We are the dreamers of dreams

Posted on 5 Mar 2010 by The Manufacturer

Edward Machin visits GKN and EADS. On the same day. Manufacturing Week — it must be love…

5:30am start. Much appreciated, boss. Nae bother, though, as four monster cappuccinos later I’m maniacally air drumming my way to Bristol for a day of aerospace-related, ripping the lid off of it, investigative-style journalism. Quite.

The labyrinth of Filton’s security precautions haplessly negotiated — how does one manage to get himself ‘stuck’ in a turnstile? — I take my seat for the EEF roundtable, “Making Our Future.” Hosted by its director of policy and external affairs, Steve Radley, our panel numbers Roll-Royce’s chief of composites strategy, Andy Webb; Bernie Rickinson, chief executive of IOM3; and Keith Avis from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to replace the unwell Marie-Anne Mackenzie, director of Manufacturing and Materials Unit for BIS.

Rickinson tees off with a compact but highly engaging presentation on the importance of Knowledge Transfer Networks (KTNs) to a joined-up UK manufacturing community. Established and funded by government, industry and academia, KTNs seek to stimulate innovation and the flow of knowledge through the sector while enabling a coherent business voice to inform government of its technology needs and/or regulatory concerns. Kinda like osmosis, really, minus the semi-permeable membrane.

Your man from Roll-Royce follows, pre-emptively stating that his slideshow won’t attempt to go toe-to-toe with Rickinson’s PowerPoint master class. Rather selling himself short, I reckon, for what it may have lacked in pixilated pyrotechnics is counter-balanced by reliance on the cold, steely facts. Remember when people used to do that? Nah, me neither. In seeking a reduction of 20% in its CO2 emissions per passenger kilometre by 2020, however, Rolls-Royce clearly ain’t messing about, having already achieved an admirable three-quarters of its target to date.

With an annual R&T budget of £800m, largely invested in the greening of its technologies, composites lie at the heart of Rolls-Royce’s engine manufacturing strategy — enabling significant weight minimisation and increased propulsion efficiency, together with the aforementioned reduction in fuel burn. Fight or flight, you might say.

A guided tour of GKN’s Wings Systems Division follows. Witnessing the great and good of manufacturing struggle to operate the remote headsets required for our adventure makes me feel somewhat better about my own crippling inability to make the blasted thing work. Still, I pride myself on an almost symbiotic relationship with modern technology, so it’s all a bit of a kick in the canines. Once inside the production facilities, however, any lingering frustration dissipates — staggering in both scale and technological execution, the plant quickly trains my total focus.

Indeed, having designed and manufactured the first (i) major wing spar in composites for the A400M military lifter, (ii) all-composite fan containment case for the GEnx engine, and (iii) all-electric ice protection system for the wings of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, this stuff clearly doesn’t happen by kismet. Plane hard work, undoubtedly, together with a dedication to aerospace innovation which befits a company capable of tracing its origins to 1759.

With commemorative snaps taken we head back to base and, rather sadly, it must be said, are ‘coerced’ into handing back our headsets. Blackberrys checked, we go our separate ways: for your correspondent this means walking all of half a mile to rendezvous with my EADS UK ‘mole’ — i.e. the fantasically named communications manager, Alvaro B Meredith, in a pre-arranged, fully-authorised meeting — and begin a tour of the company’s Additive Layer Manufacturing (ALM) facilities. What follows, you’ll be happy to know, blows my grey matter something shocking.

Blue Sky reality
“If you want to view paradise,
Simply look around and view it.
Anything you want to, do it.
Want to change the world?
There’s nothing to it.”

ALM effectively ‘grows’ components layer by layer from a powdered material, be it plastics or metal, pulling together 14 commercial rapid prototyping technologies including laser sintering and nozzle deposition.

Very simply, this stuff shifts the shifts that paradigms shift. Yes, these terms get tossed about like cheap orange frisbees at the first sign of a British summer, but genuinely, people, and to co-opt Lincoln Steffens, “I’ve seen the future, and it works.” Moreover, with its genesis in Rapid Prototyping’s underlying technology ALM appears to have found a soulmate in the direct manufacture of net-shape and high performance aerospace components.

The ALM project at Innovation Works, EADS’ research and technology production facility, is headed up by Dan Johns. A charmingly infectious chatterbox, he wastes little time in introducing me to a selection of structurally superior, ultra-efficient (with a percentage of raw materials reniserted into the stock in powder form) and aesthetically beautiful structures — in a way that carbon fiber-reinforced polymer seldom is. Did I mention drastically reduced lead times, to boot?

His team of technological merry pranksters, with breakdancing ecological evangelists and ex-national table tennis champions among their number, are perhaps more remarkable still. Now, I’ve never been one for sentimental blubbering, but the guys and dolls at Innovation Works truly live and breathe this stuff, and it shows. Heck, I’ll just say it; tis a beautiful thang.

Perhaps they know something I don’t. For example, reducing an aircraft’s bulk by 1kg will save £63,000 in fuel costs alone across the plane’s lifespan; amounting to a saving of $300bn if the 25,000 aircraft projected to be built in the following two decades utilise ALM technology. With those type of numbers, is it any wonder that this place comes across as nothing less than a revolutionary, composite-driven Chocolate Factory — “Invention, my dear friends, is 93% perspiration, 6% electricity, 4% evaporation and 2% butterscotch ripple.”

We end by visiting a number of what can only be described as glorious innovation stations. Okay, them be my words, but with each new laser production, Kubrick-inspired machining device and employee I am introduced to the song, wonderfully, remains the same.

The only stinker, and we’re really clutching at straws here, is that time doesn’t permit me to visit the Bloodhound Project — a super sonic car which aims to reach speeds of 1,000mph, which would both break the World Land Speed Record and mark the greatest incremental increase in the history of the record.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Bloodhound SSC is looking to utilise Innovation Works’ ALM; namely for the vehicle’s complex, high-stress points where the tail fin, winglets and chassis meet. On reflection, such technology simply serves — to your scribe, at any rate — as a wholly intuitive encapsulation of the work being undertaken in this little corner of Bristol: bursting the barriers of conventional thinking.

Now, who mentioned breakdancing classes…