Advanced composite materials - investing for the future

It was a privilege for me last week to join in the celebrations at the Science Museum for the 250th Anniversary of Guest, Keen and Nettlefolds, formed some 250 years ago at the Dowlais Ironworks, Merthyr Tydfil. A lot has changed in manufacturing since 1759, spanning the entire Industrial Revolution - but it is good to remind ourselves that this company, now known as GKN, is the UK's oldest FTSE listed company.

GKN has evolved over these years from an engineering company focused around screws and fasteners into one of the leading aerospace, automotive and off-highway manufacturing companies in the world. The celebrations were led by Chief Executive Sir Kevin Smith, who has done so much to promote manufacturing here in the UK. He was joined by a number of GKN employees from across the globe, reinforcing GKN's global presence, and by Chief Executives and senior representatives from across the manufacturing sector and public sectors. It is good, particularly during these difficult economic times, to celebrate manufacturing success here in the UK.

The previous week's Low Carbon Vehicle event at Millbrook had demonstrated some of the UK manufacturing excellence around new green vehicle technologies, including ‘lightweighting technologies'. I built on this during a keynote address during the week to the Society for the Advancement of Material and Process Engineering International Conference on ‘High Performance Composites for A Changing World,' held this year in the UK.

The area of composite materials was highlighted as a priority area for Advanced Manufacturing in the Government's ‘New Industry - New Jobs' agenda. GKN are one of the leading exponents of composites manufacturing capability, joined by companies big and small across the UK. The aerospace companies Airbus, Bombardier, BAE Systems and Rolls Royce have traditionally led the way but they are joined by a long list of small world leading composites supply chain companies. The application of composites is now cross-sector - from aerospace to automotive, from healthcare devices to energy, from high performance sports equipment to marine. There are some great examples of companies operating within these sectors developing products around high performance composite materials - companies like Bromley AET based in Sheffield developing equipment which will put the UK in the lead at next year's Winter Olympics (in the manufacturing sense, anyway) and the composites capability being developed by Bentley Cars.

The Technology Strategy Board has invested over £85m into composites-related Collaborative R&D projects since 2005 and has funded the National Composites Network, through the Materials KTN. There are currently five Centres under the NCN framework, the Airbus Centre based at Filton and focused on large aerostructures, the GKN centre on the Isle of Wight focused on the automation of composite sub-assemblies, the North West Centre focused around 3D Fibre Structures, the TWI Centre based in South Wales focused on validation of NDT techniques and the AMRC Centre in Sheffield focused around advanced manufacturing and hybrid structures. This network is a good example of how to manage centres of excellence in a co-ordinated manner across the UK in emerging technologies. The R&D investment in composites is still vitally important, however, and further technology development is required across the product life cycle - from design processes, through manufacture, to in-service health monitoring and repair and through to end of life product recycling. There is a lot of advancement still required around low-cost manufacture and automation if the ‘lightweight' benefits are to be fully realised in a cost-effective manner.

I am reminded that it was back in the early 1960's that the high potential strength of carbon fibre was first realised in a process developed at the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough. In 1969 a House of Commons select committee into carbon fibre asked "How then is the nation to reap the maximum benefit without it becoming yet another British invention to be exploited more successfully overseas?"

I believe that we are approaching a new era in the use of composite materials. This will require investment in new technology and in next-generation automated composites manufacturing facilities. We need to see further investment here in the UK on the composites manufacture itself. The UK chemical process industry played a key part in the development of these materials - it would be good to see them playing a part in the further development of next-generation composites.

Coming back to GKN, it was good to see Hexcel winning the biggest contract in its history in April this year, supplying GKN with uni-directional carbon fibre/epoxy prepreg tape. Hexcel have a manufacturing facility at Duxford. More significantly this is where they also house their European Centre for Research and Technology.

New Industry - New Jobs makes it clear that advanced manufacturing is one of this country's high priorities and composite materials is part of that :

"....The shift from metal to composite materials will provide vast commercial opportunities and will have important applications in the automotive, marine, aerospace, wind & wave, construction, oil & gas and medical equipment sectors"

So while sharing in the 250-year celebrations of one of the UK's leading engineering companies, I am also looking forward, as we contribute to the thinking and investment that will pave the way for the next 250 years of technology manufacturing.


Last updated on Friday 24 February 2012 at 10:13

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  • James Doel|30/11/09 at 12:20 PM


    James Doel|30/11/09 at 12:18 PM


    SIA Training|05/10/09 at 10:43 PM

    THe EU will indeed make major changes - due to legislation that stems from the fact that they look after their own, a dynamic change indeed!

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