Reaching new heights

Established as the world's second largest aerospace sector, the UK industry continues to soar to new heights. But will it survive the long haul? James Pozzi reviews.

It is often said that harder than getting to the top is staying there. Never was such a truism as fitting as when applied to the UK’s aerospace sector. As a UK manufacturing force bearing the fruits of sustained research and investment in the 1970s and 80s, the aerospace sector is at the very pinnacle of the country’s output, encompassing areas of civil, defence and space.

Second in the world only to the USA, the UK aerospace sector packs quite a punch. It is attractive to foreign investment as well as having secure domestic heavyweights and development infrastructure. Home to large scale operations for Rolls-Royce, Bombardier and Airbus, everything from plane parts to engine assembly within these shores has resulted in an industry generating £24.2bn annually and directly employing 100,000 people across more than 3,000 companies. What’s more, the industry exports 75% of everything it makes in the UK; firmly establishing it as one of the country’s export champions.

The jewel in our crown

Described by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg as the “jewel in our crown” in terms of its role in the UK economy, the aerospace sector rode out the recession largely thanks to the robust infrastructure in place. Its role as both an employer and economy grower has led to a multitude of industry leaders increasing investment in UK manufacturing, investment which has trickled down to the supplier base.

The past 12 months have followed suit with further investment and job creation. There seemingly wasn’t a week that passed without news of multiple orders stretching into the millions and plant extensions to deal with growth demands. One of the biggest success stories has been Canadian firm Bombardier Aerospace, which bases its UK operations in Belfast.

Aerospace in numbers

  • Aerospace has revenues of £24.bn in the UK and employs around 230,000 people
  • 75% of its generated revenues is exported overseas
  • The UK has 17% of the global market for aerospace and is the largest aerospace industry in Europe and second globally only to the USA

Home to the building of its C-Series aircraft, the site saw a visit from Prime Minister David Cameron last October coincide with its announcement of an additional 250 jobs in the Northern Irish capital as a result of increased demand. Coming just a year after it won an order for 100 Challenger Jets potentially worth $7bn (£4.5bn) – a company record, the site now employs 5,000 people and provides an illustration of aerospace as a job creator.

Besides the flourishing aerospace job market is the industry’s boundless strength in technology innovation. A notable driver in this field is Derby headquartered Rolls-Royce, the world’s second largest engine manufacturer. In June, the company saw its Trent 1000-TEN engine complete its first run with a view to entering into service by the end of 2015.

Sir Roger Bone, Boeing
Sir Roger Bone, president of Boeing UK & Ireland.

Set to power all variants of the upcoming Boeing 787 Dreamliner, as well as the A380 from Boeing’s great rival Airbus, its production in the UK is a large-scale example of technological domination and also of interlinked supply strength.

Boeing president for the UK & Ireland, Sir Roger Bone, says the aerospace giant’s UK activities have helped companies in its supply chain boom, citing Rolls-Royce’s work on the Trent1000-TEN project.

“The Boeing 787 Dreamliner is a good example of this partnership,” explains Sir Roger. “When fitted with Rolls-Royce engines alongside significant contributions from other UK suppliers, the 787 is 25% by value made by UK companies.”

The two I’s: innovation and investment

Sir Roger also believes engagement between industry and the UK government will further cement the UK’s status as Europe’s largest aerospace sector, with areas of attention being addressed. “The partnership between the aerospace industry and recent UK Governments is a good sign for the future of the sector in this country,” he says. “For that future to be secured we are working with industry and the Government in the UK to push for greater investment in the research base in the UK and in the development of scientific and technological skills.”

His thoughts echo the industry consensus; the pace of innovation stands still for no one, and a combination of investment and long-term planning is seen as paramount to the advancement of UK aerospace. Naturally, attention turns to the government in helping achieve this; from investing in skills and research centres to developing policies which make the UK even more attractive for foreign investment. And so far it appears government has risen to the challenge.

Following on from its launch of 2011’s Aerospace Growth Partnership, the government published its Aerospace Industrial Strategy in March 2013. The outlined plan is underpinned by the Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI) at Cranfield University, as a research centre, while setting out to invest £2bn in new technologies over seven years while securing up to 115,000 jobs.

Clegg and Cable visit Rolls-Royce plant
The opening of the new £100m Rolls-Royce site signifies further investment into UK aerospace.

The ATI, which firms such as Airbus, Rolls-Royce, as well as other major UK players including Messier-Dowty, AgustaWestland and GKN Aerospace, will look to exploit the potential of the civil aerospace industry, estimated to be worth $4.5trn globally by 2031.

While the will of collaboration between government and the industry’s big names is welcome for boosting GDP and job creation and security, eyes are also on foreign competitors picking up pace as the aerospace market becomes ever more lucrative. Competitor markets such as the USA and France remain, while emerging competitors including China and Indonesia have significantly grown their aerospace industries in recent years, something that is only set to continue.

But taking into account the innovation of the sector, defence and aerospace advisor Howard Wheeldon says the industry has a solid track record of rising to the challenge and moving forward. “In this industry technology has been proved never to stand still; challenges are always abound and year after year industry has risen to meet them,” he says.

Mr Wheeldon continues: “Who, I wonder, could have imagined twenty five years ago that further engine technology development would lead to a 40% cut in fuel usage by an average sized commercial aircraft over that period of time? Who would have thought twenty years ago that an aircraft the size and stature of the Airbus A380 with its 500 seats would be flying the skies, or that Boeing would have produced an aircraft in the form of the 787 that, in terms of technology development, cost efficiency and passenger comfort, would all but change the rules of the game?”

Future technologies

As one of industry’s genuine innovators, aerospace continues to be readily adopting new technologies at the research and development phase. UK’s aerospace R&D investment reached £1.4bn in 2012, which accounted for 12% of total spend across the manufacturing industry.

This has been illustrated by companies big and small investing in research and engineering capabilities. Airbus opened its new engineering centre at its Filton site at the end of 2013, while Boeing supports the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) in South Yorkshire.

Inside Rolls-Royce’s new £100m North East discs facility

Rolls Royce disc facility
The new Washington facility will have the capability to manufacture 2,500 fan and disc turbines a year.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and business secretary Vince Cable both unveiled Rolls-Royce’s new £100m advanced aerospace disc manufacturing facility in the North East in June, marking further investment from the firm into the UK aerospace sector.

When fully operational in 2016, the 18,000 square metre facility in Washington, Tyne and Wear will have the capacity to manufacture 2,500 fan and turbine discs a year. These discs will feature in a wide-range of Trent aero engines including the world’s most efficient aero engine the Rolls-Royce Trent XWB.

The manufacturing capabilities of the site are impressive, with the introduction of robotics and automation for shot peen, painting and chemical processing operations as well as advanced platforms for machining, grinding, broaching and inspection processes. This has reduced manufacturing time for discs by 50% while producing a step-change in component performance.

There are two types of disc manufactured at the plant: fan discs and turbine discs. Located at the front of the engine, the fan disc holds the fan blades, with typically 20 blades in each engine. They rotate about 2,700 times per minute and move 1.25 tonnes of air per second, the equivalent of the volume of air in a squash court.

Continuing the now commonplace trend of government-industry investments, June saw the announcement of a £45m project focused on developing new technologies for low-carbon aircraft engines.

Funding will be used for research and development to reduce carbon emissions by using lightweight composite materials to make Rolls-Royce engines. Research will also focus on changing parts of the engine design to make engines more efficient and reducing the time it takes to manufacture them.

David Cameron visits Bombardier Aviation in Belfast
The Prime Minister visiting the Belfast site of Bombardier, which employs over 5,000 people.

The subject of composites is one that is set to gain impetus in the coming years. The National Composite Centre, opened in Bristol last year which helped develop the wings for the Airbus A350, is just one of many specialist centres set up in recent years to address this. Also on the UK’s agenda is investing in Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), enhancing its status in the design and manufacture of wings and engines and developing short range aircrafts up to 2025.

Another next generation innovation being adopted by aerospace is the Internet of Things and other Big Data technologies. General Electric, which champions the Industrial Internet, has employed this over many of its operations including in its aviation arm. Seen as a new industrial revolution, it is driven by advances in sensor technology, connectivity and data analytics.

The American giant has also drawn upon devices such as Google Glass to aid its factory floor processes in California, giving a glimpse into the tools and software devices that could further transform industry over the coming decades. Used for a non-destructive test on a GE 90 engine, GE hopes the prototype will yield greater efficiencies in its production maintenance. Coming soon to an aerospace factory in the UK? Who would be surprised?

Flying forward

Airbus’ Broughton facility in the UK completes wing final assembly for the entire Airbus family
Airbus’ Broughton facility in the UK completes wing final assembly for the entire Airbus family.

Ongoing investment in innovation remains paramount if the UK is to continue its reputation for excellence in areas such as aerodynamics, propulsion, aero structures and advanced systems. Its extensive supply chain remains very well integrated, with the infrastructure making the UK an attractive market for continued investment from overseas.

But there are concerns. The unwelcome industry bedfellow; the skills shortage is also affecting aerospace. While the UK can genuinely boast of having some of the most advanced facilities and sharpest minds in the industry, there simply needs to be more of them. With women only making up 9% of all UK engineers, there is a consensus that aerospace is particularly under served by a female presence.

It is hoped initiatives such as the National Aerospace Technology Exploitation Programme led by the Aerospace Growth Partnership will help address skills shortages. Any derailing of the UK as a world leader in aerospace would be particularly cruel, as future demand is set to escalate globally.

Last year’s Global Aerospace Outlook report commissioned by ADS predicted UK orders over the next 15 years could reach £474bn as a result of 27,000 new large civil airliners and 40,000 rotor aircraft. With the often mind-bogglingly high numbers only set to accelerate higher, it seems every move necessary from both industry and government is being undertaken to propel the UK’s already world leading status to new heights.