Amazing technology that’s right on our doorstep
Published on: 08 Jun 2015
It’s attracted the attention of national politicians and international businesses – yet many locals barely know of the existence of the National Composites Centre in Emersons Green. Linda Tanner joins a VIP tour to find out more
IT doesn’t have the catchiest of titles, but the jagged blue building close to the Avon Ring Road holds the key to the future for many people in our area and beyond.
Technologies being developed at the National Composites Centre could literally change the shape of aircraft, cars and bridges. They also have the potential for use in many industries such as oil and gas, renewable energies and manufacturing.
Composites are made up from at least two different materials which, when combined, create a new material that offers physical properties and advantages not available from the individual components.
Carbon and titanium composites are already being used to make lighter aeroplanes, and new-generation carbon composites are set to have a major impact on the automotive industry, while fibre reinforced polymer is being used in construction.
The NCC is a bridge between the academic researchers and potential large-scale manufacturers. Businesses have the chance to try out ideas on a small scale, as well as to learn from other industries.
Chief executive Peter Chivers said: “It is a very powerful environment, led by industry, used by industry and hosted by the University of Bristol.
“We see ourselves as translators, converting demand into significant challenge.”
Professor Chivers hosted a visit from the Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith during the run-up to last month’s general election. The then Labour leader Ed Miliband also visited the NCC during the campaign and met some of its staff.
Mr Duncan Smith said he was a passionate believer in applied innovation and said it was crucial that the centre’s high value manufacturing work was made known across the country and the world.
Professor Chivers said about 170 people were directly employed at the NCC, which has space for up to 350 composites experts. Big-name companies involved include BA Systems, Rolls-Royce, Agusta Westland, Shell, and several major motor manufacturers of both Formula 1 and road cars.
“We have world class facilities, people and knowledge here. It is exciting and cutting edge.”
But he stressed that there was a continuing need for public funding to train people at all levels with the skills needed by the developing industries.
The Secretary of State was told about the NCC’s commitment to training, from workshop and technical apprentices through to graduate engineers and full-time engineering doctorates, and its work in ‘talent spotting’ and recruiting specialists.
The £25m NCC opened for business in 2011 and just three years later doubled in size with a £28m expansion to include a training centre and large assembly workshops. It is one of a network of seven centres across the country.
One of the firms working with NCC is Dymag Wheels, based in Chippenham. Its boss Chris Shelley told Mr Duncan Smith that performance wheels made from lightweight composites were “a potential game changer” and said that thanks to collaboration with researchers through the NCC he was confident of creating up to 200 jobs in the next five years.
The Secretary of State also saw a mountain rescue stretcher made from composites as he toured the workshops and heard about the latest robotic technology and research with industry that was reducing the time for processing from hours to minutes.
Rolls-Royce has recently announced that the next generation of fan blades and fan cases for its aero engines will be made from carbon/titanium composites. It says that as a result, the aircraft will burn 20 per cent less fuel and reduce CO2 emissions. The weight of a plane could be reduced by 1,500lb, the equiivalent of carrying seven more passengers and their luggage.
It is creating a pre-production facility at Patchway and will develop the manufacturing techniques at the NCC and at the University of Bristol Rolls-Royce Technology Centre.
Meanwhile, South Gloucestershire Council used the expertise at the centre to create a new bridge over the River Frome at Frampton Cotterell last year. The structure was prefabricated in fibre reinforced polymer – the same technology used in wind turbines - at the NCC. It was then transported by lorry, and installed in six weeks.
The material is resistant to frost, extreme temperatures and the de-icing salts that can cause problems in steel and concrete bridges. It will not need any painting or waterproofing over its expected 120-year lifetime either, meaning maintenance costs will be low.
Funding has also been agreed for a bridge to be made from composites at the NCC to span the A4174 Avon Ring Road at Bromley Heath to improve cycle links.
Another project at the centre is testing marine turbines which will generate energy from the power of the tides. Other possible uses of composites are for oil and gas pipes.