Northwestern UK firms trek south en masse

Farnborough Air Show » 2006
November 15, 2006, 6:34 AM

The importance of northwest England in the UK’s aerospace industry is reflected in its representation here. Nearly 50 companies and organizations from the region are here in the Northwest Aerospace Alliance (NWAA) pavilion (Hall 1 Stand D9-12) to promote products and services that range from high-end engineered aircraft and engine components to some of the UK’s first commercial UAVs.

Supply chain excellence is this year’s theme. Executive director Martin Wright said it is crucial that the northwest maintain its reputation as a center of aerospace excellence capable of delivering the best products and technologies.

“Consolidation, mergers and other key changes mean that the people making major purchasing decisions are often no longer just down the road,” he pointed out. The NWAA, accordingly, has been pioneering work aimed at reshaping and establishing a world-competitive supply chain.

Wright says the alliance has put a lot of work into its supply chain excellence program since the last Farnborough show. “It has involved a change of direction for the alliance and a hard slog for the team involved,” he said. The result, though, is that “we are now positioned to make some real progress and deliver some significant benefits for member companies.”

Airbus UK, Rolls-Royce and BAE Systems are supporting the initiative and have announced plans to second senior executives to provide direct input to the program’s regular supply chain workshops and companies involved in it. More than 20 top managers will mentor smaller companies that make up the supply chain.

“This is a unique program within the UK aerospace industry and the fact that such major players are buying into it on such a scale is very encouraging,” Wright commented. It will focus on such areas of business as leadership, strategic planning, skills, project management and effective buying policies. Mentoring starts this month and the project is being designed to be transportable to other UK regions heavily reliant on aerospace and defense for income and jobs.

The northwest is in many ways the crucible of the UK aerospace industry, A.V. Roe having established Avro as the world’s first commercial aircraft company near Manchester on the first day of 1910. In those days the coastal resort of Blackpool was a center for aviation, hosting pioneering flights and staging a regular flying circus in the years before World War I. And there was a legacy of skills developed in textile machinery manufacturing and general capability in precision engineering.

More factories sprouted up around the northwest in the pre-war years, and during the war itself National Aircraft Factories, such as the one at Speke, now the site of Liverpool’s John Lennon Airport, were established.

World War II stimulated more widespread development of the aerospace sector in the region, as “shadow” and “secret” factories were established and a hundred different aircraft types were developed and built in the northwest. Defense production was concentrated there to make it more difficult for the enemy to identify, target and reach crucial manufacturing sites. Many of the manufacturing plants that grew up then in Lancashire, Greater Manchester and Merseyside are still in aerospace production today.

The war years also saw Frank Whittle’s jet engine development team working in secret at factories in Clitheroe and Barnoldswick in Lancashire. The Barnoldswick facility is today the UK center for wide chord fan blade production for Rolls-Royce’s Trent engine family.

Since the war BAE Systems, formerly English Electric, has concentrated much of its military aircraft manufacturing in the northwest. The Lightning, Tornado and Eurofighter Typhoon are among an estimated 100-plus aircraft types built in the region. Today aerospace remains of key strategic importance to the northwest and the UK as a whole, with sales of nearly £7 billion ($13 billion) per annum representing more than a third of the national total in this sector.

The NWAA was founded 12 years ago by a handful of aerospace manufacturers in Lancashire who decided that, at a time of dramatically falling business, cooperation rather than direct competition was needed if they were to succeed in surviving the globalization of the industry.

Focused at first on promoting the Lancashire aerospace cluster, the original Consortium of Lancashire Aerospace widened its catchment to the whole region to become the first regional aerospace organization of its type. Others have followed across the UK and in Europe, where the NWAA has been a model for other aerospace bodies.

After concentrating its efforts initially on pro-motion and lobbying, the NWAA has changed course in the last two years. It still helps members in attending events such as the Farnborough and Paris airshows, but its efforts are focused mainly on innovation, skills development and improved competitiveness, and the supply chain development program is the only one of its type in the UK.

The NWAA estimates that member companies have benefited from new business worth more than £100 million ($185 million) since it first took space at the Farnborough show with just a handful of regional companies in 1994.

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