“The prospects for engineers in universities are extremely rosy,” says WEAF CEO

Colin Turner is optimistic for the south west aerospace and defence sector’s future, as long as the sector gets the right support from government.

The new CEO of WEAF (West of England Aerospace Forum) says graduates aspiring to work in the aerospace and defence sector have bright futures ahead of them.

Colin Turner says that the high number of current engineers entering retirement age and the transferable nature of engineers’ skills mean the aerospace and defence sectors in the southwest should continue to be strong for the foreseeable future.

Fine Tubes supplied 130km of cooling tubes for CERN's Large Hadron Collider - image courtesy of Depositphotos.
WEAF member Fine Tubes Ltd supplied 130km of cooling tubes for CERN’s Large Hadron Collider – image courtesy of Depositphotos.

This is despite concerns caused by Brexit and competition from low-cost Asian economies. In an interview with The Manufacturer, he says that a no-deal Brexit could cause “huge pressure on the supply chain potentially forcing foreign owned companies to seriously look at their operations within the UK” if huge costs and delays in allowing free trade to occur.

However, so long as the UK remains competitive, the European market will continue to provide great opportunities for the UK aerospace sector. But, he states Brexit does provide a major chance for the aerospace and defence sector to sell to other markets like North America:

“I think Brexit gives us an opportunity to go into North America and really say to the Americans that we have capabilities that we can deliver…If we can take our technology and our ability to North America and invest over there and keep the high-value design side in the UK, that means we can become the designers of the world.”

As for competition from China and India, the UK has a strong reputation for innovation and technical proficiency that make its products attractive despite having higher labour costs: “That challenge [from India and China] is actually in their own in-built backyard of who supplies them aircraft. So, I don’t see it as a threat to the UK.”

WEAF is the southwest’s aerospace trade association. The region is home to Europe’s second largest aerospace cluster. Members include Plymouth firm Fine Tubes Ltd, which designed cooling tubes for the Large Hadron Collider, and recently celebrated its 75th anniversary.

Colin Turner had already been a director of WEAF for nine years. He has experience working in a number of prominent aerospace and defence companies including Babcock International Group and Italian giant Leonardo MW (Helicopters), as well as AgustaWestland.

He was part of the “Project Zero” team from Leonardo that won the Royal Aeronautical Society Team Gold Medal for Innovation in 2014 for the development of the world’s first electric tilt-rotor aircraft. He also worked on the development of the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme, looking at the capabilities and systems for developing a thirty-seater tilt rotor.

Colin acknowledges that the turmoil in Westminster over Brexit is creating uncertainty within the marketplace. But the sector is on the cusp of new technological developments that will enable graduates to employ their skills cross-sectorally.

He says: “There’s a huge opportunity for the engineers of today as we have the ability to move cross-sector. So, if you can go into an electrical or a digital environment, and then decide to move from aerospace into automotive, you’ll be able to so with future technology. If you want to move from electrical systems into aerospace, or even space, you will be able to with this future technology.”

The Institute for Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering was launched in September 2014 – image courtesy of AME.
Students at the Institute for Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering. Turner says supplementary business skills are also a necessity if graduates want to work in the defence and aerospace sector – image courtesy of AME.

Graduates should not just possess the relevant scientific and engineering skills though. Supplementary business skills are also a prerequisite for aspiring graduates: “We can’t be moving forward post-Brexit as a country that does research for research’s sake. We have to develop ideas, exploit them and export them.”

The south west is primed to capitalise on this technological revolution. He describes the region as “an archipelago of little areas of development and manufacturing,” with especially strong helicopter and aircraft sectors, and a “very attractive region in terms of capability and design.”

“The strength is that we have the biggest grouping in terms of cluster. We have a whole aircraft manufacturing capability. We still know in the south west how to build an aircraft that flies. Below that, we’ve got huge knowledge in terms of the subsystems.”

Among recent successes in the region include the completion of the wing integration centre at Filton by Airbus which gives the company the capability of pre-testing and pre-developing ideas to make the next generation of wings on its aircraft.

GKN have also just announced a partnership with the University of Sheffield for a new Global Technology Centre (GTC) that will focus on additive manufacturing (AM), advanced composites, assembly and industry 4.0 processes to enable the high rate production of aircraft structures.

The aerospace and defence sectors are one of Britain’s strongest industries. According to the ADS Group, the UK aerospace, defence, security and space sectors supported a million jobs and sold £41bn worth of exports in 2017. It has also had strong productivity growth, bucking the UK trend.

Colin sums up where the region is at: “The south west is a hotbed of innovation across many industries, especially aerospace and defence. We have the engineers, the plant, the systems and processes to build on the success we have secured in recent decades. And more than that – we have the will and the commitment to build the aircraft of today and tomorrow. That’s a good place to be.”


Reporting by Harry Wise