Aviation is on ‘a precipice’: Airbus plots course to net zero for UK aerospace

On the edge of Airbus’s sprawling wing-making factory in Broughton, north Wales, engineers are working in a smaller, nondescript building on a project that is key to the pan-European aircraft maker’s long-term future.

Here at AMRC Cymru, an offshoot of the University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre, the third and final full-size prototype of a new wing design — longer and thinner than the ones used on the current generation of airliners — is taking shape.

It is part of a wider research initiative to design more fuel-efficient aircraft to help achieve the global aviation industry’s highly ambitious aim to reach net zero emissions by 2050.

Aviation is on a “bit of a precipice” in terms of the transition to net zero, said Ben Morgan, research director of the AMRC. While it is a “huge opportunity . . . [it is] also a big risk”.

At stake is not just Airbus’s long-term future but that of the wider UK civil aircraft industry, which accounted for about two-thirds of the aerospace sector’s £27bn turnover from commercial and military programmes last year and a similar proportion of the 108,000 highly skilled workforce.

Unlike other parts of the UK manufacturing base — hamstrung by the government’s failure to produce a coherent industrial strategy — aerospace has, on the whole, benefited from long-term state support for research and development.

Industry executives credit initiatives such as the Aerospace Technology Institute, the body that allocates government funding for innovation in the civil aviation sector, for underpinning research into areas such as lightweight materials, wing technology and hydrogen propulsion.

The ATI helped fund the three prototype wings made at Broughton, a globally significant industrial centre that makes the wings for all but the smallest Airbus aircraft, including the best-selling A320 airliner.

Paul McKinlay, UK head of manufacturing at Airbus
Paul McKinlay, UK head of manufacturing at Airbus: ‘We are future-proofing wing manufacture in the UK’ © Fabio De Paola/FT

The prototypes will be used at Airbus’s development centre in Filton, near Bristol, to test new technologies and the industrial system needed to build them at speed and scale for the next-generation airliner, which could enter service in the late 2030s, although Airbus has not yet made any commitment.

“We are future-proofing wing manufacture in the UK,” said Paul McKinlay, UK head of manufacturing at Airbus.

Since its launch in 2013, the ATI has helped fund £3.58bn in research alongside industry. Last year, ministers authorised a further three-year £685mn state funding package, ending a 12-month moratorium on new applications for grants, which executives had warned risked cutting-edge R&D work going overseas.

The ATI estimates that the global market for more energy-efficient commercial aircraft will be worth £4.3tn by 2050. Its chief executive, Gary Elliott, said the UK was “competitive and comparable” to other countries and industry was “leaning into the opportunity [of net zero] and investing heavily”.

The potential reward for UK industry is significant if it can retain its leadership through the transition to net zero technology. The ATI estimates the UK could secure up to 18 per cent of that market, up from 12 per cent today.

Column chart of UK aerospace jobs, by category (’000s) showing The UK aerospace industry* employs 108,000 workers

Another recent example of an ATI-backed programme is the £29.5mn in funding to AMRC at its main site on the outskirts of Sheffield for research being led by Boeing, Airbus’s main competitor, to explore new manufacturing technologies for lightweight composite materials.

Maria Laine, president of Boeing for the UK, Ireland and Nordics, said the US group chose Britain for the work as it offered “all the right ingredients”. The UK is one of the most significant parts of Boeing’s global supply chain, sourcing from 650 British companies, according to Laine.

But despite being home to some of the biggest names in the aerospace supply chain — from Rolls-Royce’s aero-engines to GKN’s aerostructures business — there are challenges ahead.

Executives worry about a shortage of workers and skills, and whether enough of the funding is flowing down to smaller suppliers. “The UK supply chain in aerospace had been reducing,” said Katherine Bennett, chief executive of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult.

There were questions over whether many of the smaller companies were “really investing in the new technologies that the likes of Airbus and Boeing were wanting”, she added.

A worker inspects a wing for Airbus’s best-selling A320 family of aircraft
A worker inspects a wing for Airbus’s best-selling A320 family of aircraft © Fabio De Paola/FT

Morgan of the AMRC said an industrial strategy was key to maintaining a healthy supply chain by helping small and medium-sized companies to grow. “Whilst it’s fine having an innovation strategy and a hydrogen strategy . . . we’ve got to bind those together under some sort of industrial strategy that gives SMEs the confidence to be able to scale up.”

There would also be benefits, Morgan said, from greater co-operation with the UK’s military aerospace sector, which is working on cutting-edge technology as it develops a next-generation combat aircraft together with Italy and Japan.

Concerns also remain about the funding environment to deliver new technologies at scale.

Val Miftakhov, chief executive of Anglo-American start-up ZeroAvia, which has received £15mn in grants to develop hydrogen-electric aircraft engines, said the UK excelled in early R&D.

“But too often [it] does not capture the full benefits for the taxpayer of that early investment due to challenges that scale-ups face in securing later-stage capital for commercialisation domestically,” he said.

Graphic explaining why Airbus is trialling folding wingtips on new wing designs

Nusrat Ghani, minister for industry and economic security, insisted the UK had a “proven record of backing our world-class manufacturing sector”, adding that the government was ensuring it had “the right competitive business environment to continue leading the way”.

The government is promising to publish details of an “advanced manufacturing plan” in the coming months but executives said more urgency was needed to drive co-ordination across sectors to deliver the necessary infrastructure for a net zero economy.

There is a “good understanding about what needs to be done”, said Russ Dunn, chief technology officer at GKN Aerospace, which last month teamed up with Rolls-Royce, Airbus and low-cost airline easyJet to accelerate the development of an aviation hydrogen infrastructure. “The challenge is in creating the right infrastructure and economic terms to make that happen.”

Back in Broughton, Airbus’s McKinlay agreed: “The government needs to think about that long-term vision that is so important to the sector.”

​Letter in response to this article:

Air­bus col­lab­or­a­tion was what saved UK aerospace / From Professor Keith Hayward, Fellow, Royal Aeronautical Society; Fellow, French Air and Space Academy, London SW20, UK


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