Belfast Telegraph

Aerospace industry is ready for take-off

Global demand for the latest aircraft has not diminished despite the downturn and Northern Ireland has the ideal skills base to capitalise

By Clare Weir

During business secretary Vince Cable's visit to Northern Ireland last week he gave a ringing endorsement of our home-grown manufacturing firms and called on our manufacturers to help pull Britain out of the economic doldrums.

Cable's Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), Invest NI and plane maker Bombardier Aerospace have funded a £6m research and development centre on Airport Road, which is jointly owned and operated by Queen's University and the University of Ulster.

The centre is just part of what looks like an exciting comeback for Northern Ireland industry and in particular, the continued success of the aerospace sector.

Despite being a small place, Northern Ireland is famous on the global map for its proud heritage in building aircraft.

Last year a report produced by the Aerospace Defence Security (ADS) Northern Ireland trade body revealed that firms here contributed 7.1% of the total UK aerospace output, with total sales amounting to £960m last year, with another £640m of orders in the pipeline.

Over 90% of those total sales came from exports, with £664m worth being sent outside the UK.

The EU received 20% of orders (£173m), the US 12.8% (£110m) and the rest of the world 44.2% (£380m), meaning that exports from aerospace, defence and security represented 12.85% of all Northern Ireland manufacturing exports in 2010.

Civil aerospace accounted for 85% of sales (£774m), defence 14% (£128m) and security at only 1% (£11m).

Firms from the three sectors were said to have pumped £34m into research and development, representing 10.5% of all Northern Ireland's business research and development spending.

The report added that 90% of people employed in the industries are working in aerospace, 9.5% in defence and 0.5% in security (ADS).

Some of the major global players in the lucrative ADS sectors include Airbus, BAE Systems, BE/Aerospace, Boeing, Bombardier Aerospace, DuPont, Goodrich, Martin Baker, RFD Beaufort and Thales.

In all there are just under 50 companies involved in the trade body.

Areas of expertise here include aerostructures, such as fuselages, wings, flight control surface, materials such as kevlar, avionics, safety systems, seating, aircraft interiors, stress and fatigue analysis and missiles.

Firms like Bombardier, BE, Goodrich, RFD Beaufort and Thales, have substantial operations in Northern Ireland that supply many mission critical aerospace and defence programmes worldwide.

These companies are supported by a comprehensive infrastructure of local suppliers, particularly in precision engineering and Bombardier alone supports over 60 firms in the supply chain.

David Raymond, deputy chairman of the council of the ADS group, who has worked for a number of firms in the sector and is chairman at BASE Aerospace, said that the potential for growth is very real and imminent - as long as Northern Ireland plays its cards right.

He said the figure of £1bn to the local economy every year could skyrocket if more foreign investors are attracted to spend money in Northern Ireland and if operations can be better consolidated.

"The world's air fleet is ageing, people need to replace aircraft and they need aircraft which are more economic and efficient to run, more efficient, easier to repair and maintain," he said. "Every aircraft manufacturer is stretched right now. There are countries and companies out there which are cash rich and ready to invest.

"We have a good industrial base, a good engineering base, a good manufacturing base, we have great schools, two excellent universities which are considered premier league and a pro-active support agency in Invest Northern Ireland.

"We all know of companies like Bombardier but we have a major strength in the quality of our supply chains and the challenge is to look beyond the big names and bring everything together. It is a fact that US, Europe and Asia want more aircraft. China in particular is a huge market. People have more freedom, they have more money.

"They want to go on holiday. And Western businesses have a key role to play in helping build social economy."

Mr Raymond said that the biggest mistake would be for Northern Ireland firms to see firms in other countries as competition.

"There are companies in the rest of Europe, in north and south America, who are already doing what we do," he said.

"But the complexity of the market and the sector is such that there is no one country can do this all themselves.

"This is not about competition, but co-operation, seeing other countries and other firms as partners, not rivals.

"There needs to be a step-change away from worrying about what is being made in China and India, but instead asking how can we help, what do they need, what do we need, how can they help us?

"We cannot be parochial, this is a truly international business and Northern Ireland can be a part of that."

Mr Raymond said that the ambition of ADS is to help create a "new hub of aerospace excellence".

"The quality of the technical and skills base we have here in Northern Ireland can not be emphasised enough," he said. "We have expertise in research and development, primary design, manufacture, repair and maintenance

"The potential coupling of those skills with component building and assembly is invaluable in such a small place

"We have a strong tradition of engineering, manufacturing, science and technology.

"Let's look at all the key building blocks, people have to make the parts - everything from the components to the interiors to the engines to the wings - assemble them, test them, certify them, then ship them off for assembly, all areas where we have great skill, which gives Northern Ireland an edge, an advantage. We have inherent capabilities, a great education system and a very young population.

"I talk to young people all the time who badly want to be involved in this industry but they are scared that if they take up a course at college or university, there will be no job at the end of it. But we see the potential of thousands of jobs in the sector over the coming years.

"This is not idle comment or a false promise, it is something that we know about and we can predict, growth has been steady and growing in aerospace despite recession after recession.

"We are coming out of our own troubled times into a new place, literally and metaphorically and we need to channel our energies into industry, which is what Northern Ireland was once known for.

"We need to rebalance the emphasis away from reliance on retail and the public sector - indeed, retail and all others sectors will benefit if we have more people working and spending money."

The ins and outs of ADS Northern Ireland

  • A trade organisation for the aerospace, defence, and security (ADS) sectors in Northern Ireland, the body was launched at the Farnborough Airshow in July 2010 and its office is hosted by Bombardier in Belfast.
  • The organisation works closely with and is supported by Invest NI to ensure the continued success of these industries.
  • The group's priorities are to help member companies develop, to increase market share and to raise awareness of Northern Ireland's capability and technology internationally.
  • ADS NI brings together leaders from the major aerospace, defence, and security companies and the universities to set the direction for the Industry.
  • The team is led by Ian Watson, director, ADS NI and Scotland, chaired by David Beatty of Thales UK and managed by Dr Leslie Orr, ADS Northern Ireland manager.

Key players in the ADS industries

  • BE Aerospace in Kilkeel produces more than a quarter of the global demand for aircraft seats.
  • Bombardier bought over the historic Shorts plant and is making wings for the CSeries aircraft at a new £520m facility.
  • Datum Design in Ballynahinch makes and supplies tools for the aircraft and automotive industries.
  • Survitec Group makes safety and survival equipment for the defence, aerospace, marine and leisure markets.
  • Thales is the largest company in the defence sector here. With operations in 50 countries and 68,000 employees, Thales specialises in mission-critical information systems for defence and security, aerospace and transportation. It has a global network of 22,500 high-level researchers and has earned recognition for its ability to develop and deploy dual civil and military technologies.