A Very British Success Story

Mark Sandford - May 2011
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A new factory in Avonmouth, near Bristol, has now begun production of the wing spar for the new Airbus A350. This plant is owned by GKN p.l.c, the global engineering company who also have a major presence in automotive markets. The wing spar is manufactured from carbon fibre, a composite material, which is now being applied to both civil and military applications for several reasons. Carbon fibre has the strength of metal without the weight, therefore enabling an airliner such as the Airbus A350 to fly greater distances, but use less fuel.

At least 300 jobs have been secured at Avonmouth by the application of high technology. The Airbus A350 is still in the development phase, but a prototype is now being built at Toulouse, the home of Airbus Industries. There is no substitute for this kind of success and the UK's economic prospects might be transformed, if this innovation could be repeated a 100 times across the country. Airbus is now a part of EADS, the huge aerospace conglomerate, which also includes Eurocopter and Eurofighter GmbH.

Continuing the aerospace theme, another British designed product is also winning overseas orders and securing jobs in the United Kingdom. The AW101 Merlin, formally known as the EH101 Merlin, has been selected by the government of Turkmenistan to provide a platform for VVIP transport with 2 helicopters ordered. Italy has also ordered another 2 examples to be operated in the CSAR role or Combat Search and Rescue. This is the first time that the Merlin has been chosen for this role. Earlier this year, AgustaWestland won a major overseas contract to supply the AW101 Merlin to the Indian Air Force with 12 helicopters on order. This was obviously a huge boost to the aerospace industry in the United Kingdom and a crucial win for the plant at Yeovil, which assembles the Merlin.

The AW101 Merlin was originally designed as a collaborative venture between Westland Helicopters and Agusta in Italy who at the time were both separate entities. The new platform was intended to replace the Sikorsky Sea King in the anti-submarine role, but later found application elsewhere notably in the battlefield utility role. Indeed the Merlin has now attained combat proficiency in such theatres as Iraq and Afghanistan, a fact not lost on potential customers. The rotorcraft can also be operated in other roles such as airborne mine countermeasures or airborne surveillance and area control (ASAC)

Following the collapse of Communism in 1989, Agusta and Westland were forced to recognise market reality and chose to merge so that a bigger company would be better placed to deal with overseas competition, particularly such manufacturers as Sikorsky and Bell. Both companies rely on huge domestic defence contracts. AgustaWestland are now owned by the Italian conglomerate, Finnemeccanica, and the structure has stood the test of time.

To conclude, the nation needs more success stories such as this to thrive as a major trading and industrial nation. We do possess first class engineering talent in this country which must be nurtured and expanded. The government should also recognise that applied sciences and engineering are the wealth creating disciplines of tomorrow and give more onus to this, particularly in higher education. Everyone accepts that, at the moment, the State has to tighten its belt, and money is tight. However if we aspire to prosper in the future, we will need a critical mass of talent, particularly in science and engineering. (see www.agustawestland.com

Mark Sandford - Permission granted to freely distribute this article for non-commercial purposes if attributed to Mark Sandford, unedited and copied in full, including this notice.

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