UNSW Canberra student and Royal Australian Navy Lieutenant Kurt Withers has used his final year thesis to address some of the everyday challenges experienced by the Australian Defence Force.

Using a state-of-the-art simulation model developed by the University’s Capability Systems Centre (CSC), he is addressing complex workforce management issues.

The Electrical Engineering (Honours) student has been in the Navy for more than 20 years, undertaking multiple engineering-related roles at sea and ashore. He said completing this degree has been both a personal and career goal for many years.

“I wanted to learn more about the field of engineering and tertiary studies seemed a natural progression to advance my Navy career,” Kurt said.

For his thesis project, he wanted to apply an engineering approach to a Defence-specific problem.

“I also wanted to increase my knowledge in the areas of simulation and optimisation techniques,” he said.

“The CSC provided me with the opportunity to achieve all three goals.”

Under the supervision of CSC’s Dr Hasan Turan, Kurt investigated the complex working environments of defence technical workshops, which are critical to ensuring Defence capability is maintained and readily available.

Technical workshops ashore often comprise blended workforces, which require careful planning and management to avoid uniformed technicians’ posting cycles having a detrimental impact on workshop efficiency and effectiveness.

Inspired by the process of natural selection, Kurt has devised an optimisation algorithm to inform strategic decisions, such as workforce composition and posting cycles.

“The maintenance workforce within Defence differs to other industries,” Kurt said.

“As new capabilities are introduced, new strategies may be required to meet maintenance needs. The strategies discussed in my thesis provide leaders with a different way of planning human resources."

Kurt Withers with his daughter, Lara.
Kurt Withers and his daughter, Lara.

Dr Turan said the project uses a large-scale simulation model, built in-house at CSC to solve and analyse Defence-related maintenance planning problems.

He said Kurt’s was a standout project that drew from his extensive experience with the Navy.

“In addition to the implementable solutions and insights he provided at the end of the project, he was able to integrate his on-field expertise from his previous career to scientific tools to address a realistic problem that the ADF has been facing on workplace planning recently,” Dr Turan said.

CDC industry specialist Nick Stoker said systems thinking tools are fundamental to decision making in complex, future-operating environments.

“There is greater expectation by government, senior committees, and decision makers for increased assurance through repeatable, evidence-based decisions,” he said.

“Designing and building innovative decision analysis technologies aimed at developing integrated asset management strategies and dealing proactively with systemic risks emerging from dependencies across assets and activities is an example of what the Capability System Centre specialises in.

He said the Chief of Navy has reinforced the importance of building relationships and shared awareness with academia and industry to deliver future capability.

“Drawing upon my own naval career experience, I believe a foundation to this relationship is genuine ‘capacity building’ which includes encouraging more junior students to embark on similar learning experience as Kurt’s, recognising the immense value and additional capacity which can be generated to meet Defence outcomes," Mr Stoker said.

He said CSC regularly offers several model-based final year graduation projects on a wide range of topics from asset management to workforce planning. The Centre also offers PhD and masters projects related to decision sciences and systems engineering.

“The CSC is happy to help anyone explore similar opportunities to Kurt that may bolster your professional development for future roles across Defence,” Mr Stoker said.

Find out more about the Capability Systems Centre.