Bombardier…Advancing the Cause of Manufacturing

Gavin Campbell is quick to brush away any interviewer concerns about the complexity of his subject matter.

“It’s true. People can be very wary of R&D and subjects like advanced manufacturing and materials,” he says. “But, at the end of the day, it’s about making products that are attractive and products that work. It’s business. “Advanced manufacturing is also all about cost. The costs faced by businesses in Northern Ireland are a challenge…. high energy costs, European labour costs and, in our case here at Bombardier, we’re sending our finished products 3,000 miles to our biggest customer, our parent company in North America.”

In common with others in technology and manufacturing here, Campbell is conscious of Northern Ireland’s industrial heritage. It would be difficult for him to avoid it, working at a plant that has built some iconic aircraft and next door to the Harland & Wolff shipyard site. “I think it does count for a lot,” he says. “We’re used to having industry around us in Belfast, we’re naturally creative and the people here are well suited for manufacturing jobs. Other companies here have shown that, and relatively new ventures like the NI Science Park are great examples of the creativity and innovation that we have around here.

“Whether it’s software or shipbuilding, I think we’ve shown through the years that we have the ingenuity here in Northern Ireland. Look at the entrepreneurs we’ve had and still have – William Wright up in Ballymena, Tom Eakin, FG Wilson to name just a few.”

Gavin Campbell is talking at NIACE, (the Northern Ireland Advanced Composites and Engineering Centre) the impressive new 3,700 sq.ft facility next door to Bombardier’s main entrance on Airport Road. Officially opened in January 2012, it’s an industry-led university-hosted centre for research and development around advanced engineering and advanced materials technology, particularly in the area of composites. It’s home to 120 research and development staff at any one time.

“Both Queen’s and Ulster Universities are involved here and we’re working alongside a growing range of different companies based in Northern Ireland, from the big industrial names like Bombardier, Wrightbus, Denroy Plastics and BE Aerospace through to smaller companies such as CCP Gransden and Datum Design. “This centre is a very tangible outworking of what Matrix, the NI Science & Industry Panel, has set out to do. It’s all about promoting technology, driving technology and increasing investment in technology. “And, while it might seem obvious to say it, technology really does need a lot of research and development. It needs workshops, it needs facilities, it needs people to test and to build…and it can all be a little bit speculative sometimes. But that’s the nature of the beast, and that’s where entrepreneurial spirit and drive comes in.”

Gavin Campbell will be playing his part in the forthcoming Matrix study into advanced materials and manufacturing in Northern Ireland, following on seven years after the last study of its kind. “A lot can happen in seven years and a lot has happened in the past seven years,” he says. “The aero sector has the stated ambition of growing revenues to NI to £2 billion within the next ten years, and aims to increase high value employment to 12,000 in the same period. It’s a formidable target.” He has been with Short Brothers Plc and Bombardier Aerospace for 30 years since graduating in mechanical engineering from the University of Ulster. Outside of his role at the plant, he’s a visiting Professor in the Faculty of Computing & Engineering at Ulster University and a Fellow of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. He’s played an important role in the development and current manufacture in Belfast of the highly advanced composite wings for Bombardier’s new generation C Series aircraft.

“Talking of timescale, the aircraft have been a long time in development but they’ll still be flying in 25 to 30 years’ time, and the design will be around for 50-60 years. For those in other industries here in Northern Ireland, things are very different. A piece of software or an app can be obsolete in a matter of months. In some ways, that’s one of the challenges facing organisations like Matrix and the NI Science Park.

“In our industry, it can be better to take longer on R&D. The C Series is a very good example of that. As a result, we’re beating the brochure. Both the CS100 and CS300 are turning out to be more fuel efficient, quieter and with a better range than we’d promised in the sales literature….and that’s according to our customers.

“The C Series aircraft wing isn’t just manufactured in a highly advanced assembly plant in Belfast. It was also researched and developed here. So it is a really good example of how advanced materials and composites are being used by industry here in Northern Ireland. Another shining example is the new generation London bus which was designed and developed by Wrightbus in Ballymena.”

Gavin Campbell, like many of his counterparts in engineering and manufacturing, stresses the importance of working hard to encourage young people to consider careers at the sharp end of engineering. “It goes further back than our universities and FE colleges right into our schools. That’s where we need to be encouraging pupils to look at careers in industry here. It’s vital that we have the right people coming through. “What we also need to see is a continued flow of spin-out companies coming out of our universities and colleges. I think we underestimate how many jobs are being created from these companies being set up. We really can’t encourage it enough…..”

The recently published NISP Connect report on the Knowledge Economy here showed that Northern Ireland has maintained its position as the 2nd fastest growing KE region in the UK. A total of 410 start-ups were created in KE in the past year, KE salaries are 50% higher than other sectors on average, 85% of products and services are exported and it’s currently estimated that 10% of the NI economy is driven by KE. “So it couldn’t be much more important,” says Campbell. “It shows that we’re still entrepreneurs and we’re still creating.

“It’s not traditional manufacturing of the kind that Shorts did 25 years ago and Harland & Wolff did a hundred years ago, but it’s technology for today. And that’s crucial. It is the way that we are going to re-industrialise Northern Ireland.” On the more traditional manufacturing front, Gavin Campbell singles out the impressive cluster of quarrying and materials handling equipment manufacturers in County Tyrone for special mention…..the ‘sons and daughters of Powerscreen’ as one commentator described the cluster recently.

“It’s very impressive what they’ve achieved in Tyrone and we’re talking about companies which might have their roots in shaping metals and welding but which have moved on to embrace advanced manufacturing techniques.

“Advanced manufacturing is more than simply the sum total of the labour and the parts that go into it. It’s a lot more than that… it adds value, it drives prices up and it impacts on the bottom line for the company concerned.” Matrix, he says, has an important role to play in driving forward the advanced manufacturing agenda in Northern Ireland, in shaping DfE policy and the next Programme for Government and its contents.

“We need to look at skills and the flow of people into industry going forward, and we also need to focus on where we stand internationally and at how our departments and agencies can all work together to the best effect. “We have creativity, we have an entrepreneurial spirit and what is being achieved in the knowledge economy shows that we’re on the right track.”