White knights of the roundtable

Posted on 6 Jul 2010 by The Manufacturer

Launched in 2006 by the Midlands Aerospace Alliance and funded by industry, Advantage West Midlands and the European Regional Development Fund, the £3.4m Aerospace Technology Exploitation Programme (ATEP) seeks to enhance competitiveness for the region’s aerospace supply chain companies through the development of technology. Edward Machin reports on the organisation’s latest roundtable meeting.

TM – For those unfamiliar with your remit, can you provide an introduction to ATEP, its aims and why such work is necessary in the West Midlands.

Neil Rawlinson – Director of Strategy and Innovation, Aero Engine Controls: The programme is primarily aimed at supply chain collaborations, seeking to get technologies developed further down to the smaller businesses in that chain, mentor the companies in how to manage and utilise the technology effectively and take it through to their products.

Dave Dawson – Engineering and Technology executive, Rolls-Royce:
The majority of those who have been bidding for ATEP funding have been very receptive to it — no matter which stage of organisational development they may be at.

Of course these companies are aware of their shortcomings, but also the things they have to offer which can be of benefit to OEMs. ATEP, for me, is a way to help bridge those gaps.

We believe the SMEs will continue to learn more about the requirements of the OEMs, especially where they are trying to get to in the 10 or 15 year timescale, and hopefully it will clarify what it is they need to do to get that capability to market.

Peter Knight – Operations director, ITP Engines:
Having noticed that a lot of the smaller companies are not especially good at presenting themselves and their projects in a coherent and structured way, we also add value by helping them look at their projects so that they take the germ of a good idea and turn it into something workable.

Many of these guys are still learning the languages spoken by industry, government and academia — something companies higher up the supply chain have been doing for decades. So we can help by offering a programme of deep mentoring and sustained engagement so as to walk them through the processes and steps required to sell their products effectively.

TM – How much of ATEP’s work focuses on establishing a collaborative environment for like-minded SMEs?

David Dawson:
Developing a network is key. If you have a strong network then you’re more likely to win sponsorship from big business or direction and support in kind. That gives you a better chance of building your technology and, ultimately, getting a route to market.

Des Barnes – Business development manager, Castlet:
Speaking from an SME perspective, I agree. While collaboration lies at the heart of what we do, a lot of the smaller companies haven’t traditionally done so in the past. They might have had customers who they’d supplied to, but the ATEP project is trying to generate collaboration between not only the prime and the customers, but also the universities and other SMEs that they work with on a project to improve their product base. Once we can install that collaborative way of operating with our business development activity, the organisations can take that onto the next programme and start reaching self-sustainability.

Neil Rawlinson:
We are able to sponsor the companies on their first or second forays into this type of activity — ensuring that they learn the skills needed to do the work and, more importantly, get those skills embedded so it becomes a sustainable process as Des highlights.

A project is typically one to two years, and because you have a large business at the end of the chain that has learnt some of these lessons, their skills and capabilities start to percolate down.

TM – How prominent a role does academia play in the ATEP programme?

Pat Wheeler, Professor of Power Electronics – Nottingham University:
Firstly, I think the language barrier that was mentioned is something that many academics are guilty of. That said, a number of the projects that have gone through ATEP thus far have had universities fundamentally embedded in them as part of the knowledge transfer exchanges, which is central to this work. It’s pointless academics sitting in our ivory towers dreaming up wonderful ideas if they don’t get out and create benefit for the parties and organisations which have invested.

Carl Burton – Director of engineering, HS Marston:
Our ATEP project was partnered with Wolverhampton University, part of which entailed an employee from the university undertaking CFD computer modeling for us on our heat exchangers.

We have now expanded this with Birmingham University, and for the price of a sandwich and a coffee we get excellent consultancy work, as well as the other associated benefits.

In industry you can be guilty of not seeing the wood from the trees, so it’s particularly beneficial to get out of the office and meet academics. You often end up with a very powerful one plus one equals five relationship, and it is levering that benefit to the region that is critical.

Neil Rawlinson:
Another thing we are doing within the Midlands which has proven useful is the creation of networks for SMEs around particular technology areas. We bring together the smaller companies with involvement from Nottingham University — thus giving the academics a fresh perspective as to what they see their problems and issues are, rather than just the Rolls-Royces or Airbuses.

TM – Do you find that the companies communicate more openly in such a forum?

Stan Payne – Midlands Aerospace Alliance:
Absolutely. It stands to reason that the SMEs have a different mindset and set of problems to the larger businesses, which makes the two-way interaction of the technology networks that we’re establishing with the University of Nottingham — precision engineering and composites, respectively — so critical.

Des Barnes:
Given that composites remains an embryonic industry, one of the key issues is skills. Having this network around the universities means that the academics can understand in great detail what the end user requirements are.

The SMEs benefit from engaging with like-minded businesses, which they otherwise may not do, but also networking with the university which has significantly more funds — a self-perpetuating network, in other words.

TM – How, if at all, does your work seek to attract the engineers of the future?

Pauline Pinney – Aerospace Cluster Manager, Advantage West Midlands: Companies have historically complained of a migration in terms of new graduates migrating to the South East regions, as well as the fact that a large number of engineering graduates are not staying within the industry.

It is about providing an element of gap-funding that might not have taken place without some sort of public intervention. The ATEP successfully identifies programmes and companies which have the exponential ability for commercial and technological exploitation, and it is certainly something that we support from a regional perspective.

Pat Wheeler:
Obviously we want our students to go and do jobs in industry — anything that makes what we teach and how we think more relevant is fantastic. It’s great talking about electrical systems in a morning lecture, with the 787’s first flight having been on television the previous night. But that’s only part of the picture: we need to attract more 17 and 18 years olds into engineering and again harness that excitement that applied research provides, which our involvement in ATEP helps us to promote.

Dave Dawson:
We also want things like TICs and more university involvement tied into what industry requires. Getting those two, for starters, would be a big help in retaining capabilities in the UK.

TM – Where does the future lie for ATEP and similar national projects?

Des Barnes:
This group clearly fills a gap if you look at the national picture from an aerospace perspective. Where we fit in is by getting the wider roadmap drilled down into the smaller businesses that don’t necessarily have a voice and allowing them to integrate — not necessarily in the flagship projects, but in smaller ones where they can learn the skills so that when the next big project rolls around they could potentially be a partner.

Carl Burton:
If you consider labour rates, the West Midlands has a very good demographic. As part of a US company, for example, we are seeing the medium-to-low costs in the region, so we have to exploit that. There is a great deal of high intellect here; coupled with our reasonably good labour rates, especially compared to the States, it is something we must use to our advantage.

Neil Rawlinson:
There are ideas for further sources of funding on the agenda in seeking to make the project more sustainable. Moreover, we want to make sure that it is not just the West Midlands which is benefiting from these programmes. As well as the East Midlands, we would like to roll out this model across the country, and have been in dialogue with a number of other regions and with the new government to establish similar projects across the UK.

It is fair to say that the ATEP programme has established a lot of credibility thus far, and while the economic and social benefits are clear to see, we need build from this platform and continue the project’s work. Feel free to check back in six months!