How the UK aerospace industry can fly post-Brexit

Barry Warburton headshotViewpoint

Barry Warburton, Aerospace and Advanced Engineering Sector Specialist at Invest Bristol & Bath, explains why its vital for the aerospace industry to act now if it is to succeed outside the EU

With the UK being hailed as the second largest aerospace cluster and aerospace manufacturer in the world after America, and in particular the engineering powerhouse in the South West, all eyes were on Farnborough International Airshow as an indicator of how the news of Brexit may affect orders from overseas.

Manufacture of wings for the A400M military transport aircraft in Broughton, North Wales. Credit: Airbus
Manufacture of wings for the A400M military transport aircraft in Filton, near Bristol. Credit: Airbus

Despite rain stopping play a few times, Farnborough International Airshow 2016 weathered the storm and had an incredibly successful year, with the orders and options for aircraft, engines and supply chain orders confirmed totalling US$124billion, with 70% of the orders coming from outside the UK.

The companies I spoke to at the show had a positive outlook for the longer term as well, and two intermediaries, whose role it is to identify potential direct foreign investment into Britain, said since Brexit they have seen an increase in requests to look at the UK for investment.

Why is this and how do we encourage and maintain it? The keys to the success of the South West are its diversity, technical know-how and world-leading talent pool. Look at the make-up of the cluster here: there is the National Composite Centre that can design and rapidly manufacture composite technologies producing lightweight and strong state-of-the-art materials, pushing the limits of how aircraft can perform; computer modelling and simulation experts CFMS who can aid with the design of sophisticated new aircraft; Airbus’s closed-circuit, low-speed wind tunnel, which is used for everything from real-world aircraft product development to Formula 1 aerodynamic applications; Bristol Robotics Lab which specialises in autonomous and robotic systems; and the latest advances in virtual reality (VR) technology coming out of Bristol & Bath, allowing virtual training and testing to be completed in a safe and cost-effective environment (and one that doesn’t disrupt an airline’s normal operations).

It’s little wonder that all 15 international aerospace giants, including Airbus, GKN Aerospace and Rolls Royce, operate in the Bristol and Bath region. And this focus on cutting edge research and development shows no sign of slowing. Take Airbus, who are building a VR suite and hi-tech wing development facility here. Put it all together and this aerospace powerhouse, the largest in Europe, provides 59,000 jobs for its skilled workforce and is worth more than £7bn.

So how do we grow this success post-Brexit? By doing what we’ve always done – innovating at every point along the aerospace supply chain and joining these companies up in a network that provides engineering excellence – then building on it. To succeed we need to think not just of the end product or single things, but also about what the South West offers along the whole production chain.

To help with this mission to stay ahead, local industries, along with the public sector, have developed iAero – a collaboration between the region’s leading aerospace players to deliver a regional platform for innovation and growth. iAero is unique to the UK and it has been developed to offer an interconnected approach to innovation, R&D, skills and supply chain development. The South West is leading on initiatives like this, and we need to build on this form of cooperation to ensure the success of a long-term strategic approach to South West Aerospace capability development.

We also need to capitalise on the fact that Brexit has the potential to open up new markets that aren’t restricted by EU agreements. Aerospace has always been global, so it’s important we look at the world stage and retain our focus on delivering tech-driven solutions to the problems that are facing the aircraft of the future.

Farnborough International Airshow is an advert for the UK aerospace industry, and it’s a great one. Now, we need to keep demonstrating the collaborative nature of the region’s business community, where interlinked sectors work together to develop new innovations and open up opportunities in new markets, to keep attracting those investors who service the global market, but do business from the UK. This is an opportunity we can’t afford to pass up, and one that Brexit should not impede.

Barry has extensive knowledge of the sector having previously supported companies in the aerospace and advanced manufacturing sector. His previous appointments include Chief Executive for the West of England Aerospace Forum (WEAF), a leading regional trade association in the UK that represents 30 per cent of the UK’s aerospace and defence industry; Commercial Services Director and Head of External Affairs for the EEF; as well as establishing the Regional Manufacturing Group, which focused on best practice.