South West England: championing the region’s aerospace sector

A380_on_ground copyright AirbusThe South West of England enjoys the capabilities of a powerhouse aerospace cluster and is keen to let people know about it. MOD DCB features writer Paul Elliott met Barry Warburton, Aerospace and Advanced Engineering Sector Specialist at Invest Bristol & Bath, to discuss the region’s capabilities and opportunities.

From major players to supply chain companies, the South West of England’s aerospace cluster is the largest in Europe. Invest Bristol & Bath has been banging the drum for the region, including a week in front of a global audience at the recent Farnborough International Airshow, where together with Heart of the South West Local Enterprise Partnership and Dorset Local Enterprise Partnership, the new dedicated investment service joined forces with the West of England Aerospace Forum to showcase the South West’s aerospace sector and attract new investment into the region.

The region has got a lot to shout about. The South West hosts one of the largest and most significant aerospace clusters in the world, worth more than £7 billion. Of the 15 international giants of aerospace, 14 have bases in the South West of England, while the region is also home to a strong network of world-class supply chain companies.

The Bristol and Bath region’s aerospace sector is home to the operations of numerous industry giants including Rolls-Royce, Airbus and GKN Aerospace. Only recently, Bristol and Bath’s high-tech industry and the South West’s aerospace sector were among only 12 UK economic clusters to be highlighted as ‘globally significant’ and ‘fast growing’ in an influential Centre for Cities / McKinsey & Company report.

The National Composites Centre (NCC), one of seven high-value manufacturing catapult innovation centres across the UK, is based at Bristol & Bath Science Park. The NCC brings together business and academia to develop new composite design and rapid manufacture technologies. The Bristol and Bath region is also home to the Filton Enterprise Area, an established hub for cutting-edge aviation technology and research, and the Emersons Green Enterprise Area, a science and technology innovation centre and the location of Bristol & Bath Science Park.

Barry Warburton, Aerospace and Advanced Engineering Sector Specialist at Invest Bristol & Bath, has extensive knowledge of the sector, having previously worked for Devon and Cornwall Development International, the inward investment company that supported Devon and Cornwall Councils in recruiting and supporting inward investment companies, many of whom were in the advanced manufacturing sector. Mr Warburton is keen to flaunt the manufacturing capabilities that the Bristol and Bath region has to offer, championing the region as the ideal location for global businesses in the aerospace sector seeking a new base.

He said: “The first aircraft was built in Bristol 100 years ago. There’s a tremendous amount of tradition and with that comes universities that have good academic courses in aerospace. The region has universities that do a lot of R&D, there’s a robotics centre, and of course the National Composites Centre.

“If you think of the UK being second only to the US in terms of aerospace sales, it’s not just in what you might think of as an aircraft. In the South West, companies make things from undercarriage systems to avionics. There are helicopters coming from Finmeccanica or AgustaWestland, and we have the biggest regional airline in Europe – Flybe, based in Exeter.

“The industry is growing exponentially. It’s the only sector that has an order book that goes to 2030, and it’s growing year on year. I think the biggest fear is whether the supply chain can keep up!”

The aviation cluster in the South West is of significant relevance to the defence industry as 83% of all defence exports are in aviation. Air Capabilities have been identified as a national strength by the Ministry of Defence. The global military aircraft market remains a significant part of forecast global defence spending, worth an estimated £56 billion per annum over the next eight years. The UK is well positioned to compete in the global Air Capabilities market and the South West aerospace cluster will undoubtedly have a significant role to play. Companies operating in the South West’s aerospace cluster have the opportunity to sell to both defence and civil industries.

Mr Warburton commented: “Luckily components that go into commercial aircraft are similar to those in defence. It’s only when you get to ballistic systems that it becomes slightly different. So if you can supply for civil you can supply for defence. What we’re finding is that defence companies are looking at the civil market to bolster sales in the defence industry. They’re looking at different ways of utilising their skill set. If you’re making a component for a Rolls-Royce military engine you should be able to make a component for a civil engine. To me it’s the best of both worlds.”

There are 800 companies and 57,000 people in the South West working in the aerospace supply chain – that’s a phenomenal number. Clusters tend to coalesce around customers, and with the likes of Airbus, Rolls-Royce and AgustaWestland based in the South West a sturdy supply chain has been attracted to the region.

The UK supply chain has been boosted by indications that 70% of UK defence companies plan on increasing investment in the next 12 months. The ADS Defence Industry Outlook 2014 noted one in six defence companies have re-shored or are considering re-shoring activity to strengthen the UK supply chain, including from Europe and North America. Reasons given for re-shoring include improving quality and minimising supply chain risk.

Mr Warburton said: “When you look at supply chains today, they’re global. So a large company isn’t just looking at the UK, it’s looking all over the world for its supply chain. That’s why it’s really important that the UK supply chain is competitive.

“Re-shoring is a boost but there are offsets too. So a country will buy a helicopter and then require a percentage of it to be manufactured in that country. The bonus of re-shoring is if there’s something in manufacture that is not quite right, you can sort things out locally and efficiently. The logistics and costs of moving things around the world have become quite expensive.”

The UK has more defence SMEs than France, Germany, Spain, Italy and Norway combined. The South West cluster is rich in SMEs of all types across the defence supply chain. There is a lot of collaboration and smaller companies are operating proactively in the region to win business.

Mr Warburton explained: “The collaboration tends to be working with the first tiers rather than the primes. The responsibility of managing the supply chain has now moved down to the first tiers. What we find is that SMEs collaborate to create their own mini supply chain, because when a company wants to buy something it doesn’t want to buy all the individual parts separately; it wants someone to do that for them and put it together. So SMEs are now starting to work together. Collaboration is the only way forward.”

Mr Warburton advises that the South West is a good region for SMEs if they are ambitious and invest in their own futures. He says those SMEs investing both in people and in manufacturing processes are the ones that will grow.The days of businesses just sitting back and assuming customers will come and knock on their doors are over. Success requires a lot more drive and ambition.

What does the future look like for the South West aerospace cluster? According to Mr Warburton, the future is bright. He said: “We have to continue to improve, continue to invest, continue to try and bring in high-tech companies – we can’t be complacent. If you sit back then somebody somewhere in the world is doing something you should be doing. I think the future is good but there’s no room for complacency.

“I wouldn’t say the South West has got all the answers; we’re one part of the UK economy and we deliver what UK strategy is. We’re fortunate to have a large cluster and the technologies and the universities to do that. We’re lucky it’s happened and what we need to do is exploit it and tell people that we’ve got it.

“Our future is in technology. The UK is brilliant at technology.”

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