In a quiet suburb on the outskirts of Coventry you will find NP Aerospace, a defence company manufacturing bomb suits, armour plates, ballistic helmets and customised vehicles for the world’s armies and law enforcement agencies. Maddy White visited the site.
Most of us will never experience being on the front line of a conflict. For the men and women who are there, the difference between life and death can be the level of protection they receive against bullets and explosive devices.
A great deal of that protection is produced by NP Aerospace. Bulletproof helmets, 35kg hand-stitched bomb suits, lightweight armour plates and vehicles kitted out with heavy-duty composite materials are all key products in its catalogue.
“A few weeks ago, a woman came to speak to us. Her husband is alive because he was wearing one of our armour plates when he was shot. For us, there is nothing more rewarding than knowing our products are saving lives,” David Petheram, chief operations officer at NP Aerospace, tells me.
NP Aerospace’s history dates back to the 1920s, when it was part of Courtaulds. Since then it has worked on thousands of military vehicles, including more than 700 of the UK Ministry of Defence’s (MoD) Cougar fleet of vehicles used in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The company has also supplied more than one million combat helmets to UK, Canada, Italy and NATO allies and 200,000 body armour plates to the British and Canadian Armed Forces. It also makes composite materials for a range of other applications including radiology beds for the medical industry.
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Last November, one of the company’s directors, James Kempston joined up with the PFN Group of Companies of Canada to buy the business from Morgan Advanced Materials.
“I’ve been here for over six years now and thought I would take the lead and try running it. We have a worldclass capable production facility here and I am very passionate about the business,” says Kempston, who is an engineering physicist by background and has worked in military defence for 12 years.
“The biggest change the business has seen since November is the increase in our speed of turnaround and agility. We’ve been able to move more quickly on decisions, which has helped us win important contracts. As slow moving as the defence and police markets are, once the decision for something has been made, the choices are ruled out very quickly. If you are not able to supply fast enough, then you lose the deal,” he adds.
On the day of my visit, the company had just secured a £63m deal with the UK MoD. The contract, known as PMETS (Protected Mobility Engineering & Technical Support) covers the MoD’s fleet of 2,200 Protected Mobility Vehicles until 2024.
“We have gone through a lot of change in the last six months. We’ve gone from instability and not knowing what is going on, to winning contracts and being able to invest back into the business,” COO David Petheram tells me.
Strong material, stronger wrists
The portfolio of products at NP Aerospace is diverse, but what they all have in common is the materials used, and the method of their construction. “Everything that is made here starts with a roll of material,” says Anne Foster, manufacturing manager at NP Aerospace, as she shows me around the factory.
The bulletproof helmets are made with aramid, a heat-resistant synthetic material known for its strength. The helmet patterns are cut onsite from this material and layered in a precise order into bowl-like moulds. The layers of aramid are then set by compression moulding in steam powered presses.
The helmets are trimmed using a high-pressure water jet and grit, which Anne says can “cut anything”. A rubber rim is added and depending on who the helmet is for, its finishing colour, texture and details are applied.
When I was there, the company was working on a large order of helmets for the Canadian Department of National Defence (DND). “We are currently making around 1,600 helmets a month, which means we will be busy for the next few years on this contract,” Anne says. As with the helmets, the bomb suits made at the company need materials to be meticulously layered. To make the suits, fabric is cut and hand-stitched together in the sewing room.
“You can’t get the same level of quality if you automate the stitching process. Sewing together a bomb suit is a hell of a lot of work. The women in here may look small, but they are using heavy-duty equipment and their wrists are strong,” Anne says.
NP Aerospace also refurbishes helmets and bomb suits for training purposes. “The soldiers are very protective over their suits and helmets. When you get the refurbs back in, you realise what these people have been through,” she adds.
Off-road, but on track
The company’s vehicle site is a 10-minute drive from the Foleshill factory. Base vehicles are supplied by the customer, and then the firm kits them out with everything from cameras to armour-plate made from composite materials. This often means thousands of parts being fitted, which can sometimes take up to two months to complete.
When vehicles are being developed, the threat level of a location is analysed. For example, during the Iraq war, vehicles needed to match the arid environment where roadside IEDs (improvised explosive devices) were a constant threat.
“There is a big drive for replacing metals with composite materials to make the vehicles lighter. In the automotive industry they use carbon fibre: any gram that can be saved on an F1 car, is saved. We are trying to save weight on our vehicles too, because it makes them more agile and means extra equipment can be loaded,” says Petheram.
The switch to composite materials from steel has meant a 50% weight reduction for some of NP Aerospace’s products. For a 30-tonne vehicle travelling at pace in a war zone, any weight that can be saved could make a significant difference to its speed and agility.
David Petheram has been in the business for six years and is an expert in military vehicle systems. From Coventry, he began his career as an apprentice at Alvis, before going to Wales to make military vehicles and then joining NP Aerospace. Like David, many of the employees that work at NP Aerospace have a background in military products. They have either worked in defence manufacturing, or have served in the armed forces.
“They have worn our plates or helmets and driven our vehicles. For us, there is no one better to help us develop the next generation of vehicles or products than the people who have been using them on the front line,” says David Petheram.
“At times it is difficult for them to get a job. They come out of the army, and other than fighting for their country, they have little to no experience in much else. It gives them employment and we can also use those skills and that experience. Once you get a taste for helping the people at the front line, you don’t leave,” he adds.
No ‘blue sky’ thinking
“One of the biggest things we do is spend a significant amount of money on R&D. It is not blue sky thinking, a lot of it is guided research based on what our customers want,” says James Kempston.
When many other firms were feeling the pinch (and a lot more) from the financial crisis in 2008, NP Aerospace’s turnover peaked. This came from the surge of orders because of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
“Armies, police, SWAT teams and special forces will always need protection, it is just who they choose to go to for that. We work very closely with our customers and some of those are the elite of the elite. These are the groups that really push for new technology in the defence industry,” he says.
“This means being the best in ballistic performance, weight and cost. We embrace technology so we can drive the market’s expectation of armour products forward,” he says.
NP Aerospace has a laboratory where it tests its products onsite, which enables them to deliver a rounded service. But no matter what, David Petheram says, customers still want to test things out for themselves.
“To have a company that can deliver products end-to-end entirely in-house is unusual in the defence industry. We are even more unique in that we cover so many different products. Our customers still insist on testing helmets out themselves by shooting at them,” says Petheram. “We have hundreds of patents in place for materials and our processes. Like many other businesses our IP is the key to what we do.”
James Kempston adds, “We recognise the value of R&D, patents, and manufacturing processes, and we are constantly trying to develop these as it means we can stay ahead of everyone else in industry.”
“Outside of the technology and products, our biggest strength is that we can move quickly. When you can develop something, test it and modify it for a customer, and you can do that the fastest, you have a much better chance of securing contracts.”