Open for innovation

Dera’s new structural materials centre promotes partnerships to produce the best ideas for new products, explains George Paloczi-Horvath

This month saw the establishment of an ‘open’ laboratory which will allow academia, industry and defence researchers to spark ideas off each other. The upshot of such collaboration should be well designed, useful products.

The Griffith laboratory – named after materials specialist Dr Alan Griffith – is based at the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (Dera) structural materials centre in Farnborough, Hampshire.

Opening the laboratory, armed forces minister Dr John Reid was keen to praise Dera’s efforts at reaching out to work with industry. The clear intention was to use the laboratory’s opening to attract new industry work to Dera or, as John Chisholm, its chief executive said, to establish ‘a partnership between public and private sectors, not in theory but in practice’.

Some 30 academic institutions and 80 industrial firms were invited to the launch and for several days academic and industry leaders could see what the structural materials centre has already achieved.

Several outside bodies including TI Group, British Aerospace, Rolls-Royce, Oxford University Materials Department and the Institute of Materials have offices in the centre to support projects with which they are involved.

Rolls-Royce and French aeroengine firm Snecma are working with the centre on silicon carbide reinforced composites which can reduce the weight of some aeroengine components by 70%.

Life Support Technology is meanwhile working with the centre on a doughnut-shaped, filament-wound toroidal pressure vessel. This could become part of a more comfortable life support system than existing conventional breathing apparatus. This is a spin-off from the centre’s research performed on artillery gun barrels. The market for this product could eventually reach two million units per annum, says Dr Reid.

Another project underway is stab-proof armour to protect the police. Kevlar body armour, which can deflect a bullet, cannot resist large knives but the new armour can resist a powerful lunge. The armour is not yet in production.

The role of the centre in dual-use technology is also demonstrated by Andscan, a remarkable handheld ultrasonic crack detection system for use by the RAF in inspecting composite aircraft structures.

The laptop computer-controlled Andscan system can easily be taken to where a composite structure needs to be checked. It can detect cracks invisible to the eye in 250mm-thick composite layers and prescribe precise dimensions of the repair or filling required.

Shipyard Vosper Thornycroft, builder of GRP-hulled minehunters, has expressed interest in Andscan and its potential for hull repair.

The device has already been taken up and is being marketed by Wells Krautkramer, an arm of the German firm based at the University of Warwick.

Underlying all the research which will be performed at the new Griffith laboratory is an awareness of the economic importance of the materials involved in surface engineering, defined as the modification of a material or surface to enable it to perform a particular function.

Dr David Dunford of the National Surface Engineering Centre (Nasurf), which shares premises with the Griffith laboratory, says surface engineering accounts for 9% of Britain’s gross national product.

A Department of Trade and Industry initiative, Nasurf was also showing its wares at the Griffith’s opening. Nasurf is operated by the centre, supported by the University of Hull and BT, and provides technical advice and training.

Formed 18 months ago, Nasurf turns over £500,000 annually and should achieve its target of being fully self-supporting in another three years thanks to industry contracts.

Most of the structural materials centre is located in the new headquarters at Farnborough, a far cry from the 1940s image of defence research facilities. It is also a more efficient organisation than the 11 military laboratories specialising in structural materials which were orignally brought together to form the centre in 1994. New non-Ministry of Defence sponsored work now provides about a quarter of its turnover.

Chisholm predicts that the Griffith laboratory will become a national resource with an international standing. Judging by the skills demonstrated this month, he is unlikely to be disappointed.