The UK's aerospace industry has secured a landmark deal with government to ensure research in new technology carries on despite the economic austerity aflicting the country and its key trading partners.
A seven-year agreement to channel £2 billion ($3 billion) into research and development - £150 million yearly from government, matched by the industry - should ensure that UK firms have the technology to lead the design and development of aircraft that will replace the current generation of airliners, particularly the single-aisle Airbus A320 and Boeing 737.
The sums of money involved are substantial, but what is really critical is the deal's longevity, which creates an effective aerospace policy in a country where government is often accused of not having coherent vision for industry, says GKN Aerospace chief executive Marcus Bryson, who as head of the aerospace section at the UK's ADS trade association as well as the government-industry Aerospace Growth Forum, has been leading negotiations with the government. "For once, we've got a government that is committed to support an industry not in the electoral cycle, but in the business cycle," he told Flightglobal.
Stressing that industry faces a "barren period" of several years before any all-new programmes are launched, Bryson says "now is not the time to take our foot off the gas" in research and technology. Rather, he says, the industry is now entering a key period of preparation for the so-called next-generation single-aisle aircraft. Since no-one knows yet what those aircraft will look like - radical designs like open-rotor engines and blended-wing bodies are being discussed - the winners will be those companies who have worked now to develop breakthrough technologies.
The message is clear, says Bryson: "The UK is open for aerospace. Come and do your research here."
Bryson has long made the case for co-ordinating, and financially supporting, UK aerospace research, and is pleased that this new deal has a broader remit than just research and technology. The Aerospace Technology Institute being created will also look at skills and training as well as ways to help smaller companies in the UK supply chain get involved in relatively early stages of product development. As Bryson said on the eve of the 2012 Farnborough air show, while "the big boys can look after themselves" - his own GKN is a world-leader in composite manufacturing, closely allied with Airbus in wing design and a research partner with Rolls-Royce and others - the UK's small- to medium-sized suppliers risk losing opportunities to foreign competitors that may be more able to work as design partners, rather than mere build-to-print contractors.
Under the new plan, government and industry cash will fund the new Aerospace Technology Institute, with - initially - a small staff of up to 50 people seconded from industry who will co-ordinate research projects that can be supported by UK industry and academia. Part of their job will be to ensure these efforts dovetail with, rather than reproduce, other research already supported by, say the UK's National Composites Centre or technology research boards.
The details of governance of what will amount to a "virtual" research institute are still being worked out, says Bryson. But, he adds, while it is premature to suggest the move represents a British answer to national aerospace research bodies like Germany's DLR, France's Onera or NASA, the fact that ATI has been created with a long-term remit should not be understated. This security of funding will underpin the industry's confidence in government support for a coherent strategy designed to ensure that the aerospace industry remains a UK high-technology success story, says Bryson.
It may not be difficult to appreciate government enthusiasm for aerospace - according to the ADS, the UK has a 17% global market share in aerospace, second only to the USA, with some 2,600 companies providing over 100,000 direct jobs and £24.2bn of UK revenue in 2011, 75% of which was exported. But, says Bryson, it remains a political challenge to dedicate as much money to the ATI as is being stumped up. "I can't give the government enough credit for doing this at a time when public finances are under such strain," he says.
The initiative looks to be followed by others; according to the UK's Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, there will be "further funding for other key sectors".
Michael Fallon, minister of state at the department, is Bryson's government counterpart in the Aerospace Growth Partnership. That initiative, begun two years ago, had before this week's £2 billion agreement succeeded in establishing another "virtual" research institute, the UK Centre for Aerodynamics. Announced just before Farnborough 2012, a £60 million contribution from central government is pulling together existing testing and modelling facilities into a coherent unit responsible for co-ordinating and supporting. That money included £10 million to upgrade facilities and £50 million to fund research.