Paris Air Show

Skills, value attract aerospace to Wales

 - December 15, 2006, 11:00 AM

In the aerospace world, the West is definitely looking east these days. Western manufacturers see Asia and eastern Europe as important emerging markets and as sources of low-cost production capacity. But some parts of the West are trying to persuade other Westerners that they don’t have to look quite so far east for the value and opportunity they crave.

Take Wales, for example. Its classic post-industrial economy is now successfully reinventing itself as a hub of aerospace activity. In fact, reinventing may be the wrong word because parts of Wales have deep-rooted aerospace origins, such as in the northeast around Broughton, where Airbus wings are made and where Raytheon still builds airframes for Hawker business jets a full decade after acquiring this business from what was then British Aerospace.

In the west of Wales, Parc Aberporth is establishing itself as a center of excellence for the testing and development of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). And in south Wales, General Electric, British Airways and Nordam are running major repair and overhaul operations for, respectively, engines, airliners and nacelles.

The planned launch of the A350 jetliner would further bolster prospects for Airbus UK’s Broughton plant, as does the pending production phase for the larger A380. But they also bring challenges, mainly the need to ensure that the necessary skill sets will be available for advanced technology programs such as these.

The composite A350 wing will require a broad UK supply chain that can deliver all the required composite structures. In a bid to ensure that Airbus wing manufacturing stays in north Wales, Aerospace Wales Forum has made it its business to fill any gaps in this composites supply chain–a process that may tap into any available A350 launch aid. One company, TVI, has already received some funding to establish a nondestructive test facility for composites at Port Talbot.

“We can’t afford to lose any elements of the skills cluster,” said the industry group’s CEO, John Whalley, reflecting on the prospect of Broughton also being selected to build wings for the A400M military transport.

Aerospace Wales Forum now has around 100 member companies and is funded by the Welsh Assembly government. According to Whalley, this devolved political authority is much more responsive to economic development issues than the UK national government. “It is much easier to get decisions made quickly here in Wales than it is in London or in the English regions, and we can direct access to the top decision makers,” he told Aviation International News.

The 150 or so Welsh firms active in aerospace account for some $3.6 billion in annual sales and employ 20,000 people (about 10 percent of the UK’s aerospace workforce). Six of the world’s top 10 aerospace groups have operations in Wales: EADS, BAE Systems, GE, General Dynamics, Raytheon and Thales.

One part of the effort to ensure that the Welsh workforce has the right portfolio of skills to attract and keep aerospace investment is the Aerospace Wales Knowledge Services Network. This group brings together the country’s educational opportunities, ranging from aerospace engineering degrees at the universities of Cardiff, Swansea and Aberystwyth to maintenance technician training at Barry College.

Parc Aberporth at West Wales Airport is being positioned as a technology park for UAV development and testing. The area has long been used for deploying and tracking target drones and now a case is being made for using the controlled airspace of Cardigan Bay for trials involving both civil and military UAVs.

The 20-acre first phase of the development is due to open in September and will offer just over 43,000 sq ft of accommodation for UAV development groups. A further 30 acres will be developed under the second phase.  Parc Aberporth will host the Unmanned Systems airshow on September 6 and 7.

DARA Invests in its Future

In April, the Defence Aviation Repair Agency (DARA) opened a $140 million, 450,000-sq-ft super-hangar at St. Athan Royal Air Force base on the south coast of Wales. The fixed-wing aircraft maintenance facility is immediately adjacent to St. Athan’s 6,000-foot runway and contains three separate hangars, which can be subdivided into six separate bays. The overall site spans more than 900 acres, some 400 of which are available for development by other aerospace companies.

DARA has been losing key military aircraft overhaul and maintenance contracts to private-sector rivals such as Marshall Aerospace and BAE Systems, and is now looking to redefine its core activities. It is widely expected that DARA it may be privatized or restructured in some way.