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27th November 2018, Birmingham

Supporting UK composites manufacturing

Jana Bukolovska reports

This year, the UK government focused its efforts on boosting engineering across the UK, tackling the skills gap and widening the pool of young people who join the profession through a year-long national campaign, the Year of Engineering. An important part of the government’s Industrial Strategy, the year-long campaign aims to provide engineering experiences for young people and increase understanding of what engineers do among their parents and their teachers.

The engineering skills gap and lack of appropriate training in composites has become one of the key topics of this year’s Advanced Engineering show, which took place at NEC Birmingham, from 31 October – 1 October. The UK's largest annual advanced manufacturing trade show, Advanced Engineering has been a success.

Over 650 exhibitors presented their latest innovations at Advanced Engineering. © Inside Composites

The exhibition, which is celebrating its tenth year, brought 15,000 engineers, procurement and management from OEMs and higher tier companies all looking to source, specify and invest in the latest products. Coupled with more than 200 presentations and case studies, the show was filled with experts in technical and business improvement, highlighting best practice and the secrets behind what is driving the industry forward.

Embracing nuclear power

With the launch of a new co-located show, Nuclear Engineering, and the expansion of the Connected Manufacturing show zone, the show was bigger than ever this year. Over 650 exhibitors presented their latest innovations across the aerospace, automotive, composites, performance metals, connected manufacturing and nuclear industries. “This year we begin small but important steps into promising new sectors. Based on exhibitor and audience feedback, an additional new focus this year turns to Nuclear Engineering, marking the first time Advanced Engineering addresses the potential within the nuclear civil new-build sector,” said Alison Willis, Divisional Director, Easyfairs.

The show was bigger than ever this year. © Inside Composites

“With the UK’s carbon emission deadlines looming large, it promises to provide great opportunities for the engineering supply chain, with many potential crossovers from other high-value sectors are already cover,” she added. Earlier this month, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) has announced it overturned its longstanding opposition to nuclear power, to help stop climate change. As a source of low-carbon energy, next-generation nuclear power can be done safely, and with a smaller environmental footprint than burning of fossil fuels.

Life after Brexit

The rise of composites continues across an ever-increasing number of applications, and with the industry showing no signs of slowing down, the Composites Engineering part of the show has yet again proved itself as one of the world’s most important composite raw material, design, processing and applications events. The technical conference programme attracted a lot of interest, with hundreds of engineering experts speaking about the latest innovations, challenges and opportunities in the industry.

The show also provided a platform for small and large engineering companies to share their views on Brexit. According to Stephen Phipson CBE, the new Chief Executive at EEF, one of the current challenges the industry faces in a post-Brexit world is to make sure it is competitive by improving the productivity. “The sector in the UK is generally very good at innovation and pragmatic problem solving, we’re also good at integration. Brexit will deliver a short-term disruption but, in the long-term, this country is extremely good at pragmatic innovation, and we need to push government hard on making sure that investment continues alongside skills,” he said.

The exhibition brought 15,000 engineers, procurement and management from OEMs and higher tier companies. © Inside Composites

In June 2018, following a vote by its members, Composites UK joined EuCIA (European Composites Industry Association). “This ensures that we have a stronger voice in Europe both before and after leaving the EU,” said Sue Halliwell, Operations Manager, Composites UK.

Skills gap

According to Engineering UK, engineering contributes 23% of the UK’s total turnover. According to Phipson, it is vital to maintain investment in new technologies, as well as skills, grow UK’s own engineering talent and concentrate on schools in order to boost UK’s productivity.

“The industry has expanded very rapidly over the last few years, and the workforce has not expanded with the demand for this industry,” said Lucas Morgan, Chief Engineer, Forward Composites. “We won’t be able to capitalise on that potential if we haven’t got people to do it. The skills gap already exists, and as the industry grows, that gap is going to widen. There are very few national standardised training courses available in composites specifically. We need to focus on the lower levels of education in order to support the growing UK composites sector.”

Lucas Morgan, Chief Engineer, Forward Composites. © Inside Composites

Guy Atkins, Managing Director, Jo Bird, a company specialising in the design and manufacture of storage cabinets using glass reinforced plastics, also emphasised the importance of supporting young talent. The company decided to sponsor a graduate engineer Laxman Sivanathan, who joined Jo Bird as part of a mentoring scheme run by the National Composites Centre (NCC). As a result of this sponsorship, Sivanathan quickly implemented significant changes to reduce the direct costs in the manufacture of the cabinets, as well as integrating product innovations. “Investing in the next generation of people is constantly improving our processes,” said Atkins. Read more here – Student helps Jo Bird win Queen's Award for Enterprise.

“Skill is perhaps the most critical area to ensure the success of the UK composites industry as without a trained growing workforce, the UK will be unable to meet the demands of the end sector markets and could potentially lose out to overseas companies,” noted Halliwell.

Diversity shortfall

Dr Hayaatun Sillem, CEO of the Royal Academy of Engineering, also sees the skills and diversity shortfall as one of the key issues that need to be addressed through collaboration between government and engineering organisations, in order to support the industry and facilitate growth for companies of all sizes.

Figures published by Engineering UK this year show there is an annual shortfall of 59,000 engineers. Women make up only 12% of people working in engineering occupations and only 8% of engineers are from black, Asian or minority ethnic backgrounds. “Engineering continues to be unrepresentative of the society it serves,” said Dr Sillem.

Alex Aucken, Chairman, Composites Leadership Forum. © Inside Composites

A 2015 study of 366 public companies by McKinsey found that gender balanced companies are 15% more likely than average companies to outperform competitors financially, whilst ethnically diverse companies are 35% more likely to have more financial returns. In July, the UK’s aerospace and aviation sectors announced they will work towards gender equality in the industry, with 50 companies having signed up to the Women in Aviation and Aerospace charter at its launch.

Working together

“We want to be able to understand the market needs across different sectors, so we can invest sensibly in the future and make sure that we are bringing different markets together,” said Alex Aucken, Chairman, Composites Leadership Forum (CLF), which is working to influence the government and other bodies to bring together support for composites. “We need to get together, encourage discussions and dialogue, facilitate better understanding of existing market requirements and regulations, and have more discussions with government departments to show where different needs can be and where the connections really are.”

Interdisciplinary and academia-industry research collaborations and knowledge sharing are key to the industry success, according to Dr Sillem, CEO. “Strategic priorities for government and private sector are to work together to build new markets to create growth and improve productivity,” explained Paul Glossop, Senior Policy Officer - Innovation, Metals and Advanced Materials, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

On display

The Composites Engineering zone hosted leading names from the industry including Hexel, Scott Bader, Norco, PRF Composite Materials and Tygavac Advanced Materials. Among the show floor features was Prion Mk3, a long-flight endurance fixed-wing UAV featuring components made from carbon fibre. UAVE deploys the Prion Mk 3 to undertake long duration flights extending to in excess of 1,000km before landing for refuelling.

Prion Mk3. © Inside Composites

Another highlight was a lightweight carbon fibre Acro Series 6 Seat Back manufactured by Cecence, which has Airbus line fit approval, meets 16g requirements, full FST compliance, and is now in flight.

Also featured was a Composite Gas Transition Piece (GTP), which has been developed by Haydale to enable inspection of gas transmission pipes without the need for demolition of the pit wall at the pipe transition, resulting in reduced cost, and improved safety. So far, two GTP prototypes have been installed at National Grid Gas sites. “The removable composite GTP system is a huge step forward in safety and efficiency, solving a major problem faced by utility providers. Haydale is pleased to have found a solution and is working alongside National Grid to see the first fully installed and in use in the UK,” said Keith Broadbent, Managing Director Composites at Haydale.

Acro Series 6 Seat Back manufactured by Cecence. © Inside Composites

“For 2018, the show floor features are largely focused on innovative transport designs for the rail, automotive and aerospace sectors. The features are exciting as they truly show how the engineering sector is growing,” said Willis.

Composites in rail

Also on display was a lightweight press-formed phenolic prepreg composite train door with an integrated core sandwich panel, produced by Penso. The door delivers a saving of more than 10kg from the current aluminium incumbent door. The risk of water ingress has also been reduced due to a closed cell core structure.

The rail industry is embracing fibre-reinforced polymer composites. For infrastructure, all-FRP bridge structures, for example, are favoured for their light weight and durability and can be pre-fabricated off-site. Last month, Composites UK announced the launch of its document FRP Bridges – Guidance for Designers through CIRIA, funded by Highways England and Network Rail. The guide shares the history of fibre-reinforced polymer (FRP) bridges in the UK together with some of the key learning points relating to FRP materials, the manufacturing process and relevant design criteria. Learn more here – New guidance for FRP bridge designers.

Lightweight composite train door produced by Penso. © Inside Composites

Robert Dean, Principal Engineer at Network Rail, highlighted during the conference the increasing and urging need for cost-effective, durable and strong solutions for repairing or replacing existing ageing infrastructure, including footbridges, wheel timbers, cable troughing, signal posts, lighting columns, as well as the need for structural health monitoring systems that would allow better understanding of materials’ performance and deterioration rates. “At the moment, we do not know who to approach for these type of solutions, where to find them, how to replace the existing structures, and if they are available in FRP,” he said, emphasising the need for industry-wide collaboration and communication.

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