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IMechE: UK must seize opportunity presented by composites industry

Institution Of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) : 27 March, 2014  (Special Report)
The world composites industry is worth £50 billion, but commercial barriers are hampering UK growth. Andy Pye reviews new research from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.
According to the research, outlined in a policy statement called Composites - Consolidating the UK's Competitiveness, the growth of the UK composites sector is being hampered by poor collaboration between companies, lack of appropriate codes and standards, a fractured supply chain and a drop in the number of university courses offering composite-specific degrees. 
Dr Helen Meese, Head of Materials at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, said: “As manufacturers strive to improve the performance of the materials they use, the demand for composite materials is set to grow rapidly, with the end-product market expected to be worth £50 billion in the next five years.
"If the UK is to seize the opportunity presented by this growing industry, UK manufacturers must urgently look to address key barriers working with the composites industry. The National Composites Centre has been very successful since its creation in 2009, but it is now time for the wider industrial community to build on this foundation.
“To enable the UK composites industry to grow, it is vital for us to identify gaps in the UK skills base and supply chain network, and Government needs to work with the Composites Leadership Forum and UK Trade & Investment to increase international exposure to the UK composites market.
“We need extra funding to ensure the UK is in the vanguard of international standard setting for composites and that they encourage, rather than hamper progress.
“There is also a need for cross-sector engagement within the manufacturing industry. Engineers working on composites for the aerospace sector for example, need to share knowledge with engineers working on composites for rail and biomedical applications, otherwise we will continue to see the slow development of key skills, Research & Development as well as an inefficient supply chain.
“The UK led the way in the development of composites in the 1990s and Government needs to ensure the country does not get overshadowed by competition from countries such as China, Germany, the Middle East and India.”
Composites - Consolidating the UK's Competitiveness considers the markets for composites in detail: the UK’s composites industry currently employs over 40,000 people and has an estimated turnover of £1.6bn a year.
Currently, the total global aerospace market is valued at £102bn with the UK aerospace industry generating approximately £24bn in revenue in 2011 (75% from exports), making it the second largest global supplier. In comparison, the global composite product market for aerospace, mainly carbon-based, is worth approximately £5.4bn.
The UK aerospace sector continues to develop new designs and manufacturing techniques using composites for both wings and engines
  • BAE Systems produced about £100m of composite structures in 2011.
  • Rolls-Royce, GKN, GE and Bombardier are all utilising composites in their products
  • 25% of the Airbus A380 was produced using composite materials, as well as 52% of the new A350.
But the UK’s position in aerospace composites structures has not changed significantly in the last few years. The UK’s world-leading position, however, is under growing threat from overseas competition as foreign governments strategically target their composite industries, opening the doors for greater private investment. France, Spain, Japan and Malaysia have all undertaken programmes to improve capability in the composites sector through government-led incentives and this could see the UK market put under more pressure as manufacturing is shifted to lower-cost economies.
The construction market accounts for 13% of the world’s industrial output (approximately £4.5 trillion), employing 7% of the world’s total workforce. In 2011 the construction industry was the largest user of composites, consuming 24% of the world’s supply. The UK’s construction industry (annual turnover of £100bn) has been at the forefront of developing innovative uses of materials to reduce carbon impact, driven by the introduction of the Climate Change Act of 2008. The Startlink project for Lightweight Building Systems has recently constructed a house using composite materials to demonstrate their energy-saving potential. Additionally, Network Rail and London Underground have been recognised among some of Europe’s leading experts with their use of composites in tunnel repair. However, the UK construction sector is predominately made up of SMEs (of the 2 million people employed in the sector, 800,000 are self-employed) and in an industry dominated by strict codes and standards, there has been a slow uptake in the use of composites due to lack of knowledge across the sector, poor skills base and cost-sensitivity of the market. The UK could potentially fail to capitalise on the innovative technologies it is developing and a share of the vast global market.
The world’s energy consumption has grown by 70% in the last 30 years and the global gas and oil industry is now valued at £1.9 trillion with demand set to increase by a further 50% by 2030. 70% of the UK’s energy comes from oil and gas and in 2011 the UK was still the third largest gas and second largest oil producer in Europe (producing 656 million barrels of oil equivalent). The processing and delivery of oil and gas from ever more hard-to-reach places requires new and innovative technologies and materials to be developed, and the corrosion resistance and low cost of composites make them ideal for use in this industry. The UK is a world leader in the fabrication of equipment for the petrochemical industry. GE Wellstream, for example, have developed a new spoolable pipe technology, which has allowed it to move from traditional pipe materials to composites, improving the pipe’s life and performance characteristics. Yet regulatory controls on the use of composites in the UK continue to hamstring the pipe-making industry.
While the UK led the way in the 1990s, there has been a slow and steady decline, compounded by lack of research funding, poor skills development and obstructive codes and standards. Now overshadowed by growing competition from overseas companies in places such as China, Germany, the Middle East and India, commercial barriers in the UK (detailed below) must be overcome to enable the UK composites sector to maintain its place in this rapidly growing industry.
In 2009 the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) launched the UK Composites Strategy, setting out how the composites industry could best engage the wider manufacturing community by raising awareness and establishing a forum to engage stakeholders. BIS acknowledged the need to increase manufacturing capacity in an ever more competitive market, particularly in skills and the supply chain. This initiative led to the establishment of the National Composites Centre (NCC), an open-access facility and the UK’s centre of excellence for composite innovation. Along with a number of other composite organisations, the NCC is part of the High Volume Manufacturing (HVM) Catapult, encompassing safety, regulation and research to promote and develop the UK composites market.
The establishment of the Composites Leadership Forum (CLF) in 2012 provided a single voice for the industry and a base from which a strategic plan could be developed. The CLF recognises this can be achieved only with the co-operation of the wider UK industry. In collaboration with the Materials Knowledge Transfer Network, sector groups and other organisations, a strategic roadmap for the composites industry was defined in 2013, but there remains a considerable amount of work to do. So far, £300m has been invested over the last five years (from EPSRC, TSB and EU funding) to support collaborative research projects. Government must continue to push forward on its 2009 strategy and ensure that greater attention is given to specialist markets such as the composites industry, by continuing to raise awareness of the economic and commercial opportunities to both UK and international manufacturing businesses.
There are a number of industrial sectors in the UK using or developing uses for composite materials as described earlier. It is evident from initial investigations by the CLF, however, that there is a distinct lack of cross-sector engagement regarding composites; companies from one sector do not know what methodologies and technical advancements are being made in other sectors. This has resulted in slow commercialisation of R&D, poor understanding of composite applications and manufacturing techniques, an inefficient supply chain and an inadequately trained workforce unable to cross sector boundaries.
The CLF is making strides to address this, but the wider UK manufacturing community must also make every effort to engage with the composites sector to identify gaps in knowledge, reduce duplication across sectors and assist in strengthening the supply chain; capturing a critical mass necessary for the UK composites industry to compete on a global scale.
Selected References
  • Shakspeare, P, Smith, F, UK Composites 2013: Status, Opportunities and Direction, Department for Business, Innovation & Skills, Composite Leadership Forum, 2013.
  • Ernst & Young LLP, UK Composite Supply Chain Scoping Study – Key Findings, London, Department for Business, Innovation & Skills and UK Trade & Investment, April 2010.
  • The Inter-Agency Composites Group, Technology Needs to Support Advanced Composites in the UK, 2009.
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