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F-35 countdown: Developing Australia’s advanced manufacturing capability

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As production for the F-35 continues to ramp up, the advanced materials that give the fifth-generation fighter its stealth capabilities are serving as a major industrial driver for Australian industry leaders, like Sydney-based Quickstep Holdings.

As production for the F-35 continues to ramp up, the advanced materials that give the fifth-generation fighter its stealth capabilities are serving as a major industrial driver for Australian industry leaders, like Sydney-based Quickstep Holdings.

First established in 2001 as a research and development company, Quickstep Holdings was entering a highly competitive and secretive world of advanced manufacturing. But just 17 years later, the company has established itself as one of the world's leading advanced materials and manufacturing companies, buoyed by the growing success of the global F-35 program. 

However, it wasn't until 2011 that the company became involved with global giant Northrop Grumman and its long-term agreement to support the F-35 project that it would begin to transform itself from a small research and development focused technology company into a world-leader. 


Early bird gets the worm

Mark Burgess, managing director and CEO of Quickstep Holdings, said, "Our involvement with the F-35 program has been transformational and came on the back of a long-term agreement we signed with Northrop Grumman to support their involvement with the project. This contract enabled us to shift our operations from Western Australia to the Bankstown facility."

This early involvement with the F-35 project and original equipment manufacturer (OEM) Lockheed Martin established a relationship that would extend beyond the F-35 to include the manufacturing of wing-flaps for the C-130J Hercules, establishing Quickstep as a core supplier for the growing Lockheed Martin global supply chain.

Meanwhile, the successful delivery of the first Bankstown manufactured components in 2013 paved the way for the company to expand its success within the global F-35 supply chain.

"These two early successes in both F-35 and C-130J fully facilitated Quickstep's transition from an R&D focused technology to a well rounded technology and advanced manufacturing company," Burgess explained.

In 2015, the company made its first delivery of vertical tail components for the F-35 to Australian industry partner, Melbourne-based Marand Precision Engineering, paving the way for continued success on the back of the F-35 program. 

"Sixty-five per cent of our income comes from the F-35, in fiscal year 16-17 Quickstep saw a 45 per cent increase in profit on the back of F-35 and we expect the trend to continue this year as the production rate of the F-35 ramps up in the United States," Burgess said. 

Quickstep's involvement in the F-35 project and the success of the partnership has enabled significant expansion of both the Bankstown facility, the company's broader research and development infrastructure, academic collaboration and employee base and, critically, leading-edge advanced manufacturing facilities and expertise in NSW. 

Building on this success, Quickstep has expanded its global defence aerospace involvement joining as key industry partners with Lockheed Martin and the C-130J wing flap contractTeam Reaper Australia and Boeing Defense to provide advanced composite material components for legacy platform air frames like the Boeing F-15 and F/A-18. 

"The success of our involvement with F-35 opened doors for us with global partners like Boeing," Burgess said. 

Unprecedented government support key 

Burgess praised the support all levels of Australian government had provided in supporting the company and its mission to support the development of Australia's defence industrial base (DIB), highlighting the growing bipartisan support for the local industry and for key projects like the F-35.

"The comprehensive government support we have received from all levels of government and the Department of Defence have been tremendous assets. It has enabled Quickstep to embrace the direction set forth in the government's policy papers and industrial plan with certainty," Burgess said. 

This increased certainty has translated well for the company, particularly as the F-35 project ramps up production in the US combined with the long lead time of procurement for the platform.

"The long-term procurement of the F-35, which is set to continue until the 2030s, has given us as a company certainty. This has translated well for shareholders, it has translated well for our workforce and our long-term development as a world-leading advanced manufacturing company," Burgess said. 

"As a company we have made our mission clear: which is investing in people, process, product, research and development, business development and a positive revenue structure to ensure that we provide long-term employment opportunities in the local defence industrial base." 

The F-35 program is not only a global military project, it is frequently serving as a test-bed for greater international industry collaboration and integration and is expected to do so well into the future. 

Australia’s defence industry has directly shared in more than $1 billion of production contracts since the government committed to the program in 2002 and is a key industry partner and supplier, fully integrated into the global supply chain that supports the F-35 program.