A new UK Aerospace Technology Institute and the fruits of the Aerospace Growth Partnership were among the topics of discussion at the inaugural President’s Conference: ‘Aerospace Technology, The Road Ahead’ held on 22 October. TIM ROBINSON reports on the highlights.
Whisper it quietly, but the word on the street is that the UK is either already in or just on the cusp of a new renaissance in aerospace. At first glance this may seem counterintuitive. Though the UK still is the second (or third depending on who you talk to) biggest aerospace industry in the world, its prowess lately had been under threat. With its biggest national prime exiting building civil airliners after the 9/11 downturn, savage defence cuts and new and established rivals aiming to whittle away the UK’s position, the prognosis, while healthy, was perhaps one of steady decline and irrelevance. The last major UK military aerospace project, Nimrod MRA4, ended in expensive farce, while final assembly of Europe’s new airlifter had been won by Spain. The retirement of the iconic Concorde ten years ago thus seemed a metaphor for the UK’s aero industry — a glorious history that was now past its best. In short, the UK recently had been relying too much on technologies first developed some 40 years ago. Its aerodynamics expertise in the past had led to the country being assigned the key role of wing centre of excellence for Europe’s Airbus project — a role that has only expanded as Airbus’ family of jetliners has grown and sales have expanded. It is worth noting that, at the launch of the A320, the wildest forecasts were for 600 aircraft — yet in October, Airbus secured the 10,000th order for an A320 family aircraft. Yet this reliance on jet engines, composites and wing technology developed over decades was under threat both from continental rivals and newly emerging globalised competitors. Additionally, until only a short period of time ago, politicians had decreed that the UK’s wealth creation would lie in city finance and the services industry. Manufacturing and engineering were dirty words. The sector could have been heading for neglect and steady decline.
Enter the AGPTwo things have turned this around. The first is the far-sighted work by the Aerospace Growth Partnership (AGP) formed in 2011 and its predecessor, the Aerospace Innovation and Growth Team (AeIGT) (launched 2002) a decade earlier in coming together and devising a national strategy for aerospace. These cross-industry and government groups formulated a strategic outline for a new UK national strategy. Where was the UK the strongest? What key niches did it occupy? What forthcoming trends and programmes do UK companies need to get on? What technologies will be needed? And finally — what would be needed to make this happen? The strategic thinking then provided a clear roadmap for the way forward. But would these good intentions be followed? The second factor was one of events. The financial crash of 2008 sent the City and services sector into freefall, and highlighted how unbalanced the UK economy had become. The parlous state of UK government finances and the demands of austerity meant Whitehall was desperate to identify sources of income for UK plc. Boosting high-value manufacturing exports would offer a way out of this crisis and rebalance the economy. It was, therefore, no great leap to see that the export-focused, hi-technology UK aerospace sector as one potential saviour. Each of these, by itself, would not have created the situation today, where there is a new UK Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI) (to be operational from this month), a UK Aerodynamics centre (announced in July 2013) and the UK Government funding 500 MScs in aerospace engineering, to name but three. A strategic plan, by itself, lacking the urgency of a crisis perhaps, would have ended up in endless committee redrafts.
Meanwhile, a panicked search by Whitehall for national industrial champions may have produced the wrong result or investment into areas in which the UK would not play to its strengths. A combination of long-term planning and foresight and the perfect storm of a global financial crisis has forged the conditions for aerospace to take a key role in the recovery and growth of the UK going forward. Publication of the AGP aerospace sector industrial strategy Lifting Off earlier in March 2013, implements the earlier AGP strategic vision Reach for the Skies, published in July 2012. The result is that the UK is now ready for a new renaissance in aerospace. The ‘March of the Manufacturers’ and emphasis on exports and engineering has driven these topics to the top of politicians’ agendas — with old hands saying openly that this represents the biggest support from the Government in generations. However, the crucial point is not the amount of money, nor the platitudes from current Ministers, but the fact that there is now continuity. For perhaps the first time in living memory, government support (to the tune of £150m a year for seven years with matching investment by industry) is now aligned more with the longer-term R&D cycles of the aerospace industry, rather than short-term election time scales. This, in turn, gives industry the confidence to plan and invest longer term too, and a virtuous cycle emerges. At the inaugural RAeS President’s Conference delegates gained an insight into this embryonic engineering and technological renaissance from companies and organisations involved. Let’s take a look at some of the highlights.
The view from WhitehallGiving the view from the UK Government side of the equation was Sir John O’Reilly, Director General, Knowledge and Innovation, Department of Business, Innovation & Skills. He pointed out that the current focus on innovation & knowledge today had “not been seen for decades in the UK”. Noting that UK aerospace had been built on the success of remarkably long-lived platforms, he warned that Britain “must be ready for new platforms” — with any next generation 737/A320 successor set to dominate the industrial landscape. But, he said, the UK continued to still have a strong and vibrant research base. Despite having only 1% the world’s population, the UK accounted for nearly 8% of research papers and is ranked third in innovation according to the World Intellectual Property Organisation. He also pointed out that, in the world rankings of universities, there were only two countries on the top ten list — the US and the UK — highlighting the country’s academic excellence.
The Aerospace Technology Institute
Innovation sharing — the Aerospace and Defence Knowledge Transfer NetworkDelegates at the conference also heard from Dr Ruth Mallors-Ray, Director Aerospace, Aviation and Defence Knowledge Transfer Network (AADKTN) on how this network promotes and makes connections between industry, academia, SMEs and other interested parties. Now embedded at all levels of the aerospace technology cycle, she revealed that AADKTN facilitated some 70-90 ‘calls’ a year, fostering innovation and making connections. Interestingly the AADKTN can reach out to other KTNs to enable the spin-in or spin-off of promising technology.
The view from industry
Many more and diverse threats means that industry needs to improve its responsiveness and compress timescales. The key discriminators for this will be: informed decision making, rapid experimental prototyping, managing criticality and rapid deployment. Systems integration simulation, he argued, will be a key part of this, allowing budget conscious users to understand how a platform or system works before metal is cut. An example of this, he outlined, was F-35B shipborne rolling vertical landing (SRVL) showing how a virtual environment can de-risk and inform CVF design. Garside also highlighted ‘assured autonomy’ (such as BAE’s involvement with the civil UAV ASTRAEA project) as another emerging aerospace technology. Finally, bringing a non-UK, non-European perspective to the conference was Fernando Ranieri, VP Technology Development, Embraer, who described how this Brazilian company had made the leap into the big league of aerospace nations. Brazil was, he said “the only nation south of the equator capable of doing commercial, executive and military aircraft.” He asked — what is a ‘disruptive technology’? It was, he said, different from airlines, OEMs and passengers views. From the airlines view — is it radical aircraft configurations? Green and efficient propulsion? Flexible seating configuration? Advanced ATM? Meanwhile, from the OEM’s view — is disruptive technology more simulation? Advanced manufacturing? Aircraft health management? Or integrated modular avionics? Passengers too would see disruptive technology differently — whether it be precision luggage tracking, high-speed Internet, individual environment or an integrated mobility system. Thus, said Ranieri, there needs to be a trade-off between these competing needs and desires.
A new ‘wing’ in three weeks — lessons from F1The conference also heard from a member of another high technology sector reliant on UK aerodynamics — that of Formula 1. Dr Steve Liddle, from the Red Bull F1 team explained how the 10% of the annual budget of an average F1 team was spent on aerodynamics. However, the relentless quest for pole position, he said, meant that F1 cars for each season were developed in only five months. A brand new front wing design could take only three weeks from start to production level product. F1 has many similarities to aerospace — but Liddle also asked could the fast development turnaround also be used for UAVs?
'Future Filton' opened by AirbusIndeed, there are already signs that industry is responding and the renaissance is well underway. This week (5 December) saw the opening of a brand-new engineering facility at Airbus Filton in Bristol. The new engineering centre, Barnwell House co-locates some 2,000+ engineers in one state-of-the-art facility that features open-plan offices, break-out spaces, meeting zones and is more reminiscent of a Silicion Valley start-up or trendy TV news hub than a old-fashioned aeronautical design office. Co-locating the engineers makes for improved efficiency but also provides a truly inspiring place to work - especially since the development also includes Pegasus House, the 1930's HQ of the Bristol Aeroplane Company - now fully restored to art-deco glory and housing Airbus Filton support staff. Though the redevelopment of Filton started before the announcement of the ATI and the decision by the UK Government to implement the AGP's findings - the fortuitous timing is yet another example of the UK 's aerospace Renaissance coming together. Said Airbus CEO Fabrice Brégier at the launch "UK engineers are truly admired". He also noted admiringly of the strong British Government backing behind the aerospace sector: "What I have seen with the AGP & ATI has truly drawn the eyes of Airbus". With Airbus wings, landing gear and fuel systems engineers all now in one place - 'Future Filton' may just lay claim to be the new beating heart of the UK aerospace Renaissance.