Tony Abbott with a replica of the new Joint Strike Fighter. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
The founder of the Melbourne manufacturer Marand learnt his trade at the city's Holden plant. Now his company is making carbon fibre and titanium tails for what is promised to be the most formidable fighter plane the world has seen.
Andy Ellul started out in 1969 as a small automotive supplier, but more recently the firm, now run by his son David, has shifted towards aerospace. Holden is of course pulling out of Australia. Ironically, Marand has taken over factory space in Geelong given up by Ford, which is also pulling out.
Aerospace, it turns out, was a good bet. ''Ten years ago, we'd never had an export order. Now, we're probably about 70 per cent exports,'' said the firm's general manager, Rohan Stocker. ''This is a story of transition.''
And the source of much of this lucrative work? None other than the Joint Strike Fighter, the revolutionary if controversial stealth fighter to which the Abbott government firmly committed Australia this week.
The debate as to the merits of the fighter - its flaws, its delays, its considerable cost - will rage on. Taxpayers may be a little punch-drunk learning that the 58 planes the Abbott government committed to this week will cost $24 billion over their lifetime, never mind the government's tangled efforts to claim the money is already put aside.
But one group that is feeling a little more bullish is local defence manufacturers. Under a deal struck with Washington in 2002, Australian firms get to bid for work on the gargantuan program, the cost of which worldwide is likely to top $1 trillion. It's an important part of the sales pitch from the federal government and prime contractor Lockheed Martin.
Some $335 million in manufacturing work has already gone to Australian firms, with a hope this will rise to $1.5 billion. All up, including servicing and support over the coming decades, the business opportunity could reach $7.5 billion, the government says. It won't replace the car industry, but it is high-tech work and a green shoot in manufacturing.
But those opportunities depend on our buying a decent number of the fighters - also called the F-35 Lightning II - from the US. The original expectation was for 100 aircraft. The Abbott government's announcement this week takes Australia's commitment to 72 - with the possibility of up to 24 more when the current Super Hornet is ready for retirement from 2030 on.
As some close observers remarked this week after Abbott posed in the cockpit of a mock F-35 at Fairbairn military airport in Canberra, the timing of the purchase announcement had as much to do with shoring up local work as it did with the defence of the nation. ''A lot of companies in Australia had been worried that unless the government starts talking about large numbers, they could be cut back on their work,'' one insider told Fairfax Media.
Abbott said his government makes defence announcements according to defence priorities. But the insider said that if the Abbott government had dithered for a year or two, or even - heaven forbid - ordered a batch of rival planes as a stop-gap while the flaws with the F-35 are being ironed out, some of those local industry chances would likely have evaporated.
Stocker said the announcement provided some certainty to firms such as Marand. ''We're definitely more comfortable,'' he said, adding that the firm expects at least 15 years' work out of the F-35.
The most complex and lucrative work is locked down by the big boys - Lockheed Martin itself, principal partners Northrop Grumman and BAE Systems, as well as engine-maker Pratt & Whitney. But they are subcontracting via a global supply chain to hundreds of companies around the world. Marand's manufacture of the tails, for instance, is subcontracted from BAE Systems.
''No one at the back of Sunshine is going to build a shed and start making Pratt & Whitney competitive engines,'' explains Mark Thomson, the nation's leading defence economist from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. ''But there's a whole range of areas where Australian manufacturers can produce components for the F-35 at a competitive rate and are doing so - and that's a great thing.''
All up, 18 local firms are part of the global supply chain for the F-35. Companies such as Chemring Australia - which is making launchable flares to help the F-35 dodge incoming missiles - and Sydney-based Quickstep - which makes material for the tail and body - are expected to generate hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue.
The work isn't dished out like a sheltered workshop - the practice in the past for many defence projects shared between nations - rather it must be won. Ultimately it will be up to Australian firms to bid for the business at a competitive price, says John O'Callaghan, a defence expert with the Australian Industry Group.
But given there will be as many as 3000 F-35s built in the coming decades - the US alone expects to acquire more than 2500 - O'Callaghan says Australian can reach the lofty dollar figures that the government is predicting. ''These are the smart companies of the future … tapping into a global supply chain that can help turn an old-style, traditional manufacturing base into a base for the future,'' he says.