The South West is an aerospace hub filled with talented and skilled individuals and game-changing technologies which it claims makes it the number one aerospace cluster in Europe. Simon Young, chief executive of The West of England Aerospace Forum (WEAF), reviews 2017 and looks ahead to explore what 2018 holds.
Overall, the aerospace sector continues to climb, although many SMEs, OEMs, tier 1s and fellow regional aerospace alliances would all agree that it hasn’t been an easy ascent, and is likely to become more turbulent over the next 12-18 months. Despite Brexit and other industry challenges, we are not resting on our laurels, and we continue to push through tough headwinds.
2017 was broadly full of ups for the South West, one in particular for WEAF being the Aerospace Ambassador Awards, which was held in June to honour individuals (and by association their influential companies) who are quite often the unsung heroes behind delivering new products and services, and aerospace technologies.
The aim of the Awards was to spotlight the talent within our region’s aerospace sector and to bring the industry together to support one another. The generous sponsors of each award also benefitted by being able to showcase their knowledge and demonstrate their commitment to the industry.
Another positive this year was that Leonardo has opened up new supply chain opportunities with the launch of its rotary wing unmanned air system concepts, which is an exciting and innovative project. It has also announced its involvement in Somerset County Council’s iAero (Yeovil) Centre in order to support SMEs and enhance innovation. The centre will be located adjacent, and external to, Leonardo’s Yeovil site, making it readily accessible to businesses of all sizes.
2017 also saw the continuation of the South West’s participation in the National Aerospace Technology Exploitation Programme (NATEP). So far, across England, 112 projects have been delivered, and 32 of those were from the South West, amounting to £4 million worth of grants.
For the South West, WEAF helped to bring the technology project ideas together; supported the R&D activities to increase innovation; helped the grant recipients through the claims process; and facilitated the dissemination of the fantastic results from the collaborative projects, which assisted many SMEs in making new marketing connections for growth.
Within the national Aerospace Growth Partnership, the Supply Chain Charter has also benefited SMEs by ensuring there is a two-way commitment between primes, OEMs and tier 1s with lower tiers of the supply chain. The Charter asks the big UK-based aerospace players to provide more visibility of opportunities for the UK SMEs, with the proviso that those SMEs increase their commitment to making continuous improvements to their skills, leadership and productivity, in order to increase their global competitiveness. Of course, the larger players within aerospace will still take a global perspective but this charter ensures that SMEs within the UK supply chain are given a fair chance.
The road ahead
Brexit will continue to present uncertainty around topics such as: tariffs on cross-border trading; inclusion in the EU Aero Standards Agency; employing and sharing talent within the EU; continued collaboration with the European Technology and Innovation Eco System; and importantly, ensuring that any transition period is sensible to allow the whole of the UK aerospace industry to adjust.
The engineering industry overall continues to face a skills shortage, but I’m hoping that 2018 will be the year when the introduction of the Apprentice Levy brings solutions and not more problems. Plugging the skills gap is now imperative if the UK is to remain number 2 in global aerospace manufacturing. Businesses and education must continue to forge stronger relationships. If this was easy, it would have been sorted decades ago, and I fully respect the immense efforts made by business and education on this, but we can, and must, do better.
Despite the obvious challenges in 2018 and beyond, new exciting projects are on the horizon in the South West. We are lucky to have some globally renowned assets such as our brilliant universities and the National Composites Centre (NCC), which pioneer many of the breakthroughs in composite designs and applications across many sectors, not just aerospace. Future projects will also highlight some of the hidden gems within the most southern part of the UK, including Aero Hub Cornwall, located at Newquay Airport, which recently hosted the Bloodhound supersonic car. This has exciting prospects as a potential UK Spaceport which would see horizontal-launch capabilities for satellites and space-tourism becoming a reality in the UK!
For WEAF, I envisage 2018 bringing further successes. We will of course be holding the Aerospace Ambassador Awards once again – bigger and better than ever; and one of our critical missions at WEAF will be to ensure further networking opportunities are available to help our 300+ members achieve growth, not only by accessing new business opportunities but also through increasing their knowledge and connections with the right aerospace professionals at the right time, including our WEAF Value Partners who offer unrivalled expertise and support.
Everything that WEAF does for our members would not be possible without the dedication, professional and personable service of the WEAF HQ and project teams. They are the heartbeat of all WEAF operations. There may only be 11 of us, but each of us is passionate about success and growth for WEAF members and the sector as a whole in the South West.
WEAF is also immensely fortunate to have a Board of Directors comprising senior leaders and experts drawn from a range of SMEs and OEMs including Safran, Leonardo, Airbus and Rolls-Royce, to name just a few. Despite each of them having highly-demanding full-time day jobs, they dedicate their time and effort freely, and are driven by wanting the best for the South West supply chain, working tirelessly to ensure WEAF remains relevant and valuable to its members.
The future is bright and we are committed to ensuring the South West aerospace industry will continue to soar!