Powering progress: defining your future

Posted on 14 Nov 2023 by Lanna Deamer

DSEI is the global showcase of innovative defence, security equipment and technologies for land, maritime and aerospace applications, as well as the latest developments for the security and joint forces sectors. The event aims to provide access to the most advanced technologies and information available. The Manufacturer’s Lanna Deamer reports.

Back when I was a wide-eyed, trainee journalist, DSEI marked my first foray into the world of industry trade shows. I’ll never forget that initial sense of awe as I wandered through the sprawling halls of ExCeL, London, taking in the grandeur of it all. The stringent security measures in place, while entirely necessary, somehow managed to make me feel slightly guilty, even though I had done nothing wrong.  

John Stretton, Director of Aerospace, Defence and Security at the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC)

DSEI, a biennial event, is a behemoth in its own right, and now, having been involved in organising our own events here at The Manufacturer, I can fully appreciate why it only graces us every two years. Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking with John Stretton to delve deeper into the High Value Manufacturing Catapult’s (HVMC) approach to this year’s event.

A focus on the future

John serves as the Director of Aerospace, Defence and Security at the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC), which is one of the seven HVM Catapult centres, boasting a workforce of over 900 colleagues.  

John expanded: “Our expertise spans land, sea and air defence, including surface and subsurface maritime capabilities. Our primary mission is to facilitate the introduction of new technology into the manufacturing market on behalf of the UK. We also collaborate with industrial clients to enhance automation, robotics and manufacturing capabilities. Furthermore, we are increasingly involved in data and data management initiatives to enhance information flow, connectivity and supply chain management.” 

DSEI is the premier hybrid event of its kind and is crucial in bringing governments, the armed forces and the wider industry together. DSEI 2023, in the most significant and largest iteration of the show in its 24 year history, tackled the theme of ‘Achieving an Integrated Force’, highlighting the pertinence of integrating across the five operational domains of air, cyber, electromagnetic activities (CEMA), land, sea and space. The show featured over 2,800 defence and security suppliers – including major prime manufacturers plus more than 230 new exhibitors.  

The event provides valuable insights for HVM Catapult by offering a window into the UK’s defence supply chain. Moreover, it serves as a platform for international suppliers seeking to establish supply chain and manufacturing presence in the UK.  

An example of this trend is RAFAEL Advanced Defense Systems acquiring Pearson Engineering in the North East of England. This move reflects the recognition that, as the UK is no longer part of Europe, international companies like RAFAEL need a UK presence to access significant UK defence programmes. The MTC’s focus extends beyond connecting with its UK clients; as it also engages internationally, understanding that relationships and opportunities may develop over the coming years, not just in the immediate term. 

John said: “We hosted a panel discussion entitled ‘Additive Manufacture at point of use: challenges and opportunities’ during the show, led by my colleague Andy Barnes. Additive manufacturing is crucial for the Ministry of Defence and the supply chain, but focus is needed due to investment and material availability challenges.  

“On the show floor, we displayed additive products for clients, highlighted manufacturing projects and connected with Dstl, Strategic Command, industry and the armed forces to understand their future needs. This show introduced our technical colleagues to this environment, offering a broad experience.” 

The HVM Catapult sponsored DSEI’s Manufacturing Hub with the MTC and University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC), demonstrating their capabilities. The MTC displayed components which demonstrate the breadth of its additive manufacturing capability and other technologies that can help the sector improve frontline equipment availability.  

The AMRC showcased its ‘MediTel’ robot, a remotely operated robotic system designed to provide medical triage to patients on the battlefield using virtual reality technology. Visitors to the stand were able to meet engineers from the National Composites Centre (NCC) and hear about its world-leading composite capabilities. They also saw how HVM Catapult plays a crucial role in providing industry-leading training and is developing long-term strategies to future-proof the UK workforce. 

What’s trending in the sector right now?

A central focus of this year’s DSEI was the disruptive capabilities of additive manufacturing, which has demonstrated its remarkable ability to revolutionise the defence industry’s approach to designing, creating and maintaining critical infrastructure and equipment. Embracing the flexibility of rapid prototyping, additive manufacturing opens opportunities to alleviate supply chain burdens, enhance design agility and streamline operational readiness. 

The major challenge facing the UK defence industry is a significant upcoming wave of retirements within the workforce over the next decade. This necessitates an urgent increase in training, both in terms of quantity and specialisation. We are actively engaging with industry to meet these training needs, including upskilling current employees due to the limited capacity of the current education system to provide the required workforce volume. Brexit has also impacted workforce mobility, making recruitment more challenging.  

Additionally, there has been a shortage of apprenticeships in traditionally apprentice-led roles in the past few decades, but this is gradually changing. The MTC currently offers around 300 apprenticeships annually, up to degree level, and is highly regarded for the quality of training provided. The University of Sheffield AMRC Training Centre also provides vocational and technical training up to degree level, with additional continuing professional development (CPD) for people working in UK manufacturing. 

“Our discussions with clients focus on upgrading existing employees to handle more automated tasks, as the labour pool is expected to shrink over the next decade. It’s essential to communicate this transformation positively, as it’s about safeguarding and enabling enterprise growth, not downsizing. Many organisations are actively seeking a substantial number of qualified engineering professionals, highlighting the need for workforce expansion to support and foster the industry,” explained John. 

“HVM Catapult serves as a crucial link between academia and industry. Our primary goal is to facilitate the transition of early-stage TRL (Technology Readiness Level) 2 and 3 research from universities into practical capabilities for the industry. We engage deeply with various frameworks in the UK, such as Innovate UK, AGI (commercial aerospace), ESA (European Space Agency) and Horizon, among others.  

“These frameworks enable us to collaborate with academic partners, showcase their work and ultimately advance it into manufacturing capabilities. Additionally, we have numerous engagement frameworks with the Ministry of Defence, including Aurora and EDP, along with our cloud services, allowing us to foster academic-industry partnerships for growth and innovation.” 

HVM Catapult plays a crucial role in the defence sector, constituting a significant portion of its revenue.  

This growth mirrors a broader trend across catapults as defence sectors seek their expertise, especially in additive manufacturing, digitisation and automation. Resilience in UK supply chains and reshoring capabilities are priorities in response to evolving global dynamics. Therefore, it’s essential to foster and expand these capabilities in the UK, as the defence supply chain places increasing demands on the catapult’s specialised services. 

What does the future hold?

According to John, the future for manufacturers in the defence sector appears promising, he said: “In the past, the UK Ministry of Defence prioritised procurement based on the lowest cost and best availability, regardless of the source. However, in recent years, especially since the Ukraine conflict, there has been a growing realisation that to sustain the MoD and its defence commitments, a robust UK supply chain is essential.” 

Consequently, there is active effort in reshoring capabilities within the UK defence supply chain. This presents significant opportunities for increased production, job creation and skills development, which will have positive impacts on the overall economy.

Key takeaways

  • DSEI 2023 focused on ‘Achieving an Integrated Force,’ emphasising integration across operational domains like air, cyber, land, sea and space
  • Additive manufacturing was a central theme at DSEI, offering opportunities to revolutionise the defence industry
  • HVM Catapult plays a crucial role in bridging academia and industry by facilitating the transition of research into practical capabilities
  • The future of the defence sector in the UK appears promising with a growing focus on reshoring capabilities, job creation and skills development

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