Starting-up and commercialising technology for a lighter, higher-performing ballistic helmet

One of Australia’s most promising start-ups is The Smart Think, which has developed a new composite forming technology to produce lighter, safer and higher-performing ballistic helmets for the global defence market.

Written by Kerryn Caulfield, Executive Director of Composites Australia Inc.

Thriving industries need perpetual renewal through entrepreneurship and start-ups. One of Australia’s most promising start-ups is The Smart Think, which has developed a new composite forming technology to produce lighter, safer and higher-performing ballistic helmets for the global defence market.

At a mere 30 years of age, Tristan Alexander, CEO of The Smart Think, has already completed a Bachelor of Applied Science and a Bachelor of Commerce in Nanotechnology and Financial Banking at Deakin University. He then worked as a Research Scientist focusing on researching ceramic and carbon fibre based armour systems.

In parallel, Australia’s Defence Science Technology Group (DSTG) and Defence Materials Technology Centre (DMTC) collaborated to develop a vision to create cost effective technologies that could revolutionise existing armour systems. After ten years of research by seven scientists, Tristan and his company are on the cusp of commercialising DMTC’s initial generation of composite forming technology known as ‘Double Diaphragm Deep Drawing’ (D4) that has been adapted and advanced for scalable production.

‘Lightweighting’ is a priority for armed forces worldwide, to ensure they are protected, deployable and agile. In 2009 at the height of the Afghanistan war, the load carried by a US soldier was more than 43 kilos. Tristan advises that the weight of a standard UHMWPE helmet is 1.25 kilograms: “Night vision goggles, torches, communication gear and counterweights also add weight. With temperatures ranging from an oppressive 40 celsius during summer and overnight lows of zero, weight and ergonomics are paramount. Additionally, more than 2 kilos on your head for over 4 hours results in spinal decompression. Any weight saving, no matter how many grams is significant to the wellbeing and agility of the soldier.”

Kerryn Caulfield with Tristan Alexander, CEO of The Smart Think

Traditionally, helmets were made by cutting a piece of fabric into a pinwheel shape, then hand laying into the helmet mould layer by layer. There are inherent shortcomings with hand layup including expense, human error and material wastage from splicing. Nonhomogenous distribution of material through overlap can introduce gas inclusions and be responsible for unnecessary weight. Capital equipment and tooling is also expensive. Ballistic textiles are less than ductile and/or elastic. Splicing and curvature create wrinkles dictated by weave geometry.

Through computer simulation and testing, the DMTC and Deakin developed a method of applying external positive pressure and the addition of a mechanical method for application of planar tension within the laminate stack sufficiently suppressed ‘out of plane movement’ i.e wrinkling. Secondly, they used the shell geometry and fibre orientation to improve performance compared to flat panel.

The resulting technology named D4 is a unique cost effective method that uses a combination of deep drawing and vacuum forming. The D4 machine was designed by those working in the research program and built by the Melbourne-based precision engineering firm, Marand. Tristan says that: “The process works by converting a 2 dimensional stack of fabric material into a deep-drawn 3 dimensional object in a single step without the need for fabric splicing or extra handling. It is currently the world’s fastest and most advanced forming machine with an automated lay-up, cure and ejection cycle producing A-class composites within 2 – 5 minutes.”

Helmets produced through D4 technology are 30% lighter than comparable helmets and have increased structural and ballistic performance. “Backface deformation (BDF) – the amount of deformation when hit by a projectile – for our competitors is about 22mm, whereas our helmets are achieving 8mm BDF. This is a result of our hybrid resin system coupled with homogenous distribution of material. We have greater control over our quality and the ability to coform thermoplastic and thermoset resins.”

The odds against start-ups are considerable. Capital is a rapidly depleting resource and tender and procurement systems are dominated by global giants. Defence procurement is acutely risk averse, has long tender cycles and there is always pressure to support sovereign capability. An added challenge is that defence procurement in Australia changed in the last decade to a prime vendor model whereby tendering is grouped into a supply line of multiple products and incidental services with little scope for a single product. Tristan says that “To realise our vision to scale up to supply into the largest defence forces in the world, we had to attract venture capital. We took advantage of the federal government’s Australia-Singapore Comprehensive Strategic Partnership program to identity worthy partners.” The Smart Think is now a Singapore-Australian company with a charter to transform the defence industry through cutting edge technologies to produce state-of-the-art defence products.

Tristan’s entrepreneurial spirit is undaunted. He says that “The future looks promising with procurement agencies such as the Australian Special Forces, Singapore and Indian armies and the Bangladesh Defence Force. There are also potential applications for the technology beyond combat helmets for military use including F1 and motorcycle helmets and also vehicle armour.” While the intent is to manufacture from Geelong, The Smart Think is also open to the option of installing precision engineered production lines around the world.

This article first appeared in: Connection Magazine Issue 50: July, 2019

Author: Kerryn Caulfield