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How Babcock uses digital technology to deliver innovation

Professional Engineering

'Our technology expertise is something our customers are turning to us for more frequently': Dr Jon Hall
'Our technology expertise is something our customers are turning to us for more frequently': Dr Jon Hall

Dr Jon Hall is managing director of technology at Babcock International Group. We spoke to him recently about trends, opportunities and what the future holds.

What are the core activities of your organisation?

We operate across three highly regulated markets: defence, emergency services and civil nuclear, helping our customers get the most out of the critical and complex assets we manage on their behalf, both in the UK and internationally. This can be anything from managing a fleet of warships, through to the specialised equipment and vehicles used by our emergency services on the ground and in the air, nuclear power stations, or the 32,000 protected mobility vehicles we manage for the British Army. Increasingly, our customers are coming to us for technology solutions either at the initial design stage or for through-life operations and support and maintenance.

What are your key managerial responsibilities?

I’m fortunate that my role is so diverse. As well as taking ownership of the group’s technology strategy I am also responsible for a group of businesses within Babcock. It’s challenging and rewarding, not just because of the nature of our work, but because we have some of the best people.

What is the current condition of the market?

Our largest sector is defence, and we’re continuing to grow in the UK and internationally. We’re the second-largest defence supplier in the UK supporting the army, navy and RAF and internationally. In the UK, I see ongoing investment in major naval programmes, both submarine and surface ships, which remain strong for both near and long term, and the major role we play in the Type 31 programme is testament to that. There are also major new assets such as the Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers that are entering service, requiring planned, complex engineering support. We’re also now widely using digital-twin technology across all our core business areas. In defence this can be the navy’s 4.5-inch gun, for example, which allows us to constantly gather data about the performance of the system, gain insights into predictive maintenance and optimise performance.

In our land defence business, our long-term contracts are focused on military technical training and vehicle support. At the end of 2019 we were chosen as the Met Police’s learning partner (a combined initiative we are leading on with a number of academic partners).

From my perspective, international markets are equally positive. For example, major defence programmes in Australia, Canada and South Korea are proceeding largely as we’d hoped. Delivering this level of innovation across the work we do means we also share the risks. But conversely we also share the benefits.

How does the UK’s relationship with the EU affect your market?

Babcock’s business in EU countries is carried out by our established businesses based in those countries, perhaps supported with UK know-how or intellectual property, but increasingly with IP generated locally.  It’s the same model we generally have across our international markets. Being service-oriented, we work locally. Business seems to be going well. For example, last year we secured a long-term contract in France to train jet pilots for the French air force.

What are the long-term trends for your business?

A number of big technology trends are important to the business and feature strongly in our strategic thinking. The use of data and digital technology is a key pillar of our technology strategy – it will continue to change how we manage and operate complex assets, and how we deliver and integrate technical training and equipment support. Another important trend is autonomy. Remote and autonomous systems are already part of our customers’ assets, and our own assets. More broadly our business is increasingly international. The UK is well-advanced in entrusting the support of critical assets or capabilities to business partners, and we are seeing other countries following that path as assets become increasingly complex.

What do you think has changed the most in your industry in the past five years?

If I focus on the defence sector, there is an ongoing trend of increasing technical complexity in new defence equipment, but also a more significant increase in the drive for operational availability of defence assets or capabilities. At the same time, there has been increasing demand for agility in how these assets are configured and deployed. Together this is reflected in increased connectivity – so communications, command and information systems have become a hot topic in the industry.

How do you think management styles and strategies are evolving today?

I believe we already have fantastic opportunities for people embarking on graduate and apprenticeship schemes with us, but we’re also working hard to ensure all our people have those same opportunities – whether it’s retraining, reskilling or international secondments.

It’s not just about creating a diverse business but creating a diverse workforce that is attractive to talented people, offering flexibility and a great environment. I see this pretty consistently day to day in the UK across Babcock, our customers and partner companies. We have to deal with complexity, and we have to innovate, and rigid procedures or “command and control” just won’t get you there.

What is the single biggest opportunity globally for you at the moment?

Babcock has a good “full lifecycle” business model and a great platform of expert people, key infrastructure and technology. We’ve shown that this is transferable and valuable internationally – so fundamentally that, combined with gripping the technology trends I talked about earlier, it represents a huge opportunity for Babcock.

What will your organisation look like in 10 years’ time?

Essentially, we expect to continue to grow both in the UK and internationally, with the ever-increasing connectivity that implies.

Our technology expertise is something our customers are turning to us for more frequently, and we continue to need a skilled workforce that can deliver the increasingly complex challenges they give us. I also hope, and expect, to see better gender balance and overall diversity at all levels across our business. We, and our industry, are working hard on this and must keep pushing. 


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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

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