Charles Darwin said that ‘it’s not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one that is most responsive to change.’ He was citing the animal kingdom, but (if he was still with us) he could equally be channeling the UK aerospace sector, one of the UK’s most important industries.
According to ADS, UK aerospace sales hit £31.8bn in 2016-17, up 8% on the previous 12-month period. Growth is being driven by exports. Around 90% of sales – worth £27.7bn – are to organisations outside of UK borders. Productivity has grown by 50% since 2009, some twenty times the rate of the economy as a whole.
Record growth, increased air travel, increases in US government defence spending and a robust outlook have created huge opportunities for the sector. But how responsive to change is it, and what are the trends in innovation? Are the five stages of: conception (the idea), design (design and modelling), testing, building the product or service (production) and bringing it to market (revenue generation), being fully utilised?
Innovation brings immense challenges, but across all parts of the industry, from propulsion and materials to AI, it is powering growth and creating new markets.
For example, AI and machine learning is assisting pilots improve the way they fly, helping them make better decisions on speed, direction and weather issues while they’re in the cockpit. Similar technologies will improve aircraft maintenance, the efficient management of airports and even air traffic control, which in future is likely to be fully automated. Even incremental changes in efficiency via technology will make flying safer, remove delays and reduce costs.
Turning to materials, here innovation will assist aerospace manufacturers to improve performance and also save cost. A 1-2% reduction in fuel consumption can save a commercial airline nearly £800,000 per year…for each aircraft. That’s over £220m of savings for British Airways alone.
So we are already seeing big steps forwards in the production of new generation composite materials, such as ceramics. Ceramics resist heat better than metal, so improving engine performance, but these materials will also enable changes in aeroplane design too.
These developments are not just the preserve of the major players in the aerospace industry. Many of the smaller players, responsible for some of the most exciting innovations in aerospace, are affiliated to the bigger companies, but all can benefit from the government’s tax credits regime. GovGrant, which specialises in assisting innovative businesses gain tax credits for their R&D, innovation and patent boxes, works with a number of innovative firms, all of which are supporting Rolls Royce, the aerospace giant.
The government is working with the aerospace sector on a long term partnership, part of its overall industrial strategy, centered on a joint government/industry initiative which sees £3.6bn of funding for aerospace R&D projects between 2013-2026.
This investment has created plenty of headlines, but aside from the big-ticket funding initiative from HMG, tax credits for R&D are a significant extra means of getting financial help, and quickly, from a commitment to innovation, something aerospace businesses clearly already have in their corporate DNA.