UK aerospace industry – onward and upward

26. Feb 2014. Press reports today that Minister of State for Business and Enterprise Michael Fallon has now agreed a £58.2 million funding package shared with industry to cover seven large UK-based aerospace research projects could not be better timed.

The commercial aerospace industry is doing phenomenally well and looks set a period of sustained growth. Airbus and Boeing may not see eye to eye on everything but one thing that they both agree is that the number of commercial aircraft will likely double over the next twenty years. A growth industry then, but one that in the UK is not without challenges; skill retention and the need to bring more qualified engineers into the system still remain obstacles. Competition for the best qualified engineers remains enormous and unless we recognise the continued import of R&D investment, we will quickly be left behind by others.

The prospect of continued growth in the commercial aerospace industry presents great opportunities for the UK but it also requires acceptance from all parties involved (including government) that investment in new technology and ideas is crucial if we are to retain the competitive advantage located within domestic centres of manufacturing aerospace excellence. Concerns such as these motivated the formation of the Aerospace Growth Partnership and through this, the Aerospace Technology Institute. These are partnerships between government and industry in the real sense of the word.

Administered through the Aerospace Technology Institute – itself the result of a separate Government initiative born out of work that followed the creation of the Aerospace Growth Partnership in 2012 – the planned research-based funding to be formally announced by Mr. Fallon will be centred on aerodynamics, engines, aerostructures and advanced systems such as unmanned aircraft.

Britain has a long and very successful history in the aerospace industry and remains the centre of excellence for European involvement in wing, engine, aerostructures, composite and landing gear technology. Airbus, as the largest European commercial aircraft manufacturer, is very highly invested in the UK aerospace industry both in North Wales where it manufacturers the wing-sets for all Airbus planes and for a variety of other activities at Bristol. Airbus is also highly invested in the UK supporting its end customers such as the Royal Air Force at RAF Brize Norton. So too is Rolls-Royce which manufactures commercial engines for both Airbus and Boeing planes, plus other large companies such as GKN and Messier-Bugatti-Dowty together with a very large number and mix of small and medium sized enterprises.

Unlike the UK volume car industry that for the most part merely assembles cars using imported parts, the UK commercial aerospace industry has managed to retain a large, efficient and very well invested supply chain. This provdes a significant reason for our continued success but it is no reason for us to stand on our laurels. To stay ahead we need to continually invest not just in plant and machinery but also in people to ensure we retain the right level of skills.

The commercial aerospace industry is and will remain hugely important to the UK in terms of jobs and overall economic benefit. But the bottom line is that it will only remain so if we continue to place large scale effort on research and technology development and also to invest in people so that we can maintain the strong lead that we currently enjoy. It may sound like a rather old recording being played over and over again but there is ample evidence in the annuls of UK corporate manufacturing history that tell us why so many of the industries in which we also used to lead fell away. Even in commercial aerospace there is plenty of competition out there clamouring to take a slice of the still fast growing commercial aerospace industry cake. Thankfully the Coalition Government got the message and through a difficult economic period it has lost no time in supporting the aspirations and long term success of the UK aerospace industry.

According to press reports today the £58.2m of new funding that has apparently been agreed includes £29.8m from the Government with the rest coming from industry. The seven projects announced include one in which BAE Systems will look at the potentially lucrative area of unmanned aviation in the civil market whilst Rolls-Royce will be looking at how to further enhance its engine technology.

Aimed at bringing industry and government together to tackle barriers to growth, to boost exports and to retain and grow the number of high value aerospace-related jobs that the UK needs, the Aerospace Growth Partnership (AGP) is jointly chaired by the Rt. Hon Michael Fallon MP who is Minister of State at BIS and Marcus Bryson, CEO of GKN Aerospace. As the first and most prominent of several intended ‘growth partnerships’ the AGP has already achieved a significant level of success under the direction of the two men.

In March 2013 the AGP launched what is now regarded as the formal UK aerospace industrial strategy in its paper entitled ‘Lifting Off – Implementing the Strategic Vision for UK Aerospace’. The paper was very well received by key industry stakeholders and was followed by the announcement of a formal plan to launch the Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI). The decision to base the ATI in the Cranfield Technology Park made a great deal of sense. Designed to set the strategy for ATI-funded research and technology programmes, the Aerospace Technology Institute has been funded by a joint £2 billion government and industry sponsorship spread over seven years.

In a separate initiative late last year, and one that will also play an important part in the UK’s development and retention of important engineering skills, one hundred students were awarded bursaries for a mix of government and industry funded Aerospace Masters schemes. My understanding is that industry and government have each committed £3 million to be spread over a three year period with an aim of recruiting 500 talented people seeking to build a career in the aerospace sector but who, of necessity, require financial backing to study at the prescribed academic level. The scheme is, I believe, designed to cover the cost of tuition fees up to a maximum of £9,500 per student.

The Aerospace Masters scheme was announced formally by the Prime Minister at the 2012 Farnborough Airshow. Not only is it aimed at students who would not otherwise have been able to study at Masters (MSc) level and those that might otherwise have been lost to service-based industries, it has also been aimed at existing employees – at sponsor companies and SME’s that might be seeking to up-skill. Sensibly the Aerospace Masters Scheme will be overseen by the Royal Aeronautical Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering.

Without doubt the Government and industry is doing its bit for the aerospace sector. Never before in my professional life have I seen so much effort and concentration invested in this sector within the UK; I am delighted. Nevertheless, the hard work must continue if we are to maintain and expand this sustained level of success.

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
Tel: +44 7710 779785


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