The south-west has a 100-year history in the aerospace industry. Research into lightweight materials, UAVs and another regional strength — the microelectronics industry of the M4 corridor — could be key to maintaining its future recognition on a global scale.
The area accounts for 27 per cent of all aerospace jobs in the UK, with 43,000 employed directly in the industry, which is in turn supported by a chain of 800 suppliers and specialist manufacturers. Of the top 13 aerospace firms with a presence here, 11 are in the south-west.
Mike Franks, senior adviser for the aerospace industry at the South West Regional Development Agency (SWRDA), said the background of aerospace in the region is a key attraction to business.
‘Rolls-Royce has a site at Filton, and we have Airbus, BAE, GKN, and Westland — so you get an impression of the number of companies that have a huge presence in this area,’ he said.
‘Many companies want to be a step on the supply chain and be next door to a large prime. We also have the MoD at Filton which does much of the purchasing for themilitary side of aerospace.’
Franks said SWRDA’s approach is guided by the 2002 National Aerospace Technology Strategy (NATS) which examined how the UK aerospace industry needed to grow and invest to remain the world’s number two behind the US.
‘NATS examined the technology we need to invest in to maintain our place,’ said Franks. ‘It built on the expertise we have in the UK, so we asked companies such as Thales, BAE Systems, Airbus, Rolls-Royce, Flight Refuelling and Westland what technologies we should be investing in over the next five to 10 years.’
Projects that sprang from NATS include the £35m Integrated Wing project, led by Airbus, Rolls-Royce’s £90m Environmentally Friendly Engine (EFE) project, and Elgear, which aimed to replace the heavy metal and hydraulics landing gear systems with electronically actuated ones.
Composites is another key area in the battle to reduce aircraft weight. Prof Nick Lieven, dean of engineering at Bristol University, said: ‘We have exclusive facilities to study composites. One of the major issues for the aerospace industry is fuel burn, and composites are an obvious way to reduce weight.’
SWRDA’s Franks added that Boeing is ahead of the game, with 60 per cent of its 787 Dreamliner being composite structure.
Exeter University is looking into another weight reducing technology, additive layer manufacturing (ALM), as part of Airbus’ integrated wing investment. In ALM a finehigh-energy source laser is attached to a computer with a 3D capability and builds a structure from fine powders of polymer, titanium or other materials.
Another key future route for aerospace is UAVs, which are being investigated by ASTRAEA, a consortium of primes working alongside autonomous systems specialist Agent Oriented Software. other small innovative companies in the sector and academics are to develop UAVs capable of safely flying in civil airspace.
Lieven said that part of the south-west’s draw is the close collaboration between academia, including Bristol, Bath and Exeter universities, and industry.
‘The benefits are that it givesa focus and relevance to our undergraduate degree programmes, the students have visibility of their future careers, and the projects they do are supported by industry. In return, the industrygets people and fundamental knowledge.
‘There is an actual pull-through from university into industry at every level — undergraduate, postgraduate and research,’ said Lieven.
‘Companies with research centres such as Rolls-Royce, Agusta Westland, Smiths and Airbus are all within a 50-mile radius of Bristol university. We also have a policy where we want industry to second staff to the university and vice versa.’
Lieven said that despite the difference in the way the south-west’s two big industries are structured, they are working increasingly closely.
‘Aerospace is driven largely by the primes and supported by SMEs. Microelectronics is mainly SMEs. The aerospace industry has increasing demand for systems, microelectronics and software, and those two industries in the south-west can now support each other. The challenge is bringing them together within a hub at the university to support both sectors so they both benefit.’
Bristol currently works with Agusta Westland building wireless centres, using microelectronics embedded within an aerospace product to allow constant monitoring to reduce maintenance costs and improve reliability.
Lieven said: ‘Part of our goal is to support the regional economy. Aerospace is a global business, and unless the university provides support for industry in whatever way it can, there is a possibility that these industries can migrate abroad.’
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The south-west is using its century of aerospace expertise to research lightweight materials, UAVs and microelectronics that could prove key to the UK’s global success. Berenice Baker reports