Andrew Schofield, Chair of the North West Aerospace Alliance, outlines the Lancashire Watchtower initiative which supports the county’s advanced manufacturing and engineering companies.
Can you tell us more about the Watchtower initiative?
The Lancashire Watchtower initiative is about supporting SMEs in the Lancashire area. The county is dominated by the aerospace sector and the Lancashire Enterprise Partnership saw the major impact the pandemic had on those businesses.
A taskforce was put together to examine how to help advanced engineering and manufacturing companies recover and start to grow again following COVID. After many discussions, the evidence gathered by Lancashire County Council was used to put in place what is now known as the Watchtower programme. The initiative has three key areas, with three main companies involved.
The North West Aerospace Alliance is taking the lead on four of our five work packages, in partnership with Aerospace Consulting. And Community & Business Partners in Blackburn is focused on skills. Those three partners identify companies who need support around innovation, diversification and skills development.
How important is it to promote manufacturing?
It’s vitally important to continue to talk about the future capability of manufacturing and where that’s taking us. In Lancashire there’s 100 years of heritage and experience in aerospace. But when you look at the future, in particular the new sectors that are being established, it’s important to have discussions around how aerospace gets connected with automotive, nuclear, space, hydrogen etc.
There’s a lot of opportunities, but more importantly, we need to identify the capability of the Northwest and Lancashire and what the region is going to be known for in the future. It’s vital we promote the capability within advanced engineering and manufacturing, not just within the aerospace sector.
It’s a two year programme which launched in March. In the first phase we held a number of workshops, particularly on diversification, which gave SMEs an opportunity to understand what it means for an aerospace company to be a supplier into defence or automotive, for example, or what it means for an automotive supplier to be involved with defence.
We looked at the hurdles that currently exist and the initiatives that need to be put in place. It also gave us a view of what the future might look like in those sectors.
It’s been going well, and a number of companies have been identified that want support around innovation, for example. There’s been a tremendous amount of investment put into research centres like the AMRC Northwest, UCLan (the University of Central Lancashire), Edge Hill in Liverpool, and the University of Lancaster. SMEs need access to that, and they need an assessment of how innovative they are and need to be.
We are hoping Watchtower starts a journey that will really strengthen Lancashire’s ability to respond to changes in technology. The agenda is going to continue way into the future, and we are looking at what we can build on in Lancashire to make sure that investment and employment takes place here.
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