In its ninth year, Advanced Engineering 2017 brought together experts from the composites industry, discussing how to overcome the uncertainty caused by Brexit and if automation is the answer. Kathryn Allen reports.
Taking over Birmingham’s National Exhibition Centre for two days, Advanced Engineering incorporated numerous stands, allowing companies to display their latest innovations or products, and seminars, covering technical developments, industry news and forecasts.
The event was divided into five zones – aero engineering, automotive engineering, composites engineering, connected manufacturing and performance metals engineering. This allowed an exchange between delegates from these industries, sharing experiences of current uncertainty.
Two key themes arose across seminars on day one of Advanced Engineering – the uncertainty caused by Brexit and the resulting need for contingency plans, and the need to compensate for and close the skills gap in engineering. While speakers remained optimistic about industry forecasts, the necessity to adapt to these challenges was repeated.
Alexander Aucken, Chair of the Composites Leadership Forum delivered the keynote composites seminar, Strategy Delivery and Sector Deal, summarising these issues. While stating that the industry is changing and developing at an unprecedented pace and that the UK is becoming increasingly competitive in the global market, Aucken outlined key issues, including legislation, environmental obstacles, public opinion, cost and political dynamics, that the industry needs to overcome in order to expand. He also pointed out the issue of skills development now and in the future, stating that questions regarding the apprenticeship levy’s use need to be discussed with government ministers.
Aucken claimed the industry is ‘fraught with headaches’, but concluded that the UK can become a global leader in the market. According to him, the automotive and construction industries are areas of potential growth and investment for composites.
This claim was reinforced by technical presentations on composite developments. Chris Hare, Technology Manager at Coventive Composites gave a seminar on Making Bad Composites For Good Reasons. These so-called bad composites are anti-ballistic composites, of which there are two types – soft armour and hard armour. Soft armour is easy to produce, lightweight and flexible, but limited to certain threats, while hard armour can negate serious threats, but is heavy and inflexible. While traditional, high-quality composites are designed to have the highest strength and stiffness possible, Hare explained that anti-ballistic composites are designed for controlled disintegration and energy dissipation, for example, if hit by a 9mm round.
Coventive Composites is working with partners based in the UK including Sheffield Hallam and Cranfield Universities and XeraCarb, on LightArmour – a project aiming to develop armour made from a combination of self-reinforced polymer composites and lightweight ceramics (read more about this project here).
Hare concluded that while it is a complicated undertaking to develop new anti-ballistic composites, lower cost solutions are possible and innovative design can be achieved with self-reinforced composites.
The expanding market for composites was also discussed in the stand zone. Russ Meddes, Business Development Director at advanced composite manufacturing firm Pentaxia, told Materials World, ‘Materials suppliers have been reporting that the industry has been fairly flat for the last year or two, however, statistics show there is growth in the global market. […] The rail industry has, so far, been reluctant to use composites, but we are looking to change this. As trains need to carry more people, the structures need to become stronger but lighter. Composites could offer great opportunities for lightweight components of trains.’
Despite Pentaxia’s plans to expand its industrial reach, aided by the fall in the pound and their resulting competitive position in the global market, Meddes acknowledged that there is a level of uncertainty in the industry as a result of Brexit. Labour is also an issue, as Meddes explained. ‘There are always recruitment issues in composites and it can be difficult to get good people.’ According to him, increasing automation helps to reduce pressure on a labour-driven market.
The future is robotic?
In contrast to Meddes' acceptance of automation, Mike Wilson, UK and Ireland Business Development Manager for ABB Robotics, UK, gave a seminar on Robotics in UK Manufacturing, stating that the UK invests less in robots – outside of the automotive sector – compared to Germany, Sweden, Italy and France. Wilson explained that this is due to UK manufacturers’ belief that robots are not suited to various industries and are expensive and inflexible. He listed the benefits of automation as improved productivity, less waste, consistent high-quality and improved health and safety, but acknowledged the associated upfront costs. Giving the example of CHX Products – a UK manufacturer of plastic products – Wilson outlined that productivity could be increased by automation to a level allowing companies to compete on a global scale.