How to manufacture an Australian world champion

Australia's athletic prowess is on show for all at the Commonwealth Games but behind the scenes our high-tech manufacturers are kicking goals in a $300bn global market.

It’s day four of the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games and already Australia has shot to the top of the pack with 26 gold medals. For a nation whose population is less than half that of England’s (which currently sits in second place with 23 gold, and well and truly trails Australia in total medals at 57 to our 73), there’s no doubt we Aussies punch considerably above our weight in terms of athletic prowess.

What is less known, however, is that Australia is also home to some of the world’s best-performing sports technology companies.

Nestled in Australia’s Docklands, Catapult Sports is quietly leading the industry in wearable devices and data analytics designed to maximise player performance and prevent injuries. Catapult's technology is not only used by all the major Australian Football League teams; it is also used by some of the most famous sports teams on the planet, including the National Football League, National Basketball Association and college football teams in the US, and the English and European soccer leagues.

Catapult's hardware captures 1000 data points per second and is able to measure “every aspect of an athlete’s performance whilst they’re training and while playing,” according to company chairman, Adir Shiffman. “Our technology transmits that into the cloud and we have some very sophisticated algorithms … [that] tell you things like when a tackle happened and what velocity it was and the force supplied.”

Most importantly, that data can accurately tell teams how fatigued players are becoming during a game. “Port Adelaide are making rotation decisions -- they have our data feeding into an analytics package in real time, and they are making rotations based on that data,” Shiffman says. “The person offside looking at that data often has a better understanding about how fatigued a player is than the player does.”

Devices like the GPSports tracker (Catapult acquired Canberra-based GPSports earlier this month) are worth around $2000 to $3000 a pop. Multiply that by a number of teams and a number of players, and a picture begins to emerge as to how much this industry is worth.

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Trent Hodkinson stunned audiences during this year's State of Origin match when he revealed the "bro" that was keeping his GPSports tracking device in place.

Shiffman says Catapult is “by far the dominant player” in its field and is increasing the gap between itself and its nearest competitor. He is coy on revenue but, with additional offices in Dallas and London servicing the US and Europe, Shiffman says Catapult’s sales figures are growing at “somewhere around 70 per cent a year”.

“It’s hard to know because we’re so much bigger than anyone else,” he says.

According to the Australian Sports Technology Network (ASTN), the global sports technology market is worth $300 billion, covering areas such as wearable technology, drug testing and protective gear. But while Australia may be home to a sports technology world champion, according to ASTN the nation’s export share of the market is just $268 million -- or a paltry 0.09 per cent -- yet we import $2bn. By comparison, the US claims 41.1 per cent of the global market.

Needless to say, Australia’s potential to capitalise on this growing industry is immense. Shiffman believes Australia is "the world’s best country in sports science and technology, without a doubt -- there is no country better”. The catalyst, he says, was the decision to launch the Australian Institute of Sport in 1976 after Australia won zero gold medals at the Montreal Olympics. “That gave us the best evidence-based institution of sport in the world, which has driven the next three decades of growth [in sports],” Shiffman says.

Manufacturing a winning team

With ongoing support from the Manufacturing Excellence Taskforce Australia (META), ASTN recently launched the Australian Sports Technology Hub, which aims to give companies a leg-up in the global sports technology market. It’s not a physical hub as such but a national network through which SMEs, big corporates and universities can share expertise and undertake R&D to develop new products and accelerate commercialisation.

One Australian firm that is already benefiting from its involvement with ASTN and META is albion sports, the maker of the Australian cricket team’s baggy green. Yes, that’s essentially a hat -- but albion also specialises in high-tech protective headgear designed to provide optimal safety for athletes (think jockeys or cyclists when they crash). Their manufacture requires sophisticated design, specialist materials and extensive, rigorous testing.

If Australia’s ‘next manufacturing boom’ is indeed centred around specialisation and ability to scale, then albion is the ideal case study -- and also the ideal counterpoint to the story of Australian manufacturers being crippled by operating costs and a high dollar.

albion managing director and chief executive Brendan Denning says manufacturing offshore in pursuit of reduced costs is not necessarily the best option for all Australian manufacturers -- especially those looking to solidify their brand as a niche, high-quality exporter.

While the company makes around 90 per cent of its headware (including the baggy green) and all its high-tech protective sportswear here in Australia, it has been burnt by its foray into the low-cost manufacturing markets of Asia. Denning says the “just-in-time” culture of Indian manufacturers has resulted in albion not being able to meet some of its deliveries on time. Meanwhile, in China, the problems are around quality and consistency.

“For example, jockey helmets -- we’ve worked very hard on the recipe of design and material elements that go together to create a superior-performing helmet,” Denning says. “We know we got the recipe correct because of the testing and data we’ve been validating over the last couple of years, but they can’t produce that consistently and when you look at the manufacturing techniques being employed, that’s why.”

Enter ASTN and META: the networking opportunities they provide have, for albion, completely flipped the manufacturing equation on its head. albion had been working on a new model of protective equestrian headgear for almost four years but had not yet released a finished product to market -- largely because, says Denning, the company had set itself a “fairly high” benchmark for quality which it deemed essential for branding in the global marketplace.

“Overseas manufacturing capabilities haven’t aligned with this product’s requirements in terms of volume issues, manufacturing methods, consistency of materials used,” Denning explains.

But through conversations with local distributors, manufacturers and suppliers, facilitated via ASTN and META, albion has been able to find the right expertise here in Australia to accelerate the product’s speed to market and drive a “tangible increase in revenues and export sales”. After four long years of hard work and testing, Denning says the company is now “super confident” it can finalise the product in the next three to six months.

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Through conversations advanced by ASTN and META, albion has been able to accelerate the production of its latest generation of protective headgear.

“The export potential of those first-line products is millions of dollars, and that’s going to be a significant growth phase for the company,” Denning says. “And what really excites us about it is that now we can bring that manufacturing back home and manage and oversee and control processes in Australia.

“If you’d asked me six months ago if we’d planned to increased our manufacturing presence in Australia, the answer would have been, ‘No, we have to keep costs down’. The reality is that with these kinds of products there’s a really strong business case to be doing that here in Australia.”

The sports/medicine overlap

As if this wasn’t promising enough, the federal government’s proposed $20bn medical research fund could provide an extra booster shot to Australia’s future sports tech champions.

Trained as a doctor, Catapult’s Shiffman perceives a definite overlap between medical technology and sports technology -- “especially the kind of sports technology that we do, which is very heavily focused on the athlete”.

“We’ve got highly detailed algorithms around biomechanical outcomes which certainly overlap with medical technology, and a lot of what we provide to teams focuses on the fitness, health and safety of players,” he says.

There’s a far simpler connection here, too: regular physical activity plays an essential role in preventative health, saving governments countless amounts of money spent on treating the sick.

Gadgets like the Fitbit and Samsung Gear Fit may be more well-known sports technology devices, but consumer-focused wearables are just the tip of the iceberg in a broader, multi-billion-dollar industry that is only just warming up -- and in which Australia already has a head start.