Aerospace Receives £80m Boost with New University of Sheffield AMRC Innovation Facility and Boeing Research Programme

An £80m boost to composites research and development for aerostructure manufacturing in the UK has been announced, with a new research facility set to be built in South Yorkshire that has aerospace giant Boeing as its first major research partner.

The University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) has secured £50m to establish the Compass (Composites at Speed and Scale) facility in Sheffield to enable a groundbreaking research programme with Boeing at the centre. The investment was announced yesterday [July 13, 2023] by UK Chancellor Jeremy Hunt, as part of the South Yorkshire Investment Zone.

Chancellor of the Exchequer, Jeremy Hunt, said: “Our first Investment Zone is a shining example of how we will drive growth across the country.

“It’s already secured more than £80 million of private investment, including backing from Boeing, and will help support more than 8,000 jobs by 2030.”

Compass is a major boost to aerospace research and development for the UK, helping solve composites manufacturing challenges needed to meet future demand for lighter commercial aircraft and help the aviation industry reach net zero.

It will be home to AMRC’s largest ever collaborative research and development programme with founder and long-standing member Boeing, which will be in partnership with Spirit AeroSystems and Loop Technology. It aims to de-risk and develop high-rate sustainable structures, with the potential to reduce large component process times from ~40 hours to ~four hours.

On the back of the research, Boeing has committed to procuring in excess of £2 billion of UK-manufactured goods for export per year to support the production of the company’s next civil passenger aircraft — with the potential to create up to 3,000 high-skilled jobs by the mid-2030s.

Compass builds on the AMRC’s world-class composites and automation capabilities to de-risk the development and manufacture of high-rate, large-scale composite parts, providing the wider UK industry with a unique open-access facility to develop, demonstrate, test and validate new composite manufacturing technologies and capabilities.

Steve Foxley, chief executive officer at the AMRC, said it is a landmark moment for the AMRC and the region, helping unlock economic potential for South Yorkshire through new opportunities in technology and innovation, employment and investment, supply chains, skills development and training.

“Compass will help to establish South Yorkshire as the leading R&D centre of excellence in the manufacture of composites at speed and at scale, enabling future production capabilities that currently don’t exist,” said Steve. “This facility, alongside our existing pedigree and the work on hydrogen and sustainable aviation fuels in the wider University of Sheffield, are cornerstones of a future green aerospace cluster in the region.

“This facility, and the research that will take place there, offers a step-change in UK R&D capability and provides a unique opportunity for the UK. It will support and de-risk new technologies and processes, combining composites and digital technologies to help wider UK industry adopt more efficient, sustainable and cost-effective solutions for the production of future components, including the renewable, transport, defence and urban air mobility sectors.”

The research with Boeing builds on more than 20 years of collaboration and innovation with the AMRC, and the investment it has made into South Yorkshire with Boeing Sheffield, the company’s only European manufacturing facility, and the partnership with the University of Sheffield for its Sustainable Aviation Fuels Innovation Centre.

Maria Laine, president of Boeing UK, Ireland and Nordic region, said: “This project is a testament to Boeing’s global commitment to drive innovation and growth within the local communities in which we are proud to live and work. Together with our world-leading industry partners, this investment is poised to revolutionise aerospace manufacturing to meet global demand, while supporting vital jobs and growth in the UK.”

The building is being jointly funded by the South Yorkshire Mayoral Combined Authority (SYMCA), Sheffield City Council, University of Sheffield and the High Value Manufacturing Catapult. It will be home to a raft of state-of-the-art equipment secured through a £29.5m grant from the Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI) to support new capabilities, technologies and processes to reduce cost, waste, production time and associated carbon emissions.

Oliver Coppard, Mayor of South Yorkshire, said: “This ground-breaking research partnership is yet another huge vote of confidence from Boeing in South Yorkshire’s future. Boeing is now adding to its footprint here – their only manufacturing base in Europe – because they know our ability to solve problems and make things is unique. That’s just what we do.

“That knowledge and expertise, built on our heritage at the forefront of engineering and manufacturing, and now powered by the UK’s first Investment Zone, is going to provide the foundation for a bigger, better economy, and a brighter future for anyone lucky enough to call South Yorkshire their home. Welcome to our future, Boeing.”

Gary Elliott, chief executive officer of ATI, said: “The ATI investment in the Compass project will provide the UK aerospace industry with a path to proving new and advanced composite technologies, help develop world-first manufacturing capabilities and create an open-access facility for the broader benefit of aerospace and other industries. Alongside our support for Boeing’s IHSS project, this puts the UK supply chain in a competitive position to win production contracts for future next-generation aircraft.”
Katherine Bennett CBE, chief executive officer of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, said: “This flagship facility is a real vote of confidence in UK manufacturing, building on the outstanding R&D capabilities already in South Yorkshire and within HVM Catapult. Compass will create a powerful legacy that extends beyond the region and across the manufacturing sector.

“Supported by the South Yorkshire Investment Zone, and with the backing of Innovate UK, Compass can help position the UK supply chain as a key enabler for net zero aviation, create thousands of high-skilled jobs and ultimately help HVM Catapult achieve industrial transformation for the UK.”

The majority of large composite components are currently manufactured by hand, placing layers of ‘prepreg’ or dry-fibre material onto a tool. Once deposited the material is either cured in an oven or autoclave, or infused and cured. It is a time-consuming process, with inconsistency through the risk of human error.

In order to meet future demand and delivery projections of new aircraft, the aerospace industry needs to disrupt current production and technological limitations by building more sustainable, large-scale aerospace assemblies at appropriate rates with reduced part counts – while maintaining the quality levels and accuracies required for components within the aerospace sector.

Compass will push the boundaries of existing science and technology, enabling automation of layup of large-scale composite components to move beyond existing capabilities. Drawing on relevant state-of-the-art R&D with industry, it will:

  • Enable run-at-rate demonstration of large-scale automated manufacturing processes.
  • Develop precise pick and place and in-line inspection technologies to support tolerances required by aerospace.
  • Develop a digital twin of the facility and process. This will allow industry to start development work virtually and support our existing research into virtual commissioning.
  • Use fully-sensored processes and equipment, linked together in a flexible control architecture, providing a single source of truth for the validation of parts/processes, and enabling active control responding to changing process environments.
  • The data, gathered over time, will enable future research in artificial intelligence and machine learning techniques for factory-scale process optimisation.

Growth is set to continue and manufacturing industries are on the verge of a data driven revolution. Compass will harness the power of data sharing to fuel innovation with manufacturing production data a key output of the facility and its research. It will use data, cyber-physical infrastructures and robotic automation to generate a large manufacturing data pool to help the wider business and research community develop solutions to unlock the value to become smarter and more productive.