Aerospace and defence: Creating a chain reaction

By Ged Henderson

23 May 2024

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Change is in the air. Lancashire’s aerospace supply chain is rising to multiple challenges around sustainability and emerging new technologies with both determination and enthusiasm.

That’s the verdict of Paula Gill, chief executive of the North West Aerospace Alliance (NWAA). She declares: “There’s a huge amount of positivity here.”

The changes that the aerospace and defence sectors are undergoing cannot be underestimated. Little wonder it has been declared a new industrial revolution.

Paula says: “We’re seeing an enormous amount of change, around sustainability, around technologies, areas such as advance materials.

“Aerospace is on a sustainability journey. We are being challenging about what we manufacture, how we manufacture and what we manufacture with. Defence is looking at technologies that are going to become part of the product.”

NWAA was formed in 1994 to represent and support the aerospace industry across the North West of England.

It represents approximately 25 per cent of the sector in the UK and like many of its 150-plus member companies, which have a combined turnover of more than £7bn, it is based in Lancashire, in the town of Nelson.

Paula says: “The industry in the region is pretty healthy. We have got a really resilient group of advanced engineers and manufacturers around aerospace and defence.

“They are doing a really good job of building momentum to create the right landscape. The view of change has been taken on really positively.”

Paula points to the large amount of research and development work being carried out across the North West in areas such as advance materials.

Tempest is providing more opportunities.

BAE Systems, whose aerospace division employs thousands of Lancashire workers, is to play a key role in the development of the next-generation fighter aircraft backed by the governments of the UK, Italy and Japan.

The three nations have together created the Global Combat Air Programme, and the UK’s work will be undertaken by the existing Team Tempest, which consists of BAE Systems, Leonardo UK, MBDA UK, Rolls-Royce and the UK Ministry of Defence.

In Lancashire, BAE Systems supports thousands of local jobs through its work at sites in Samlesbury and Warton, which is also the home of FalconWorks, a new centre for advanced and agile research and technology development.

It was created response to the increasing pace of technological change and evolving threat environment facing BAE System’s military customers around the world.

The aim is to support major programmes such as Tempest and also to collaborate with SMEs and academia to deliver rapid concepting of new products and services.

As part of Tempest, the UK’s major combat air industry partners, including BAE Systems, are currently on a mission to create the nation’s first flying combat air demonstrator for a generation, with much of the activity taking  place in Lancashire. Paula says: “Tempest is a real opportunity, the supply chain is really excited by it and it will utilise new technologies, creating new opportunities and jobs. It is a huge flag in the ground for Lancashire.”

Watchtower is delivering more opportunities. This £1m initiative, launched in 2022, has worked to support development and growth in aerospace and advanced engineering and manufacturing industries across the county.

Born out of the Covid-19 pandemic and the huge damage it inflicted, the initial two-year programme has been a collaboration between Lancashire County Council and NWAA and includes big hitters such as BAE Systems, Safran Nacelles and Rolls-Royce.

Diversification has been part of its brief.

Support has been available to help businesses innovate and develop new products or ways of working.

A large part of Watchtower has been to look at advancements in technology and the processes needed to support and grow businesses.

Sustainability and digital transformation have also been high on the agenda.

Paula describes the companies that have taken part in Watchtower as “vibrant and buzzing with energy” and she talks of the creation of a community through the programme.

Change may be in the air, but Paula also stresses that there remains the need for traditional manufacturing skill sets and processes. She says: “There is still a requirement for the small machine shop, manufacturing a certain product in a certain way using standard materials or processes. That isn’t going to suddenly change overnight.”

Skills remain a serious challenge. Paul says: “We can’t get enough people into our businesses and not just on the product supply side.

“That’s why we are looking at ways to help people looking to get back into work. It’s also about engaging with young people to show them the opportunities.”

Enjoyed this? Read more from Ged Henderson

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