In a Q&A session, Dr Neil Calder meets with National Composites Centre (NCC) chief executive, Richard Oldfield to learn more about how its facilities, capabilities and reputation have developed over the years and the opportunities that lie ahead.
The NCC is one of seven innovation and technology centres that make up the High Value Manufacturing Catapult. On a mission to accelerate the growth of UK industrial output by enabling design and manufacturing enterprises to deliver winning solutions in the application of composites. Richard Oldfield was appointed last year having previously been one of its founding steering board members.
Q) I understand you have been developing accessibility to the NCC service offering, specifically for SMEs. Can you explain?
Bringing new investment into the facility and broadening our offer has been key. We are introducing ten new composite processes, seven of which provide world-leading capability.
Q) Are these centred around any specific technology areas?
The interesting thing is the blend – we are extending the Centre’s capabilities across many sectors. Moulding technologies are more automotive-based, driven by rate and productivity requirements. Others are driven by the larger opportunities, particularly in construction, aerospace, and energy. Consequently, as the uptake of composites reaches more sectors, the capabilities of the centre broaden. Aerospace is interesting as it is a generation ahead of some of these other industries. It has gone through this journey and is now in the second or third generation composite wave, whereas if you look at some of the other sectors, you’re looking at first- or second-generation applications.
Q) Is the facility there to leapfrog generations: to go from first/second to fourth?
Absolutely - but the requirements to consider composites more widely are where you get the transformation of change, i.e. for wind turbines, doubling the power output per machine suddenly needs different technologies. To go from a 10MW to a 20MW machine, you’re now talking about structures that are the size of The Shard. There is the need to investigate the underpinning technology, so yes, you will always need to make at scale, but it’s the crossover of where before, they didn’t need aerospace standard technology and didn’t need the amount of structural tailoring that you need in aerospace - they now need different material solutions. So, it isn’t necessarily the ability here to make an enormous wind turbine, it’s the underpinning technology to enable that.
Q) Is there a focus on digitalisation here; the zeitgeist of industry?
Every one of the new bits of capability is fully digitally enabled. We are partnered with the Centre For Modelling and Simulation (CFMS) here in Bristol, and we have a ‘digital for composites’ strategy. We’re trying to connect the whole cycle from the requirement capture through design and manufacturing into validation and then downstream to the lifecycle and all the way through to the in-service feedback to understand the pure lifecycle. It’s about the transfer of digital data in between each element of the process and joining it all up.
Q) Then the whole issue of closed-loop economies becomes even more evident?
Exactly. For example, we’ve done a programme of in-process validating work looking at the infusion of a part where we put sensors in the tool, so we know during the process whether the part is going to be good or not and then we can adjust the process if we see that something is happening rather than making the part and not knowing if there is a problem until you open the mould.
Q) Actually, knowing where things are rather than just hoping that they are on nominal?
We work out what we need to collect, then do the data analytics. At this point, you can apply artificial intelligence to it, so then you can start to say ‘right, now I know what I need to alter’ and get that feedback loop working.
Q) That’s all very much along the technology evolution axis, but how does that play against accessibility for the non-traditional composites players?
That provides a much wider breadth of capability which makes is accessible for different applications. We have re-organised by sector to differentiate the requirements from the different sectors and truly understand where the crossover is. We group aerospace and defence, energy, including renewables, oil, gas and nuclear, plus automotive and rail, because they have got similar requirements of higher volumes, lower costs and similar technologies. Then we have emerging markets for example construction and marine. We know that there is a massive potential for composites in construction.
To service these, we have set up a business unit called ‘NCC Connect’, which we launched at JEC World this year, which is there to provide very easy, rapid response access to technical support for SMEs. Basically, a company can contact us saying “I’ve got in a mess here, I just don’t know how to solve this problem, I can’t afford to employ a materials team, I can’t afford to employ an automation team, can you help?”. We’ll give them a response within 24 hours and, quite often, we will do the work that week. It’s like a ‘phone a friend’.
Q) I would say that the biggest barrier to entry is knowledge capital - it’s human, it’s the stuff that sits between your ears.
Correct, and if you look at the utilisation of our people - particularly our design and materials team - they’re completely over-utilised because anybody going into composites is normally making some form of transition, be it something from a traditional metallic product or introducing a new process, and they often need help with that change. There are also some that might just say “we’d really like some metrology - can we use your metrology kit or can we use your autoclave.”
Q) In which case, this is the position of the NCC as the centre of excellence, the font of all knowledge in a particular area and you’ve got the big kit that other people can access on a fractional basis?
Yes. That has always been the mission, but it’s previously been really hard to access, and so the difference with NCC Connect is enabling easy access to that capability.
We opened in 2011, so we are now in our eighth year. The first phase was about establishing credible capability here, at scale. We feel like we’re there or thereabouts now, and it’s actually now about exploiting that capability in all of the different sectors and fields and one of those is to help SMEs. The other element we have added is training, because what you immediately find is that some of the very largest companies in the world are coming to us saying “we think we’d like to educate our staff in the transition to composites because we think it’s important. Can you help us with that initial introduction to composites?” So, we do quite a lot of composites introduction training, we then do conversion training, and then obviously we do very specialist training. For example, if you want to know about braiding, we can train you in how to use the braider, or any specialist engineering areas.
We’re not trying to do general courses that you can get at an FE or HE college, and we’re not trying to do apprenticeships - that’s not our offer. Our offer is to help you with your journey in composites, be that an introduction to, or be it a specialist bit of add-on that you need. So that training offer is deliberately now part of the suite. The NCC now provides a sector-based offer, a rapid response SME offer and a training offer.
Q) What sort of volumes or scales are you anticipating then – let’s start with the SME, the ‘shop front’?
Last year we engaged with approximately 700 organisations, so through the SME group, we are looking to engage with hundreds of SME companies. That’s the target. And ‘help’ can be anything from something you can answer over the phone, to something slightly longer than that.
Q) Sometimes that half-hour phone call can be the pivotal thing that makes the difference.
Yes. You really don’t know, but it’s making it easy to access, that’s the thing.
Q) You could get to the point where the level of engagement would possibly saturate, certainly within the UK, all the actors that are active in the field of composites, but as you expand the applicability of the NCC offering, then you’re actually adding more to that accessible market?
Absolutely, such as construction, such as automotive, such as energy.
Q) Construction represents quite a challenge; I mean a challenge in culture as much as anything else?
A huge challenge. Also, the way the industry is structured is not conducive, so it’s going to need quite a lot of intervention, but the biggest challenge I think is regulation.
Q) And regulation tends to be backward looking.
Yes. The problem is that the route to usage has to be that you’re creating standards for composites use, so that construction companies can just use them, whereas today there’s just this enormous barrier - ‘is it in the standard, does it meet the standard?’ and if the answer is ‘no’, ‘well we can’t use it then - there’s too much risk’. We need to crack that, which we will. There are such huge infrastructure opportunities here and the construction sector has to transform, but there would need to be new technology solutions in place for that.
Q) And it would take something like a shift to more multifunctional construction methods and materials to enable that because the cheapest thing to do is generally the thing that you are doing now.
We are seeing sustainability become more pervasive across the whole manufacturing sector. We see it stronger all the time - as the usage goes up, so the sustainability needs to increase. Once you get to higher volumes, automotive, construction, and other very high-volume applications, it’s going to be increasingly important, but then it also washes back into aerospace applications.
The other point worth highlighting is the collaboration that’s happening across the High Value Manufacturing Catapult centres. When we’re offering solutions to the customer, they tend to be multi-material. The HVM Catapult centres have established themselves in their main areas of expertise and are now actually saying: how do we offer that complete solution; how will you come in through the front door of the NCC? So, you will enter through one front door and we’re trying to offer the access to solutions to our customer as a whole and that’s another key shift that’s happening. I’m not pretending it is perfect today, but there’s a real drive to do that. Now, when we’re putting proposals together and when we are looking at how we work with the UK Industrial Strategy, that’s a key focus.