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2008 Advanced Engineering (Transport) Report

Northern Ireland has a rich and often underestimated engineering and industrial history.

Over many years, we established a vibrant manufacturing sector, designing and producing products for export all over the world, including complex machines for the processing of fabrics, state-of-the-art ships and aircraft – and even buses and cars.

Whilst the number of people employed in the engineering sector has reduced significantly over the last few decades, the fundamental skills and expertise base – which created the sector in the first instance – remains strong, with small and large companies producing increasingly more complex and higher value added products.

However, it is widely recognised and accepted that Northern Ireland cannot compete with emerging economies in this sector on the basis of cost. The only way to ensure survival and create the opportunity for future growth is through increasing our value proposition, not only in the product itself, but in our support services also. Our future therefore rests in our ability to build a knowledge-based economy, placing our skills, creativity, expertise and innovation at its heart.

The Advanced Engineering (Transport) Horizon Panel brought together a number of experts from business and academia – many of whom are already involved in the exciting transformation that is already taking place in engineering and manufacturing – with the objective of identifying the means by which Northern Ireland can reclaim its position as a global leader in engineering.

Our opportunities are significant and our engineering entrepreneurs should seize on this report and support its proposal for a framework that will put business in the lead and ensure that our excellent research capabilities are successfully exploited and commercialised.

Crucially, if we get our strategy for Advanced Engineering right, the majority of future employment in this sector will be at the higher value-added end of the spectrum, not only in terms of the innovative new products designed, but by ensuring that we adopt state-of-the-art manufacturing technologies while making optimum use of automation and robotics to improve our efficiency, performance and competitiveness.

Context and key challenges

Manufacturing makes an important contribution to the UK economy, accounting for 17% of GDP and about half of all UK exports. Northern Ireland has a strong tradition of manufacturing, in particular in the transport sector, such as ship, aircraft, bus and car production. While total employment in manufacturing has fallen in recent years (primarily as a result of cheaper international labour costs), the sector has increasingly engaged in high value-add areas such as innovation, design and development. It has begun to move from a focus on manufacturing capability that has been a traditional strength to a broader focus on ‘advanced engineering’.

For the sector to continue to develop, suppliers must continue this move up the value chain and embed advanced engineering capability across the sector to a point where competitive strength arises from integrating design, development and manufacture in a commercially effective manner. Further, it must use this capability to focus on key market opportunities of a global nature. In support of this, the Advanced Engineering (Transport) Foresight Panel was tasked with the identification of the sustainable market opportunities and the associated priority technologies in the Northern Ireland aerospace, automotive and transport sector.

As a first stage, the panel identified the key challenges facing the sector. These included:

The focus areas for advanced engineering

In response to the above challenges and having reviewed the capabilities of the sector, the panel developed an overall vision for the sector in moving forward.

The panel identified a need to build upon existing capabilities and relationships focusing on the aerospace and automotive industries to transform the advanced engineering (transport) sector into one that is focused on higher value-add activities.

The sector will respond to the key challenges and in particular focus on the market opportunity created by the need for environmentally optimal products and services within automotive and aerospace sectors. This vision will be achieved through:

  • Greater exploitation of industry-led applied innovation
  • Better collaboration across the private sector, academia and government, and
  • An increased focus on niche markets to deliver world leading solutions and services

The panel recognised that realising this vision required a focus on the key areas of science and technology that are most relevant to the sector and the challenges that it faced, and an integrated effort to ensure that the Northern Ireland sector was capable of exploiting this science and technology for commercial value.

Delivering key capabilities to generate commercial value

The panel recognised that the expertise in science and technology was not enough to transform the industry. It identified a range of supporting actions that would ensure the transformation journey was achieved broadly across the sector without compromising the desire of any individual company to take their own specific route through this transformation process.

Key recommendations

The panel recognised that realising this vision required a focus on the key areas of science and technology that are most relevant to the sector and the challenges that it faced, and an integrated effort to ensure that the sector was capable of exploiting this science and technology for commercial value.

Key to delivering high value-add activities will be the continued development and exploitation of genuine science and technology expertise. Given the diversity of the sector, the panel did not identify a single ‘big bet’ technology on which to focus; rather a number of core science/technology areas were highlighted, which can form the basis of the future for world class advanced engineering in Northern Ireland. These include:

  • technologies and approaches to support a cleaner, safer environment
  • advanced materials, including biomaterials, nano-structured materials & composites
  • microsystems, embedded sensors and computational science
  • use of robotics/automation in the manufacturing process

Further detail on aspects for development in science and technology would be highlighted via the development of sectoral route maps and in collaboration with other matrix panels. These would need to be reviewed on an on-going basis to test their relevance for the sector.

The panel recognised that the expertise in science and technology was not enough to transform the industry. It identified a range of supporting actions that would ensure the transformation journey was achieved broadly across the sector without compromising the desire of any individual company to take their own specific route through this transformation process.
The panel recognised that in spite of the potential synergies among advanced engineering companies, there was a lack of effective sharing of ideas and opportunities. The panel therefore recommended the establishment of a focused community of interest, based on the development of recognised technology roadmaps that would include the brokerage of technology and business opportunities across the sector. The actions outlined above must be further supported by developing the right framework conditions within Northern Ireland that ensure appropriate focus on education, skills and training, and on the importance of innovation within the wider economic development strategies of the region.

The panel

Colin Elliott

Bombardier Aerospace

Colin is vice-president of Engineering and Business Development at Bombardier Aerospace in Belfast and manages a team of around 700 engineers. He joined Shorts (as it was then known) in 1977 as an apprentice.

Catherine Jones


Catherine Jones was Quality Manager at Michelin

David Beatty

Thales UK

David Beatty is VP of Sales & Marketing at Thales UK. He began in Thales as an apprentice.

Graeme Thompson


Graeme Thompson is a director of Schrader Electronics Limited.

Professor Julian Hine


Julian Hine is Professor of Transport at the University of Ulster.

Mark Nodder


Mark joined The Wright Group in 1998 to develop export sales, the Customcare aftersales division and in recent years the UK Bus Sales and Marketing activities of the Company.

Patrick Hurst

Whale Pumps

Patrick Hurst has been Managing Director of Whale since 2008. Patrick had led Whale’s successful business development to double turnover and staff levels in the last 5 years.

Tim Brundle


Tim Brundle

Tim is Director of Innovation at the University of Ulster and is the CEO of Innovation Ulster Ltd, the University of Ulster’s venturing and investment company.

Tom Edgar


Tom Edgar is a Chartered Engineer and a Chartered Information Systems Professional who worked abroad for several major companies before joining Queen’s and becoming Director of the Northern Ireland Technology Centre.

Tom Millar


Professor Tom Millar graduated with a degree in Mathematics before completing a PhD in Astrophysics, both at University of Manchester. Professor Millar moved to Queen’s University Belfast as Dean of the Faculty of Engineering and Physical Sciences and Professor of Astrophysics in the School of Mathematics and Physics.

Gavin Campbell


Gavin Campbell

Gavin Campbell has worked at Short Brothers PLC and Bombardier Aerospace since graduating with a BSc in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Ulster in 1985. He is a visiting Professor in the Faculty of Computing and Engineering at the University of Ulster and is a Fellow of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.