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North West England: an attractive region for composites and aerospace

News International-French

26 Feb 2011

With Europe’s 12th largest economy of almost £120 billion, England’s Northwest is home to 252,000 businesses. England’s Northwest is constituted of 5 sub-regions: Manchester, Liverpool, Lancashire, Cheshire and Cumbria. It has become a prime business location due to its expertise and strengths in a number of key sectors. The region trusts composites to boost some of its industries which is why it has invested in various research tools.

(Published on June-July 2010 - JEC Magazine #58)


Among the sectors interested in composite materials, aerospace has become predominant in the region. On the other end of the value chain, composites can find expertise in advanced flexible materials and chemicals.



Home to BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce, the region offers world-class manufacturing facilities and has been responsible for developing over 100 types of aircraft. The Northwest also accounts for a staggering one third of the UK’s total aerospace turnover, with £6.3 billion in annual sales. The sector has 48,500 employees and 800 businesses. It is also a major force in the UK export market, with 75% of sales going overseas.


Aerospace in Northwest’s England

Five key market drivers

  1. BAE Systems: F-35 Lightning II and Eurofighter Typhoon
  2. Rolls-Royce Engine Programmes Trent 900, 1000, XWB
  3. Airbus NSR Single Aisle (A320 replacement)
  4. Bombardier C-Series
  5. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)


Lancashire, the industry’s heartland, employs more skilled people than any other region and has been crucial to innovations including “intelligent” unmanned aerial vehicles and fuel-efficient aircraft engines.


Northwest universities are working closely with industry on numerous initiatives. One such project is the Northwest Composites Centre. This partnership between four of the region’s universities covers research and evaluation into highstrength composite materials. New composite technologies allow aerospace manufacturers to benefit from high-strength/lowweight materials at a viable production cost.


The region also has a £12m funded Aerospace Supply Chain Excellence 2 programme. Its key aim is to provide the conditions and infrastructure for the Northwest aerospace supply chain to develop into a world-class integrated cluster capable of competing globally.


This programme which is working with all the key Northwest Composites companies in the Composites Commodity Group. This group is working in a collective fashion to coordinate skills, innovation and shared services activity, whilst developing a composites strategy for the region.


Advanced flexible materials

With 65% of the UK market, the Northwest has the largest cluster in advanced flexible materials (AFM) manufacturers in Europe. Over 350 Northwest companies employ 25,000 people across a sub-sector that generates £2.5 billion in sales, with 65% of output overseas.


The AFM market serves much larger technologymanufacturing sectors including aerospace and defence, automotive, biomedical, environmental technologies and chemical processing. AFM is also in demand from the aerospace sector where advanced fabrics are used to enhance the latest generation of composite materials used in aviation technology. Close collaboration is also ongoing with the automotive sector where AFM manufactures are supplying engineering components woven from high-strength, ultralight carbon fibre in place of traditional steel or aluminium parts.


The region’s AFM offering is supported by a strong academic infrastructure. In addition to materials science departments within leading universities, Northwest institutes are leading the research behind textile and material technology. Facilities such as the Organic Materials Innovation Centre (OMIC) and the Northwest Composites Centre carry out a range of studies into electronic textiles, 3D weaving and coloration techniques. Among major AFM businesses in the region, it is worth pointing out Sigmatex and Lantor.




60% of the world’s Top 50 chemical companies are present in the Northwest. Businesses like Unilever and Shell UK work alongside the 12 universities feeding the sector, which has a GVA of £55,000 per employee.


The region’s chemicals industry employs a highly-skilled workforce of around 50,000 and generates a £9.4 billion annual turnover – that’s 23% of the UK’s chemicals output. The sector ranges from refineries and the manufacture of basic chemicals, through to specialities and materials, in addition to working alongside the thriving biomedical sector. Inward investment by major chemical companies has been a feature of the region’s success, as have home-grown developments such as INEOS and PZ Cussons.



Overall sector productivity is high (GVA of £2.8 billion), together with significant R&D investment and innovation, with chemicals accounting for 20% of patent applications from the region.


The Northwest Composites Centre

The Northwest Composites Centre was established by the Universities of Bolton, Lancaster, Liverpool and Manchester to create a centre of international scientific reputation to the benefit of industry. Created in 2006, it is now located in a new facility at the Aerospace Research Institute of the University of Manchester.


Accessing 60 academics and state-of-the-art equipment and facilities, the Northwest Composites Centre provides the following benefits:

  • a research centre offering new, low-energy, rapid manufacturing techniques for industry and academia;
  • long-term research projects aimed at improving company performance;
  • short-term evaluation of processes and materials.


The Northwest Composites Centre has been successful in its bid to secure funding from the Northwest Regional Development Agency so as to support a new Composite Certification and Evaluation Facility (CCEF).


The £4.7 million funding allocated by the NWDA is backed by additional funds and in-kind support provided by the university and industry, which will bring the value of the programme to £8.2 million. This money will be allocated to equipment and manpower, allowing the Centre to work directly with industry for the qualification of flight critical parts by companies with limited resources and possibly limited experience with composite materials. A full range of mechanical testing and NDT equipment will be purchased which will complement the already extensive processing and analytical facilities available at the Centre.


The need for such a facility had been identified in a number of forums, in particular by the Northwest Aerospace Alliance (NWAA) which is looking to bolster the aerospace supply chain as it makes the transition from metallic manufacturing to composite manufacturing to meet the needs of future aircraft building programmes. The major aircraft primes are increasingly devolving design responsibility out to the supply chain, along with the responsibility for component certification.


An objective of the new facility will be to work with overseas partners in the development of multi-user databases to streamline the qualification process and to reduce industry costs as a whole. The NWCC is one of the leading centres for the development of 3D textile composite components. Developing routes to qualify such parts will be an important priority area for the Centre.


The centre carries out long-term development projects such as:

  1. Accelerated curing by microwave heating;
  2. Robotic placement;
  3. Technical textile structures (preforms, auxetic behaviour, etc.);
  4. Rapid manufacture and structural evaluation of pultruded composite components;
  5. Hybrids (manufacture and evaluation of novel GLARE materials);
  6. Long-fibre metal-matrix composites.


The Northwest Composite Centre provides extensive facilities which can be used for a variety of applications including: Quickstep technology processing, microwave and RF processing, robotic tow placement, C-scan and X-ray imaging facility, impact testing, textile structures (braiding, weaving, knitting), prepregging facilities and RTM.



Composites are well implanted in Northwest England mainly due to end-user sectors such as aerospace and automotive. The region supports this industry, with the investment in the Northwest Composite Centre being a strong example of this support. Some of the biggest companies involved in aerospace composites in the region are listed in the previous page.