technical assessors. The government policy was never to accept any non-compliant bids. The contract was awarded to another company but a year later the contract had still not been signed, presumably because there was a problem them with meeting the spec when we had shown that it might not be possible. My boss was angry that we had lost the job and blamed me personally for the loss of the job.

The ABC had spent millions on designing two pieces of equipment for use in radio broadcasting. D-Cart was a system to store programme digitally to allow for its non-destructive editing and broadcasting on the fly and D-Radio was a new digital studio console which operated remotely to avoid the need to take all the analog signals into the control room. Both these products were in service in the ABC and some had already been sold to major broadcasters overseas. The Management of the ABC had determined that manufacture and sale of equipment was an inappropriate activity for the Corporation and had planned to licence the designs to a commercial organisation. We had thoroughly analysed the situation and had proposed a significant engineering activity to bring the equipment from prototype designs into production and a significant world-wide marketing and sales activity to capitalize on the technical advantages over the other equipment available in the marketplace. The boss blue pencilled the project plan, taking out all the money for engineering, marketing and sales and we won the job. Without the necessary resources, it was a disaster and never came to anything so some world class products which could have been a nice little export earner and a feather in the cap of Australian technology became a victim of "economic rationalism".

When I told my boss three months in advance that I planned to retire his immediate reply was "Good". He didn't realise that it was going to be much better for me than it was for him. He appointed the most inappropriate guy to take my place, a staffer whose previous contributions had been in such areas as documenting all the company's R&D for Head Office. He had no training or experience in engineering, defence contracting or manufacturing and he was a complete failure. I was more than happy to be well out of it.

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Created: 29/1/07 and last revised 1/5/08
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