Reducing challenges and increasing skills in the aerospace sector


Following on from the last edition, John Laughlin, Aerospace Programme Lead at Innovate UK answers further questions from AG on the UK aerospace sector and challenges that lie ahead

UK businesses are well placed to take advantage of growing global demand for faster, quieter and greener aircraft. With the biggest aerospace industry in Europe and second largest in the world, the sector makes a major contribution to economic growth and employment in the UK.

The aerospace sector and its supply chain employ 239,000 people, many of them highly skilled engineers and technicians. They – and thousands of other workers in the supply chain helped to generate nearly £28bn in turnover, 90% of which is an export business. Sustaining growth in sectors such as aerospace is a critical part of supporting the UK economy.

Given the highly competitive global nature of the aerospace sector, increasing the skills capacity in the sector is crucial. A decline in a country’s skills base can happen very quickly and recover those skills can be expensive and can take a generation, a risk that cannot be taken with the UK aerospace sector.

The worldwide push for more energy efficient, less polluting aircraft presents a potentially lucrative opportunity to harness a range of key skills we have in the UK (from across multiple industries) and significantly enhance returns for the UK plc.

In addition, the mission-critical nature of aerospace products means that the timescales for R&D, testing and introduction of new products to market are elongated within the aerospace sector compared to other sectors. This presents challenges around retaining the skills and experience necessary to design the next generation of aircraft, whether it is skills in aerodynamics, propulsion, advanced systems or structures.

Maintaining and growing the necessary skills required to maintain the UK’s position in the aerospace marketplace (no. 2 globally) requires us to continue to encourage new, skilled staff into the aerospace sector (rather than other buoyant sectors such as automotive) to offset both the ageing workforce, and renewing the skills and knowledge in the sector.

The government’s £3.9bn Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI) programme, which stimulates new research which would not have happened under normal market conditions, not only creates new technology and commercial offerings but creates and refines the skills needed in the longer-term.

How important are investments such as these in order to bring forward solutions to key aerospace industry challenges?

The aerospace sector is very competitive, with high barriers to entry both technically and financially, if we are to maintain and then grow our world class capability we need to harness all the resources at our disposal to advance technology innovation. It is with that in mind that we, with our partners – including government, are constantly refining the development pathway for aerospace innovation from academic research, through to Innovate UK’s support for translating technology from other sectors , such as advances in materials and from new emerging technologies such as graphene and quantum, into commercial reality.

The (ATI) programme is then well placed to harness these new innovations to exploit the significant global potential.

What are the key challenges currently facing the aerospace sector? And how can these be overcome?

In order to effectively compete for a significant share of a potential $5 trillion market, we need to look at how we overcome some of the challenges from the profitability of airlines, to the ability for the UK supply chain to rapidly respond to market demands as well as addressing the threat of global competition.

Profitability of the airlines themselves is a major challenge, as it is a strained part of the value chain with small operating margins. The pressure on airlines to remain profitable is complex and is driven by a number of market and industry factors. The fall in the price of oil will undoubtedly see a short term profitability boost. However, with aircraft assets being in service for upwards of 30 years, capacity and fleet planning requires a long term view and many market factors need to be considered. At Innovate UK, we are looking to invest in technologies that reduce the cost of ownership for the airline, reducing the amount of downtime for the aircraft by investing in technologies that can better predict the health of systems, reducing the amount of maintenance and increasing the time between intervals for repair and overhaul.

Another challenge is the expected increase in volumes for our current products, as we work to grow our market share UK companies need to be able to respond to the increased uptake from the primes right through the smaller players in the supply chain. Innovate UK looks to enhance the competitiveness of the UK by investing in new advanced manufacturing technologies, to meet the market demand for increased volumes and also to increase productivity and reduce manufacturing costs. We are achieving this through our Manufacturing and Materials team and our investment in the High Value Manufacturing Catapult network.

Alongside global competition from the existing established countries in the aerospace supply chain, we can expect China, India and Russia to play a part in the future market. These countries will be looking to place large orders for new aircraft and will also look to increase their proportion of supplying high value components for the new platforms and also potentially enter in to the market themselves with new product offerings.

We are looking to support (and ultimately improve) the UK’s position as the world’s second largest aerospace manufacturer by investing in new technologies that can create value within the supply chain, keeping ahead of the global competition and anchoring high value, highly innovative technology solutions to the UK for the long-term. This is particularly challenging for SME’s as the cost of developing new aerospace technologies – and the time required to achieve the required certifications and get product to market, can be prohibitive. We are addressing this challenge by looking at potential virtual product development tools to reduce these cycle times and reduce cost overall, potentially allowing SME’s to disrupt current supply chains, by getting new, game-changing solutions to market. We also are looking to other industries that have mature technologies where we pull these into the aerospace sector. For example, some of the developments in battery power density and power and efficiency of electric machines developed in the automotive industry could have a part to play.

John Laughlin

Programme Lead – Aerospace

Innovate UK


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