New centre of excellence puts firms on the fast track
The brightest minds of Ulster's industrial and academic worlds have been collaborating for a year in an innovative venture aiming to make Northern Ireland the ideas capital of the world
Just a year after it launched, eight of the most innovative companies in Northern Ireland and both our universities are working together at a new centre of excellence which aims to help Northern Ireland become a world leader in the aerospace, transport, defence, marine and environmental sectors.
The Northern Ireland Advanced Composites and Engineering centre (NIACE) in the Titanic Quarter comprises office and networking space with a factory floor and machinery which allows companies to road test new products and technologies and get advice from experienced engineers without sinking millions into potentially risky big projects.
From industrial giants Bombardier and Wrightbus to small Northern Ireland company BASE, the centre is a hive of activity where some of the brightest and best minds in industry and academia are coming together to combine small components and huge ideas.
Business secretary Vince Cable officially opened the flagship research facility last year.
NIACE aims to help Northern Ireland's manufacturing sector grow and develop its capabilities, enabling it to compete more successfully both nationally and globally.
The region already has a good name in the global aerospace supply chain, with companies like Denroy, JW Kane and Moyola Precision Engineering already making parts for some of the world's most biggest firms.
Equipment and expertise on-site is used to develop technology for numerous manufacturing applications and to enable companies to work at a scale and in collaborations not currently feasible – saving not only time, but millions of pounds.
The centre also acts as a "portal" or focal point for local companies to gain access to funding sources and new business outside of Northern Ireland.
And the facility acts as a creative environment allowing the rapid transfer of skills and knowledge between universities and companies, and building a bridge over the so-called 'Valley of Death' – the gap between a concept and a marketable product.
The 40,000 sq ft building has the capacity for 120 research and technical staff and both universities and participating companies have staff on the ground working in offices, workshops, laboratories, meeting rooms and in a design and visualisation facility which allows 3D imaging.
NIACE manager Dr Scott King revealed that since January 2012, 4,000 people have visited the centre and individuals and groups from 400 companies have been through the doors.
"The centre offers the space to carry out research, development and tests in a controlled environment with all the help and machinery on hand," he said.
"Rather than a small company sinking money into buying expensive equipment and making products they don't know if they will need or not long-term, they can come here and we can offer them the facilities to carry out their tests.
"Instead of spending £10,000 on a machine, they can shave thousands off their projects and gain valuable experience by using the equipment at the centre and performing small-scale tests.
"Firms can sometimes find that testing out their research is not financially feasible, but thanks to the real-life experience they can gain here, their ideas can become reality."
Machinery includes a 3D loom which can create intricate parts like propeller blades from polymer plastics, large and small automated robots, vacuum formers and machines which can perform fatigue tests on small items from -100 to 350 degrees centigrade.
Some of the machinery in the centre is the same as that which helped test and build the new C-Series wings for Bombardier, made using a new and unique process in the industry.
"We've had visitors from north America, the Middle East and mainland UK here to see the centre and it is only enhancing what we see as 'brand NI'.
"Many of the participating companies locate staff and equipment here and this helps with the flow of ideas and experience between different companies, different sectors, and our universities.
"We think it is very important to provide a space where the theory can become the practice.
"The gap from concept to commercialisation can be huge but we can help companies get solutions to their problems either academically or practically. Companies who would never have traditionally worked together are sharing a workspace at NIACE, and are benefiting from each other.
"We have people from Bombardier, BASE, Wrightbus, the University of Ulster and Queen's all sitting together in one space collaborating.
"Even companies who would have been in competition with one another are understanding how they can benefit each other.
"One of the examples of the collaborative nature of NIACE is with polymer technology, which is easily recyclable – can one firm use another firm's polymer surplus?
"Can a firm make use of another firm's component once it has come to the end of its life? These are valuable commodities.
"We can also help the universities tailor their courses, we can arrange secondments, companies can tell the course tutors what they are looking for in terms of future staff and what their skills requirements are, because of the knowledge transfer happening here.
"Equally, students can get valuable practical knowledge before they enter the professional world – I know my own transfer from university to the workplace was an eye-opener. Dr King added: "NIACE provides a huge opportunity for companies and universities alike and will hopefully help put Northern Ireland back on the map as a world leader in engineering and manufacturing."
It helps us push boundaries and to remain competitive
Gavin Campbell, director of design engineering and technology development, Bombardier Aerospace:
"Belfast is a unique location for us as we develop, manufacture and provide support services for our aerospace business.
"It was in Belfast that the company researched, developed, designed and now builds the wings for the new Bombardier C-Series aircraft, which are pioneering in terms of the technology used. The aerospace business is very hi-tech and we are always developing our processes, with either planes built of entirely aluminium or the new style of planes built from composite materials like the C-Series.
"We relish working with other companies and indeed with competitors and NIACE provides us with a place and a space to do that.
"We want to share technologies even with companies who are not working in the same business as us.
"NIACE provides us with three very important strands – research and development, relationships with our universities and the opportunity to collaborate with other companies.
"We have around 50 engineers working in the centre. NIACE combines high academia with very applied technology and is very important in keeping us competitive and helping us to push boundaries, not just for Bombardier but for small and medium companies across Northern Ireland.
"The region has the potential to market itself on a global scale by using technology."
The NIACE has connected us to the right places
Ian Kelly, managing director at BASE
"We established BASE in 2000 and we carry out stress analysis – seeing how parts of aircraft cope with loads, environment and other issues – for companies like Bombardier, Airbus and Boeing and we've also tested ejector seats for Martin Baker.
"We're a small company with just over 30 employees and we are based at the Northern Ireland Science Park. The NIACE has been able to provide us with good connections to the universities and with other companies.
"Not all companies have huge budgets for research and development and can't afford to lose the money they do have on large, expensive projects that might not work. This centre is a mix of small, medium and large companies all benefiting from each other's experience, it's industry lead and cross-sectoral, people can put ideas together and work together and there are opportunities to work with people and sectors one might not have considered before.
"The knowledge pool and the access we have to lots of different types of expertise is immense and very helpful. Northern Ireland has the potential to be a global hub for composites and we have a lot of political support. Having a centre like this can only advance our position."