Business Secretary Vince Cable declared the National Composites Centre in Bristol open for business today.
The new centre opens up a critical opportunity for small and medium sized companies to access unique facilities for the development of composite materials and manufacturing processes.
The National Composites Centre programme was launched two years ago and the centre’s opening today came on time and on budget.
The centre cost £25m to build with funding coming from BIS (£12m), the European Regional Development Fund (£9m), and the South West Regional Development Agency (£4m). The facility has an area of 8,500m², located at the Bristol & Bath Science Park.
The Business Secretary said little detail about the centre but did emphasise the importance of competitive composites capability to the future health of the national economy.
According to a 2009 Ernst & Young report, the gross value added of the composites sector to the UK economy was £1.1bn. Since then, the sector has received considerable investment and grown, especially with the growth of one of its mainstay applications, civil aerospace. The global composites market is predicted to reach a possible £74bn by 2013, conservative estimates point to £53bn.
While aerospace and niche automotive are now established applications of composite materials, Peter Chivers, the NCC’s chief executive told delegates at today’s event that emerging applications in mass automotive production, marine, construction and oil and gas has strong potential.
TIC in the box
The NCC is part of a cluster of organisations forming the new High Value Manufacturing Technology Innovation Centre (HVM TIC). It is also now home to some of the most advanced composites manufacturing technology in the world, including a £2.5m carbon fibre-layering machine. Its twin headed robot system can layer more complex composite designs and layer carbon fibre far more quickly than the closest rival machine, which is located at GKN.
The site has also benefitted from large companies like Airbus bringing its latest technology to the site. The equipment, including high quality autoclaves, is now available for use by members of the NCC, but also by SME manufacturers who may not have the budget to invest in such facilities for themselves or who are not receiving sufficient demand to justify such an investment against anticipated utilisation.
One delegate at today’s event said the NCC allows companies to “try before they buy.” Use of equipment can be gained through tiered membership that includes varying levels of access to facilities, or it can be hired by the hour without any membership commitment needed.
As Dr Cable stated in his speech a core purpose of the centre is to “reinstate manufacturing” and strong national media attention of the new facility is a positive sign that the investment being made in the future of manufacturing through the TIC should not go unnoticed by the general public.
To reach its full potential the NCC will need to convince companies of the breadth of its interest in composite applications.
While the niche automotive and aerospace dominance in the NCC’s current membership is slightly broken by the inclusion of wind turbine manufacturer Vesta, some of today’s attendees felt that the facility is yet to prove it has the capacity and capability to help develop the wider composite applications highlighted by Mr Chivers.