Mike Richardson discovers how Bombardier’s involvement in the new Northern Ireland Advanced Composites & Engineering Centre (NIACE) can help the region and its SMEs move up the value chain to compete on a global platform.
Bombardier Aerospace, Belfast recently announced its intention to support pioneering collaborative research and development projects in the NIACE. The company says it’s vital the region continues developing new technologies and skills in the aerospace manufacturing sector.
Funding to build the £6 million centre was announced last year and includes financing from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) through the Strategic Investment Fund, Invest Northern Ireland and Bombardier Aerospace.
Queen’s University Belfast and the University of Ulster co-own and operate the 3,700m2 facilities, which were inspired by the work of MATRIX’s Advanced Materials and Advanced Engineering sub-panels.
In short, NIACE is an industry-led, university-hosted technology hub for the research and development of advanced engineering and advanced materials technologies, particularly in the area of advanced composite technologies and caters for a range of industrial sectors.
Participating companies will be co-located with academic staff from both universities to collaborate on developing world-class technology solutions for a breadth of manufacturing applications. The centre will help Northern Ireland’s manufacturing sector grow and develop its capabilities, enabling it to compete more successfully on both a national and global stage.
NIACE will also operate as a regional gateway to offer access to UK, Irish and European networks in high value manufacturing and advanced engineering including lightweight materials and low carbon technologies.
“We’ve had a strategic intention to work along the lines of NIACE for some time now,” begins Bombardier Aerospace Belfast’s director of engineering, Gavin Campbell (above right). “It became clear through a series of discussions that NIACE was something that not only Bombardier saw a need for, but also other aerospace and non-aerospace manufacturers, universities and indeed the local development agency of the devolved administration in Northern Ireland were very enthusiastic about too. When we realised we were all looking for more or less the same thing, it all came together and gathered some momentum.”
A melting pot of ideas
The MATRIX report refers to industry-led innovation communities and in many ways has become an inspirational model for Bombardier and its partners. Campbell feels that the idea of co-locating a community of like-minded technical people is very much at the heart of what Bombardier is trying to do.
“What you’ll see at NIACE is different to other centres in that all the development spaces are open plan, so that all organisations can freely work together,” he continues. “While this can pose potential challenges regarding intellectual property and industrial secrets, these are issues that we just have to deal with. The upside is that this melting pot of ideas becomes a reality, because not only are people formally working on research projects, they’re having discussions around the coffee machine too. There are opportunities to promote small topics of conversation that can happen informally too.
“The aim of NIACE is to facilitate advanced manufacturing and materials, and in many ways has become a landmark project for MATRIX. It was through MATRIX that NIACE caught the eye of the Department of Enterprise Trade & Investment Northern Ireland and it came onboard when it realised there was such a good link between MATRIX and what both industry and the universities required. The deciding factor came when various economic reviews in Northern Ireland all pointed out the importance of what the Government was calling ‘high value manufacturing’. This was of significant strategic importance to Northern Ireland, so it really became a 'win-win' scenario for everyone.”
Home from home
In much the same way as you can check in and out of a hotel, the growth in technology centres around the UK now means you can check into these centres to check out the latest product creations undergoing R&D. Hirsute 70s soft rockers, The Eagles once sang about the Hotel California; such a lovely place where ‘you can check-out any time you like, but you can never leave.’ Now, with centres like NIACE operating a membership model similar to those being adopted by the National Composites Centre in Bristol and the Manufacturing Technology Centre in Coventry, you could well ask who would want to?
“Although our model is similar, NIACE differs is that it doesn’t actually employ its own research staff,” affirms Campbell. “Instead, the centre’s research staff works for any one of the participating organisations, which could be a company like Bombardier and Wright Bus, or one of the universities. So we see huge opportunities for the centre; it’s a distinct and separate entity that we describe as an extension of the university campus, because technically it’s owned by the partnership of Queens University and the University of Ulster. Whilst they regard it as part of their campus, it also benefits Bombardier because it’s very close to our factory, so our engineers can freely come and go just as the academics can. I think this helps promotes a healthy technology transfer between business and academia.
“We can help all parties by making the whole technology transfer model more tangible and get engineers working alongside each other. This may well mean bringing some of our factory-based engineers into the research centre to talk to academics and get a better understanding of the fundamental science. Alternatively, it might mean some academics will move into our factory and examine some of our manufacturing problems to see if they can help us to gain a better understanding. These are the spin-off benefits that you wouldn’t normally get in a separate research environment or institute.”
You, me, everybody
Campbell adds that there is an opportunity not only for Bombardier, but for other companies taking part in the NIACE centre too: “This is one of the centre’s aspirations; it can act as a neutral space where potential suppliers and customers can collaborate on technology, see if it works and then grow the relationship from there. We see opportunities for companies to use it in this way, as it’s a facility and a method that hasn’t been available till now.”
Bombardier is one of five companies at present that is actively involved in the various stages of signing up. According to Campbell, this is only the first wave of companies that will be looking to join.
“I would like to see 10-15 organisations involved in the centre within the first two to three years and there is every prospect this will happen,” he avows. “NIACE’s general manager & competence centre manager, Dr Scott King is very active in talking to companies who really want to get involved, so we’re excited by the concept. We’re really only at the start of the execution phase: we’ve done the planning, built the centre, and we’re still in the process of equipping the centre and getting it up to speed. In the next few years you’ll see many more companies sign up as participants in the centre.
“These companies will be getting onboard and identifying projects or technologies they want to work on. However, don’t join the centre to try and find some work to do. Instead, identify what your business needs to do and the technology it wants to find out more about. Once you’ve got your idea, visit the centre to see how it can help. Both universities are actively planning to implement significant research resources, i.e. people in the centre. At this stage, the people who are already on staff at the universities are dividing their time between other campuses and the centre, so we’re already seeing more academics than normal and this should increase as time goes on. The universities may find that increasingly more of their projects in NIACE will actually respond to industrial needs. There’s always this push-pull relationship with technology where universities enjoy quality ‘blue sky’ thinking in coming up with new ideas, but have a tough time finding a good home for them.”
It makes you think
Campbell says that Bombardier will have some problem-oriented ideas worthy of research, and equally, the universities will have many blue sky ideas they are looking to find homes for. Going forward, these discussions will resolve in many industrially-led research programmes in both universities.
“The universities’ research is now responding to a fundamental industrial need, which was very much what MATRIX was espousing, i.e. that if we can get our academic colleagues more focused on real industrial needs then we can start making some good progress,” he concludes.
“This is not just a theme being developed in Northern Ireland; it’s one that you see in BIS, the Technology Strategy Board and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council at a UK level - and within the European Union too. It’s a theme and a universal direction, and centres like NIACE and the NCC are all responding to this shift in thinking. What we’ll see in the coming years is a far better alignment between the work being carried out in universities and that going on in manufacturing companies, and I think the broader economic gain for the country is something we all stand to gain from.”