A UK industry composite strategy is emerging

Posted on 9 Jun 2011 by The Manufacturer

On Tuesday, British composite manufacturers and members of the National Composite Centre (NCC) gathered at BIS to mark the opening of the NCC.

The Manufacturer editor Will Stirling and reporter George Archer attended the NCC exhibition event on Tuesday this week, and were taken aback at the promise of the UK composites sector. Talking to Mark Prisk, Minister for Business and Enterprise, Will learned that collaboration between many different sub-sectors is something the government is making concerted efforts to take advantage of.

Members of consortium i-Composites, led by GKN Aerospace were present to acknowledge the conclusion of a 12-month challenge – ‘The Composites Grand Challenge’ – set by the Technology Strategy Board on behalf of the Business Department (BIS).

The Grand Challenge required companies to collaborate to progress innovations in vital composite manufacturing technologies. It is hoped these technologies will extend the UK’s ability to rapidly and sustainably manufacture affordable, high-performance composite products.

The NCC, part of the National High Value Manufacturing Technology and Innovation Centre (TIC) and the latest part of the TIC stable to be opened, has in fact been operational since January but this week marks the start of the final development stage, moving capital equipment into the laboratories and manufacturing lines.

The NCC was conceived before the previous government’s Manufacturing Strategy, launched in November 2009, as composites was identified as a sector in which UK companies had a cluster of expertise and competitive advantage. BIS contributed £12m into the programme, the South West RDA put in £4m and the balance was covered by the European Regional Development Fund to make up the £25m seed funding. The new facility – surprisingly big, at 8,000m2, about the size of a football pitch – has been erected remarkably quickly. The next deadline is August, when the centre must be financially self-sufficient.

The centre’s tier 1 membership, made up of companies like GKN Aerospace and Rolls-Royce, was bolstered yesterday when composites manufacturer Umeco joined. Tier 1 membership costs £300,000 per year for an initial three year period, at a total cost of £900,000. Benefits include NCC board membership and participation in the NCC’s core research and technology programmes.

Chief executive of the NCC Peter Chivers said: “The NCC provides UK industry with access to very modern facilities and world class expertise to assist them in developing new products. Primarily, we are helping to commercialise new technology that’s been coming out of universities, where inventions are generated. But the gap between invention and commercialisation is one that has to be crossed, and we know that historically many products die in that process.”

Benefit to SMEs and large companies

He added: “Although the big companies involved to help us shape and design what we’re creating, the offering is there everywhere from the major companies down to the SMEs, who will use the centre on a pay-as-you-go basis. The key thing here is the collaborative environment that the new centre will bring.”

New member John Mabbitt, group managing director for structural materials at Umeco said: “Our interest is cross-sectoral, we supply to the renewable energy industry, the automotive, motorsport and aerospace industry – all with the aim of making lighter weight, stronger and stiffer composite structures.”

He added: “Through the NCC, we’ll have a real proving ground of early stage technology through to production readiness and we hope to bridge that gap through the NCC, partnering with the other members who are actually our customers as well. So, it gives us a good insight and hopefully we’ll get production ready processes at the end of the various R&D projects that would be worked through the NCC.”

Business Minister Mark Prisk, who received a brieifing from members of i-Composites, Umeco and the NCC, said: The UK has a strong lead in the global composites industry, and this high value, high growth manufacturing sector has the potential to secure hundreds of jobs in the future.”

It will have to move quick, though. The BRIC countries, especially Brazil and China, which has the fastest growing aerospace industry in the world, are growing their composite material manufacturing capabilities. This is driven by an industry obsessed with weight reduction to improve flight efficiency.

Based in Bristol, the NCC is looking for more partners at different levels. Companies interested in knowing more can contact CEO Peter Chivers at [email protected].

George Archer