The UK is flying high with Airbus

It’s big business and crucial to the UK economy, but Chris Johnston asks what Airbus can do for smaller companies

Few of the tens of thousands of passengers globally who fly in an Airbus A380 every day will know that the wings of the superjumbo are assembled close to the Welsh border with England near Chester, before being shipped to France. The aircraft manufacturer employs about 6,000 people at Broughton and a further 4,000 at Filton near Bristol.

Colin Sirett, head of research and technology at Airbus UK, is one of the speakers at the Global Manufacturing Festival to be held in Sheffield on June 24 and 25. One aim of the event – part of the International Festival for Business 2014 – is to help small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) network with global giants such as Airbus and help them do business with big business. Raconteur asked Mr Sirett about the way in which his own company interacted with SMEs in Britain.

Q: What percentage of components used by Airbus in the UK is made in Britain?

A: We estimate that Airbus spends £2 billion annually within the UK supply chain through an extended supply network of more than 1,000 companies, accounting for some 100,000 jobs. It is not just the UK business that procures components from the UK – the company’s procurement is done on a global basis.

Q: How does Airbus in the UK’s work with the Aerospace Growth Partnership help to increase the British proportion of Airbus components?

A: The Aerospace Growth Partnership was established to provide a close forum between the aerospace industry and government. The partnership provides focus in four areas: strategy; technology; manufacturing; and skills. Through these streams Airbus is able to share its challenges and plans with the wider aerospace community in Britain.

The tangible outcomes from the partnership to date have been the formation of the Aerospace Technology Institute, whose brief is to align research capability around the country, and the National Aerospace Technology Programme, which is focused on supporting the SME community. This is clear recognition that particular effort is required to widen the capabilities of small and medium-sized enterprises in the UK.

The UK aerospace industry is the second-largest in the world, after the United States, and employs more than 100,000 people across the country

Airbus participates in supply chain working groups, and uses the Aerospace Growth Partnership conferences and workshops to share our procurement strategy with UK suppliers. The company works closely with regional aerospace trade associations on their supply chain initiatives, such as the West of England Aerospace Forum, the Welsh Aerospace Forum and the North West Aerospace Alliance. There are also initiatives regarding financing support – Airbus has recently bought a bank and the intention is that this might be able to help small and medium-sized businesses.

Q: Representatives from Airbus are speaking at the Global Manufacturing Festival this summer. What advice will they be giving SMEs that want to claim a stake in this work?

A: With the emerging infrastructure, under the guidance of the Aerospace Growth Partnership, the Aerospace Technology Institute and the National Aerospace Technology Programme, the advice to be shared with SMEs at the festival will be the future direction of Airbus technology and operational activities. In particular, they will outline how future demand is directing Airbus product development, what mechanisms are available to support the whole industry in the development of capabilities and how SMEs can best present their capabilities to gain a future position on developing aircraft products.

Q: In which areas and technologies can you see more supplies deriving from Britain and why?

A: The UK aerospace industry is the second-largest in the world, after the United States, and employs more than 100,000 people across the country. We are starting from a position of strength, but need the mechanisms in place to support the investment in metallic, composite, aerodynamics, aircraft systems and manufacturing technologies. Between the Aerospace Technology Institute and National Aerospace Technology Programme initiatives, this support covers both large companies and SMEs.

Q: Is the government doing all that it can to help companies such as Airbus source components and materials from British companies?

A: Yes. Again, the Aerospace Growth Partnership, the Aerospace Technology Institute and the National Aerospace Technology Programme infrastructure has, and is, providing a framework that enables British companies to access the technologies and learning which will help them remain competitive.

Q: Do you think events such as the Global Manufacturing Festival will help raise the profile of UK manufacturing and the role it can play in getting the economy moving once more?

A: Yes. The industry must continually communicate and promote its capabilities, participate in the technology projects, share experiences and be informed of the support structures available.