High fliers

Aerospace investment gives further boost to Northern Ireland transportation sector. Berenice Baker reports


With economic good news thin on the ground, Bombardier’s decision to design and manufacture wings for its new CSeries mid-sized passenger aircraft in Belfast was especially welcome.

Its choice of Northern Ireland is a boost to a region with a strong record in transport engineering, growing R&D investment and a base of smaller successful manufacturers.

Michael Ryan, vice-president and general manager of Bombardier Aerospace Belfast, said: ‘Over the next five years, Bombardier will be investing more than £500m in Northern Ireland in new facilities, plant and machinery, in engineering R&D and development of the wings, which will be made from advanced composites.’

Bombardier employs more than 5,000 people in Northern Ireland, supported by a massive supply chain. The CSeries work will bring more than 800 extra jobs in wing production during the peak production years of the programme.

Tracy Meharg, managing director of innovation and capability at Invest Northern Ireland, said: ‘Bombardier has a huge level of expertise in composites and we’re looking at developing advanced materials with them. Their research is of world quality and links into our local universities as well.’

Bombardier is joined by Belfast-based shipbuilder Harland and Wolff and Ballymena bus manufacturer Wrightbus in what adds up to a formidable Northern Irish transportation engineering sector.

Meharg said as well as transport, the electrical engineering, electrical, electronic and optical equipment and telecoms sectors are also strongly represented in the region. ‘The broader engineering sector accounts for nearly half of our manufacturing, with a total employment level of about 32,000. We continue to see growth in external sales and exports. The companies account for well over half of our export sales, with over £2.6bn out of total of £4.6bn.’

Although the overall spend on R&D in Northern Ireland has lagged behind the UK, there has been encouraging growth among home-grown smaller firms recently. ‘In locally owned companies, annual expenditure increased by over 40 per cent, from less than £51m in 2002 to £70m in 2005. In the period up to 2006, Invest Northern Ireland gave £112m towards innovation programmes, to cover such things as near-market research, more applied research, knowledge transfer partnerships, support for technical assistance and business improvement training,’ said Meharg.

Manufacturing has proved resilient in Northern Ireland. The total employment in 2005 was 674,000 out of a total combined manufacturing and services economy of 1.162 million jobs. ‘When we look forward, we see manufacturing remaining a key area of the economy, which is why we spend so much on R&D and look for every opportunity within the sectors,’ said Meharg.

Northern Ireland’s success has been boosted by Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) and Ulster University, which share their research resources with the Republic of Ireland and the UK.

Trevor Newsom, director of research and regional services at QUB, said: ‘We are part of a research base on an island, and while there is a land barrier with another jurisdiction, knowledge does not stop at land borders. As a consequence, we are able to take advantage of the millions of euros that are being invested in the south in science and technology, and we can add to that critical mass the investment that we are making in the north.’

The Northern Ireland Assembly has provided funds for 100 more PhD studentships annually, beginning in October in economically relevant areas, including engineering and science. The Assembly has also established an innovation fund, with £11m to develop the region’s research collaboration to make an all-island research base.

QUB’s Northern Ireland Technology Centre hosts the National Composite Wing Co-ordinating Group with Bombardier, Rolls-Royce and Airbus. QUB is also working on an environmentally friendly engine with Rolls-Royce and Airbus, and advanced manufacturing that involves Bombardier and Airbus.

The university’s polymer and process research centre supports polymer processing companies in the region, which have a consortium of members who exchange the latest research finding.

QUB is involved in a Technology Strategy Board with local companies Cregagh Concrete and Tobermore to develop low-carbon cements. Newsom said: ‘We also have a local spinout, Amphora, that involves putting sensors in concrete to measure wear and stress.’

A Northern Ireland Science and Industry panel, called Matrix, has identified five areas to keep the region’s technology and innovation buoyant. These are: advanced engineering (transport), involving Bombardier and Wrightbus; composites; advanced manufacturing; clean technologies; and mechanical engineering linked to product lifecycle management research, which aims to make products and processes lighter, cheaper and more efficient.