Aerospace often plays a pioneering role in technology development. Sharing the knowledge generated around the many companies in the sector — and outside it — can help generate new ideas, as Ruth Mallors, head of the aerospace KTN, explains to Andrew Czyzewski.
Dr Ruth Mallors
Director, Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN) for Aerospace, Aviation and Defence
PhD in Chemistry from the University of Edinburgh
BSc in Chemistry from University College, London
Senior Manager of Knowledge Transfer Coordination, Ernst & Young
The sharing of information and ideas is, historically, one of the most important drivers of innovation. There’s an argument that it should be an informal process, without undue influence from the state. But the nature of innovation today is a complex and fraught process. As a consequence a rather elaborate web of support organization has grown largely from the Technology Strategy Board which delivers the UK’s innovation strategy at arm’s length from the Government.
We now have Launchpads, Catapult Centres, a Biomedical Catalyst, Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTPs), and Knowledge Transfer Networks (KTNs). Some have accused the TSB of creating ‘too many cooks’, but the KTNs have undoubtedly proved popular. That’s probably because the basic premise sounds very familiar, namely to ‘drive the flow of knowledge within, in and out of specific communities.’
The first KTNs were set up in 2005 and the network is now 15 strong ranging from ‘Aerospace, Aviation and Defence’ to ‘HealthTech and Medicines’. ‘They are either sector-based and market led, like us, or technology-based with materials and that kind of thing,’ said Dr Ruth Mallors, who heads up the Aerospace, Aviation and Defence KTN.
‘Our role is to corral industry, academia and government to understand where the market is going and where the UK capability is
The UK aerospace sector is the second largest globally, with annual revenues exceeding £24 billion in 2011. But the position of any nation’s aerospace industry is not assured and the sector must work hard to retain its place. The key to retaining and strengthening the UK’s position is to continue to be master of the constituent technologies.
‘Our role is to corral industry, academia and government to understand where the market is going and where the UK capability is and what technology we can bring together to create those new collaborations. We then take that strategy and say: “look there’s a funding opportunity from the TSB in materials, this particular part of the community should be interested or there’s something in the framework 7 or 8 programmes from the EU” — so we try to marry opportunities of investment in the collaborative space to that strategy and to the network.’
But with a few key large players such as BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce and Airbus dominating the aerospace sector, is it not difficult, particular for start-up and smaller companies to break through and get a slice of the action?
‘We are very fortunate we have, say, Rolls-Royce here in the UK, a hugely successful company that does lots of R&D, but it doesn’t do it all on its own. There is R&D in the supply chain and in the small to medium-sized enterprises, and our role is to help orchestrate and understand what is needed by the market and what role can the UK play in that, whether it’s a materials need, electrical power systems, or aerodynamic performance. The prime and the tier-one organisations of aerospace are the integrators, they bring it all together, but the elements and the ingredients of that is in the supply chain.’
‘We are very fortunate to have Rolls-Royce in the UK, but it doesn’t do all its R&D on its own. There is R&D in the supply chain and SMEs
Traditionally aerospace has been a rich source of inspiration in terms of design, manufacturing techniques and materials for many other sectors. The nature of the industry with low production but very high specifications governed by strict tolerance regimes means that advanced technologies are often pioneered here first (see box-out).
‘We try to bring together people who would never normally meet, so we think about how can we bring the aerodynamicists of aerospace into touch with the Formula 1 community in a given topic, to start some cross-over. It’s all about getting consensus, enabling the opportunity of innovation to flourish and trying to stimulate the drive through to collaborative R&D.’
‘With additive manufacturing for example, the TSB might identify a common issue whether it’s depositing certain materials or use of a rare material in a particular way. If we run a competition trying to unblock that, then multiple parts of different sectors will come together because they’ve got a common need. There’s a lot of drive to have cross-sectoral uptake, so how can we have things go across road, rail marine, and aerospace, but it doesn’t happen just because it’s a good thing to do, it happens because those companies and organisations benefit from doing it.
But with the defence sector — typically a crucible for technology innovation — facing severe budget and job cuts, what is the future outlook for the aerospace industry as a whole? And in the wake of the recent collapse of a certain EADS-BAE Systems merger, can civil and military factions of aerospace really work together effectively in the future?
‘A study that the KTN published in July on autonomous systems shows categorically that the growth markets around that area are huge — whether it’s drone UAVs or the intelligence in a marine vehicle. It’s a really wonderful example of technology development that will sit in various applications.’
There are many examples of aerospace technologies percolating down into the automotive industry but the classic is perhaps the use of composite materials, a knowledge transfer process that is still very much ongoing. Arguably, it can all be traced back to Robin Herd, an engineer who worked on Concorde, being recruited by the then young motorsport company McLaren in 1965. Herd had worked with a material called Mallite — endgrain balsa wood sandwiched between two sheets of aluminium in a honeycomb — from which he constructed the entire inner and outer monocoque for the first McLaren F1 car, which made its debut at the 1966 Monaco GP.
McLaren subsequently became interested in carbon fibre composites in the late 1970s. The material had been used in aerospace but never applied to a racing car monocoque. In 1981 Hercules Aerospace was commissioned built the carbon fibre chassis for the MP4/1, which revolutionised race car construction, markedly improving rigidity and safety. Ultimately it led to carbon fibre composite bodies being standard across the motorsport industry.
Having started that process, the aerospace actually took note at how carbon fibre was being used for integral structural components. Driven by the need for lighter, fuel-efficient aircraft this eventually led to the 787 Boeing Dreamliner, a part composite aircraft.
The challenge for both industries now is to bring down to cost with new production techniques.
One rather less well-know area where aerospace technology has recently percolated through into motorsport then the high-end commercial automotive sector, is stability control.
Many high-performance military aircraft are aerodynamically unstable to increase manoeuvrability and therefore require rapid, continuous control adjustment in order to fly safely and controllably. Adjustments need to be made faster than the human mind can possibly achieve, so the flight control computer is actually in many ways in charge of the aircraft.
But this has found a use in sporty, high-end vehicles many of which have enormous power and torque ratings, presenting a challenge and potential danger to drivers. Stability control can tame that and also flatter drivers into thinking they are more skilled than they are, a useful marketing tact.
Jaguar calls its system ‘Automatic Stability Control (ASC)’, BMW ‘Dynamic Stability Control (DSC)’ and Porsche has something called ‘Stability Management (PSM)’ but they all heavily borrow from algorithms developed in aerospace.