Designing for the army: insights on innovation with Australian Defence Apparel
Australian Defence Apparel has been using a focus on innovation and design to re-engineer what was previously a government-owned business focused on operational efficiency. It is now a cutting edge textiles and fabric technology manufacturer developing its own intellectual property. Samuel Tait sat down with Darren Swindells, general manager strategic product and innovation, to discuss innovation within the apparel industry and how this renewed focus is driving significant new growth for the company.
Samuel Tait: How do you define innovation within the apparel industry?
Darren Swindells: Innovation is about breaking new ground, not just in product and materials but also in processes. It’s about making new discoveries in ordinary aspects of day-to-day business activity. Starting with the company culture, this drives individual effort, which then translates into the team, finally resulting in an end product.
I think it’s also about promoting a constant renaissance. The intention is to challenge staff in a positive way, progressing on what we’ve done before, and not accepting that just because we did something a certain way before, doesn’t necessarily mean we need to approach every project the same way.
DS: Originally innovation didn’t exist in the apparel industry in Australia unlike the automotive industry. I had past experience in business development and product development and the two came together.
I also had the added benefit of working in a business-to-business bespoke apparel space with clients that required highly technical solutions. For example, uniforms for firefighting or the military. There’s a greater opportunity to be able to innovate in these spaces. I was in the right place at the right time.
ST: What is your role and day-to-day responsibilities?
DS: As the lead for product, my responsibilities cover a design and development team and an R&D team. I then report directly to the CEO. Typically I also interface with the operations manager and the general manager of sales.
Day-to-day I work with the head of design and the head of R&D. We are constantly refining work in progress, addressing roadblocks to outcomes. I also provide advice and direction on materials and product testing.
On any specific project I am often involved with the customer. Whilst my role is not necessarily customer facing, we encourage a more of an all-inclusive team approach to things. We’ll usually accompany contract or sales management to meet the client. Therefore, quite early on, we try and create and environment for our clients to go on the journey with us and find a solution together.
ST: How does your team support you in developing innovative solutions?
DS: We have a fairly large team at ADA. We have about 26 to 27 individuals that are directly in the creative space. We have subject matter experts on fabric technology and armor technology. Then we have designers and developers. We also have sample machinists that work closely with those teams to produce a physical product very quickly. We also have access to offshore prototyping and pre-production sampling process. The advantage that we have at ADA is that we have a very universal team in one building. I try and test the team introducing lateral ideas. I frame and then a reframe different ways to approach the business solutions that they are putting forward.
In the technical apparel space the thing that makes our teams more innovative is through not being focused in one particular discipline. We mix the teams up so that there is a broad blend of knowledge and skill sets. We’re trying to generate a very holistic team in that way.
Part of the innovation process is that everyone’s contribution is of value. That links directly into the whole culture, where people feel that they are essential, and they’ve all delivered an outcome. Traditionally in the rag trade, especially when I came into it, there’d be one person that was the voice of the business, and there was one person that had the right ideas. That’s completely opposite to how we operate at ADA.
ST: How important is engaging and working with your customers?
DS: Absolutely crucial. Taking the client on the path is a part of the way of us getting to the end result without the road bumps. The client now understands the complexities in what we are trying to achieve. If the project falls over at any one point (and that’s almost part of the process and the excitement to a degree) when you are doing something that hasn’t been done before there are no real surprises. We’ve had some developments go left of field and be delayed by two or three months, however the customer is just as excited on the day that we deliver the garments despite the delay.
We find a lot of the time that a little bit of information goes a long way. We’ve been able to sustain and gain whole new customers this year based on this process of getting them involved. Often they say to you, “Wow, I never knew that you guys did it this way.” We’ll get them involved in the design room, or get them to come over and see how the fabrics processed. That’s really important in the relationship.
For example we have an emergency service here in Victoria that we’re working with to develop a new range of garments. Their uniforms are fairly out of date. We’ve been able to explain to them that they had incorrect perceptions around fabric, for example what can be done with knits is a whole different space these days. I think their outdated model is due to previous companies’ not providing detailed information.
One of the core advantages we’ve had in projects most recently is that we’ve gone in and have been honest with customers, more than what maybe the industry previously has. Specifically about what the weaknesses and strengths are in what we’re doing. Our front line has become less of a sales role and more of a stewardship role.
ST: What are the biggest challenges facing you and the ADA team when it comes to innovation?
DS: The biggest issue we have is finding the right people in a specialised market. It’s an issue that’s been evolving for about the last 20 years. The talent pool is really shallow. Certainly, it’s been the focus of this business in the last 12 months to get on board the right people for the right jobs.
Subject matter experts in certain areas aren’t that common. There’s also a generation gap. The ones that are technically skilled are now retiring and exiting the industry, and the ones that want to get into it and hope to develop their skills are only just coming in. This means we have to either sponsor the learning curve, or find the right person who might be in another business. For example in technical apparel training and fabric development, it’s just not taught anymore. For the most part, those courses have dried up. That means we invest in travel, time and external training. At the moment, we’re in a position where the teams can come to us, or an individual may come to us, and ask, “Look, I really think it is going to of benefit if I do this course, or go to this location.” We invest as often as we can in that.
Emphasising cross-pollination of internal skill sets is paramount. Logically we always try to look at internal promotion. We have a well structured environment within both the design team and the R&D team here. Subject matter experts work together, and then juniors can take on projects that we think are the right scope for them, in order to get them to the next level.
The other thing is that in the technical apparel space, we don’t have defined jobs out there. The terms ‘designer’ or ‘product developer’ are fairly broad terms – almost generic. That could reference someone who has been trained formally in color and shape, right through to someone who has been trained in polymer structures and 3D injection molded parts.
Our solution is therefore creating a business that’s a mixture of both the textile, fabric, and garment developers, combined with industrial designers.
ST: Do you also augment your teams with external support?
DS: We bring experts into the business effectively working as a de facto resource. They plug into the team, and the team will take that expertise as a learning curve. We try to have a porous interface with industry. The more information they get from people across the industry, and the more experts they involve themselves with, the better skilled they become.
Our team will also interface with external design studios, most commonly with industrial design teams. Our apparel designers will go and work with industrial designers at their studios. That has provided a huge window of success in terms of up skilling our own teams, but at the same time, letting them see things from a different point of view. Success includes areas across sizing, ergonomics, anatomical solutions, generally a better understanding of how these things work.
We try and expose the designers to how the testing companies test products, so that they can future proof their own parts, or understand the material suitability prior to it going into a new product. That might include ballistic analysis, right down to fire retardant products, and even as simple as basic knits.
We also support our teams with trend forecasting software. I think that this is not that different to a lot of creative teams in the industry, whether that is the fashion industry, or whether you are in the corporate apparel industry. This helps aesthetically, ensuring the products look better and or are ‘on trend’.
ST: What is the role of fabric brands within the technical apparel space?
DS: One of the things that addresses the issue of marketing especially in the technical apparel space, is that there are performance fabrics that are known by brand names. Gore-Tex would be a great example of one of those brands; it’s a specific type of water resistant textile.
Ultimately we don’t mind if the clients fall in love with a specific fabric brand, because we can sell that solution. What I need our team to understand is what the truth is behind the brand, so that they can then think more laterally in the way that they approach each project. Being lateral is really the innovation process for us – not being closed minded as to focus on just a single pre-determined solution.
ST: Are there any companies you admire in the way they drive and execute innovation?
DS: So many things are happening in the apparel space, when I think of innovation I tend to think of original thinkers, and smaller companies, the fastener company Fidlock, comes to mind, in the protective clothing space Sioen Industries, consistent innovative fabric and apparel produced since the 60s. Even a small startup local company, Textile Recyclers Australia, selling the concept of ‘cradle to cradle’ fabric reprocessing.
Watch out for the second part of Samuel Tait’s interview with Darren Swindells in the next fortnight. Part two on operations of innovation will cover execution, the impact of innovation and design on the business, how they structure for innovation, manage a supportive culture, and the impact they are seeing as these initiatives drive significant growth.