Airbus could look outside the UK when it is time to manufacture wings for the next generation of narrowbody aircraft unless the country makes further investment in its composites capabilities. And UK trade body the Society of British Aerospace Companies warns that such a move could slash the UK's estimated 17% share of the global civil aerospace industry.
SBAC chief executive Ian Godden says he is concerned that the UK's global aerospace market share could fall to levels held by its pharmaceutical industry (13%) or automotive industry (4%). "Unless we invest in the technology and unless we get the industry and political scene to make sure that wings are still part of our future, we're down the slippery slope," Godden warned during the launch of the association's annual survey of the UK aerospace industry and its UK Civil Aerospace Strategy Report.
Cancellation of the UK's Airbus A400M acquisition contract would also be damaging to composites capabilities, SBAC believes. Godden notes there is a significant time gap between launch of the A350 XWB programme, now under way, and the launch of the A320 replacement (dubbed A30X), which is unlikely before the end of the next decade.
"That gap, in terms of production and engineering, is best filled by the A400M," he says. Without that work the UK could be overtaken by Germany or Spain, warns Godden, who is calling for greater government support.
The SBAC's report asserts that since 2003 "there has been a continuing erosion of the UK's manufacturing role on Airbus wings", citing the allocation of A350 wing covers to Airbus plants in Stade, Germany and Illescas, Spain, and that of A400M covers to Stade.
However, as noted by the report, a National Aerospace Technology Strategy (agreed by industry and the Department for Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform) is in place. It includes the £100 million ($164 million), Airbus-led Next Generation Composite Wing project involving 17 UK research organisations and firms.
Meanwhile, the SBAC's annual industry survey found that R&D expenditure fell 32.2% in 2008 to £1.83 billion. The extent of this "was not fully anticipated", says Godden. Among other findings were a 0.85% increase in revenue, a 1.3% drop in civil sales, a 3.1% rise in defence sales and an 11.1% fall in workforce numbers.