Australia is the largest wool producer in the world, with an estimated raw wool value of $3.6B in 2018/191. A fundamental part of Australia’s economic identity since British colonization, little had changed in the process of producing and selling wool to Australia, and the world, for over 100 years. Triggered by the findings of the Wool System Selling Review, Australian Wool Innovation engaged LEVO in 2017. This 18-month long partnership delivered a digital evolution of the wool supply chain, from shearing shed to ship’s rail; creating greater efficiencies, competitive tension and improved transparency to the great benefit of over 40,000 Australian woolgrowers.
Australian Wool Innovation (AWI) is a not-for-profit company that invests in R&D and marketing along the global supply chain for Australian wool – from woolgrowers through to retailers. AWI is well-known as the owner of The Woolmark Company and Woolmark logo – the world-renowned textile fibre brand – which has been applied to more than five billion products since its creation in 19642.
In October 2014, the AWI commissioned the Wool System Selling Review (WSSR) conducted by an independent group of thought leaders. The result of this process was the major recommendation of an online Wool Exchange Portal (WEP) which would revolutionise the way woolgrowers tracked, monitored, promoted and sold their wool asset.
We had an ambitious vision for the WEP. We wanted to empower farmers with more decision-making power in the selling process. Before they’d been beholden to the industry; unable to track their products’ journey through the sales pipeline, or succinctly access historical data, and could only sell through one market or private treaty. We knew we could change this, but we needed a partner that could help us on the journey.WIll Wilson, WoolQ Chair
Appointed to undertake a technical discovery with a view to develop the industry-wide Wool Exchange Portal, the LEVO team quickly assessed that propelling the wool industry into a new digital reality came with a set of vast and varied challenges.
Past attempts at digitisation had failed. Interest and investment in past projects were inconsistent and the resulting products were not widely adopted by industry. Concerns included user resistance to technology, lack of connectivity in rural areas, and managing conflicting vested interests across stakeholders.
The greatest challenge was that woolgrowers had been inadvertently positioned as a single point of project sensitivity. Farmers were at the core of the supply chain and the primary beneficiaries of the WEP but were also least likely to adopt technology.
Discovery and consultation
The team at LEVO assessed quickly that if a Wool Exchange Portal was to succeed, it had to be embraced by the entire industry, who were understandably cynical due to previous failures.
“We were constantly told why the WEP wouldn’t work. So, we had to understand and address every concern shared and any potential issue we could dream up. If the proposed solution could deal with the real issues raised by some of the biggest doubters, then we could confidently move forward” says Cale Maxwell, Chief Operating Officer.
LEVO held 10 consultations across Australia; from shearing sheds in NSW to farmhouses in regional Victoria.
“Being in a shearing shed with thousands of sheep, shearers and classers made all the concerns a reality. It’s hot, dusty and sweaty. It’s not conducive to using a laptop or desktop computer” Cale shared.
The consultations uncovered a critical requirement. In order for woolgrowers to have full visibility over their product’s journey through the supply chain, it needed to be digitised at the very beginning. The wool industry had been run on paper and pen for over a hundred years. Yet, to be successful, data capture had to happen in shearing sheds across Australia, in harsh conditions and climates with little to no internet coverage.
“When we mapped the entire data journey, we knew that this had to be an evolution, not a revolution. The wool supply chain process had worked well for a century, so we set about digitising the process instead of reinventing the wheel” Cale explained.
LEVO’s proposed solution allowed people to go about their normal day-to-day job throughout the pipeline, and digitally capture the current process. A rich repository of data would be created for the benefit of all stakeholders in the sale and promotion of their wool.
The challenge became finding a solution that dealt with tough working conditions and limited internet connectivity. “We had noticed that people still had their smartphones with them while working in the sheds – even if they didn’t have coverage”, so Cale and his team set about developing an application that would transform two hardcopy documents core to the wool industry – the Wool Book and the Wool Specification – and create the first digital record of a wool bale at its origin.
This digital record, or eSpeci, would then travel with the wool bale through the entire supply chain. Replacing the paper speci with a digital version created efficiencies for every stakeholder in the process, while also democratising data to support woolgrowers’ selling choices and trading opportunities.
Designed to operate offline and sync with the cloud once within range, the app development involved many hours in shearing sheds, testing and iterating the prototype. “While onsite at the farms, we’d run 2-hour sprints to test features. We would be wandering out into the middle of a paddock or driving 10 minutes down the road to phone in feedback, then back to the sheds, only to return 2 hours later to the same spot to download the updated prototype,” Cale recalled.
LEVO’s solution emerged as the application WoolQ. This app solution collected farm data at its origin, electronically passing through the wool sales pipeline integrated with 3rd party broker systems, market data providers and testing providers throughout the process.
Data capture at the point of origin and integration with industry partners throughout the supply chain allowed woolgrowers to better manage their wool inventory, make more informed sales choices and optimise their practices in line with historical data.
WA woolgrower Neil Jackson shared “The WoolQ eSpeci is really easy to use. I can see how a digital record of all my specis will enable me to view my wool and better understand my farm’s performance.” For classers and brokers, the app has drastically reduced issues with hand-written documentation. Dan Cummins, Master Classer advised “the WoolQ eSpeci should help reduce some of the errors you could have as well as help keep track of bales in the shed and what's left on the truck.”
When COVID hit, AWI and LEVO were ready.
By March 2020, the social distancing restrictions brought about by the COVID-19 crisis meant that alternative wool selling methods were urgently needed.
In early April, the Minister for Agriculture, Drought and Emergency Management, David Littleproud, asked market participants to: “please consider if their livestock saleyards and wool auctions can be held online, remotely, deferred or be cancelled to do so.”
WoolQ, LEVO and a broad range of industry participants, including brokers and buyers acted fast. They readied the WoolQ Market selling platform as a viable option for woolgrowers to sell their wool on-line. Since the April launch, WoolQ has conducted some 15 auctions and 2,700 woolgrowers have signed up to use the tool.