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Archives for March 2011

Labour of Hercules? What next for RAF Lyneham

Dave Harvey | 16:37 UK time, Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Plane landing at RAF Lyneham

In July 2011 the last Hercules will leave the RAF's base at Lyneham, in North Wiltshire, for ever. The base has been home to the cargo fleet for decades, but the MoD only wants one long haul airbase, and that is to be Brize Norton, just up the road in Oxfordshire.

The burning question, then, is what happens to the Lyneham site. It is vast, 1,300 acres. It brings in £90m to the pubs, taxis and traders of North Wiltshire. Close on 3,000 jobs depend on the base indirectly, according to the local chamber of commerce.

Eddy Shah

Eddy Shah has a plan. It's ambitious, in fact it's pretty spectacular. It features a snowdome; a Wiltshire Theme Park, complete with replica Stonehenge; an education centre and a thousand eco-homes.

"Heston Blumenthal is signed up to the catering plan," explains Eddy, as he likes to be known. "We've got over 1,000 acres here, we've got a bit of everything, I think this is a new kind of industrial revolution."

If you want to see the plans for yourself, have a look here.
LynehamPropoalsEddyShah.pdf

HMS Arthur, now abandoned, near Corsham, Wilts

Now Eddy Shah is a strong salesman, and he makes his case spectacularly. He takes me to an abandoned naval training station near Corsham. HMS Arthur once trained a young Prince Philip, but twenty years ago it was closed, and nothing was done with the site. The place is now crawling with brambles, and covered in graffiti.

"My fear is that this is what will happen to Lyneham," he tells me. "If the MoD don't get a move on and make a decision, it will just go to wrack and ruin."

It's a strong campaigning tactic, for sure. But is it a little, well, hasty?

There is evidence the MoD is looking hard at a military future for the base. 20,000 soldiers and airforce personnel are on their way back from Germany, now the Cold War is well and truly over. Homes and training bases must be found.

"The Army want to come to Lyneham," the local MP tells me. James Gray has been lobbying hard, and is on good terms with both Liam Fox, the Defence Secretary, and David Cameron. "They've both told me Lyneham has a very good case," he insists.

In fact, just last week I happened to hear Liam Fox at a Chamber of Commerce dinner in Bristol. He was making a speech, he could pick his subjects. And he chose Lyneham, interestingly. Taxpayers, he told us, are paying £250m a year to keep troops in Germany - and that is just on allowances.

"I would much rather spend that money in the British economy," he said, to much applause. My ears pricked up, because Liam Fox could have kept quiet. He was in Bristol, after all, and talking to a business audience. Why mention Lyneham, unless you are minded to send some work its way?

I put it to Eddy Shah that perhaps he was telling people the MoD would abandon Lyneham simply to bolster support for his own, commercial, plan. He laughed that one off. "I'm 67, the last thing I want is another big project! No, the message is clear - MoD: make your mind up. Otherwise, this community will die."

The Ministry remains tight-lipped. A decision will be taken before the Parliamentary break in the summer, I'm told. Well, if they decide to close Lyneham for good, Wiltshire may soon have a new theme park for skiing druids.

A Racing Certainty: Cheltenham Festival brings in the cash

Dave Harvey | 15:30 UK time, Tuesday, 15 March 2011

A hotel bar in Cheltenham, during raceweek

"The best way to make a small fortune here is to arrive with a large one!"

The eyes are twinkling, the voice is Irish: it must be Cheltenham Race Week.

But Frank is not drinking Guinness. He's on white wine, in a thoroughly chic bar at a newly revamped hotel overlooking the racecourse. Rooms here go from £250 a night to £1000 for "expansive" suites, which come - I kid you not - with a private dining room attached.

Racegoers at the Ellenborough Park Hotel, Cheltenham

I thought Ireland was bankrupt. The news desk had asked me to see how Cheltenham would cope without its annual injection of blarney and cash. Well, Frank and his friends have no intention of cutting back.

"It's the top sporting event of the year in Europe - in the world," they insist. "This is their golden week, they're entitled to charge for it -" He breaks off suddenly, looking at the race on the TV behind him, "How is that horse doing now then?!"

More laughter.

Ellenborough Park Hotel, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire

The manager estimates the cost of refurbishing Ellenborough Park at "around £15 million". It looks like money well spent. Graham Vass admits that filling his 62 rooms during race week "is pretty simple", but also claims to be full for several weeks to come. The world might be reeling from economic and natural disasters, but there are still enough super-rich to keep 120 cooks, chambermaids, valets and spa staff in work here.


There is another end of the market in Cheltenham, where a night's accommodation will cost you the price of a bottle of wine at Ellenborough Park.

The HQ of Cheltenham Racing Accommodation

This is the nerve centre of an extraordinary operation that finds rooms for a thousand punters in race week, at £50 a night.

Twelve years ago Liz Coe moved out of her own bedroom, sent her husband to a friend for the week and took in some racegoers. The idea caught on, and now she has five rooms booked all week in her modest family home. Hundreds of others are doing the same, earning valuable cash.

But the business has now gone mental. I spent two hours with Liz, on the night before the races, and her two phones literally never stopped.

Dermot was trying to find the house he was booked into. Jill had an extra room free if there were new clients. Random racegoers were calling, prompted by her website, desperate to find a room.

"Every year I try and get people to book early, book before Christmas, but they're like little boys," she smiles, "it's always the same. I call Ireland 'Last Minute dot com'!"

They say you can make money at the top of the market, and the at the bottom. Raceweek in Cheltenham is bearing that old rule out well. B&Bs are reporting a lot of people cutting their week to two nights. Restaurants have ordered less champagne.

But one way or another, there's still plenty of money coming racing this week.

"Training Pipeline is blocked" says Pump Supremo

Dave Harvey | 13:16 UK time, Wednesday, 9 March 2011

A lathe at SPP Pumps, Coleford, Glos

 

Terry Newby knows his pumps.

They are very big. Very strong. When an oil rig catches fire, it's one of his that puts it out.

Terry is Operations Director at SPP Pumps, one of those hidden gems of British manufacturing. Tucked away in a quiet yard in the Forest of Dean, it is home to highly skilled engineers who make some of the most respected pumps in the business.

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They've carved out a niche, like so many great west country firms, by going bespoke. "We don't sell pumps," Terry smiles, "we sell solutions. We make custom-engineered pumps for our customers to fit their precise needs. If you could buy our pumps in a box, we'd be dead in the water."

Terry shows me shelves of raw material, iron and steel by the bar. Material doesn't come any more raw than this. When they leave, every pipe, every dial, every rivet has been welded and lathed and machined here by hand. 170 engineers work here, in what is a pretty jovial atmosphere.

The firm has grown over the last ten years, building to a turnover of some £50m from about half that in 2002. As oil prices rise, their orders are growing too. When oil is high, drilling firms decide to upgrade their fire protection.

Terry Newby, Operations Director of SPP Pumps, Coleford Glos

 

So far, it could be the setting for a ministerial visit. Vince Cable would extol the virtues of British engineering expertise, the strengths of an export economy, the need to "rebalance", with more of this, and less reliance on shopping.

But if politicians came here, they would get more than they bargained for. In a corner of the factory, I met up with a number of Gloucestershire manufacturers, and all had sharp words for politicians - of all colours.

 

First, the old story of Whitehall's left and right hands. SPP Pumps usually takes on new apprentices every year. But in 2011, they won't be hiring. Why not? Because the government is planning to raise retirement ages. And you don't have to be a pumping expert to know that if fewer people are coming out of the top of the pipe, you can't let as many in at the bottom.

Second, I hear about red tape. Rosemary Robinson runs a firm near Stroud, called Arc Energy. She needed a welder. "The only qualified welding engineer I could find was from outside the EU, and he couldn't be bothered with the immigration paperwork."

So why are there no home grown welders? Colin Hygate, whose firm Green Fuels have designed and made the world's first DIY biodiesel, is with us too. He lists the skills that are going.
"Millers, turners, welders, machinists - it's the technician level we're lacking. And there's no sign of more people coming through the system."

Lathes in action at SPP Pumps

Colin and Rosemary think schools could do more. Manufacturing, they complain, is far cooler, far more interesting than careers advisors realise.

But what, I ask them, of the government's much trumpetted push for more apprentices?

"Do they mean retailing and hairdressing, or actual manufacturing?" Don Burgess speaks for the Federation of Small Businesses in Gloucestershire, and he's sceptical. He points out that Tesco and MacDonalds have recently offered thousands of new apprenticeships.

"They might be jobs, they might even be ok jobs," he complains, "but they aren't actually making anything. Who's going to make the money that we can spend in the supermarkets and fast food joints?"

It's a very familiar tale. Over the last four days I've seen some stunning examples of what is made in the west. Tomorrow world technology at Airbus. Astonishing planemaking at GKN. Solid belief in making everything here at Numatic international, and then Terry and his team crafting pumps for the world in the Forest of Dean. But you know what? It all hangs on skills. And it seems we are still desperately short of them.


Terry Slater, SW Director of the Engineering Employers Federation

 


Terry Slater, the SW Director of the Engineering Employers Federation, hears this every day.

"We have a real shortage of skilled people, even after a recession. If we don't tackle these challenges, the recovery is going to be slowed down, if it comes at all."

Made in Chard: The Somerset factory keeping it local

Dave Harvey | 14:59 UK time, Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Laser cutting at Numatic, Chard

 

If there were three words that send a chill down most British manufacturing people, it's surely these.

"Made in China".

So when I heard that a Somerset firm had decided to bring some of its production back from the Far East, my ears pricked up.

The Henry production line at Numatic, Chard

Numatic are famous for one product, Henry the Vacuum Cleaner. (Don't say the other H word, whatever you do.)

There are other famous makers of domestic cleaning equipment in the west country of course, but they have long since moved their manufacturing to Asia. Britain, they argue, is where you do 'Design' and 'Research'.


 

 


When I phoned Andrew Smith, the manufacturing manager at Numatic, and asked him how much they make at their Chard factory, he laughed.
"Oh we're not just a screwdriver plant," he explained, "we make pretty much everything here."

 

The metal tubes are bent to shape. The big round drums that form Henry's body are moulded here. Even the little knob that winds the power cable back in is made from scratch in Chard.

The machines are undoubtedly cool. If you like machines, check out this video.

 

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But why, I ask Andrew, do Numatic still make everything here?

"We don't only make Henry," he smiles. Their customers are large cleaning companies, based in Europe, America, the world. They don't want off-the-shelf kit. They want specialised equipment for specific cleaning contracts. Machines that sweep, wash and dry floors in one go for vast hotels and malls. Vacuums that suck hazardous industrial dust safely away. And everything with the cleaning firm's logo printed above the smile.

"We do over 5,000 different product lines," Andrew smiles, "and you can have any one of them in three weeks. We couldn't do that from the far east."

So that's their trick. Fast turnaround bespoke equipment. Yes, Henry is made in volume and shipped daily to the big stores, but every other cleaner is made to order.

A few parts are still bought in from other suppliers, notably the motors which come from an American firm, made to Numatic specifications. But recently Numatic has decided to bring six small parts back to Somerset from the current supplier in the far east. "We've been having problems with deliverytimes," he explains, "and really we can make it here just as cost effectively."

There are other surprising things here too. All the guys on the assembly line are on the same pay and grade. Their shifts vary from sticking Henry together, to feeding and checking the big plastic moulding machines, to running the robots that stick his happy smiling face on. They even do their own publicity in house, with a proper photographic studio next to the main production sheds.

When we had a sandwich, I wondered if someone in Building 5 had baked the bread.

And why Henry? Who thought up the smile?

Typically, it was almost an accident.

Andrew Smith, Manufacturing Manager at Numatic Interntional, Chard

 

"We were at a trade show in Lisbon," recalls Andrew. "To be honest, things were a bit slow. One of the designers who was there doodled a smile on the red vacuum cleaner on the stall. That evening, the public came through - and the smiling cleaner was mobbed."

Back in Chard, they were just developing a new vacuum cleaner at the time. People seemed to like the funny smile, so they drew a proper one up ( in house, naturally).

When they took that to a big trade show in Scotland, it was a massive hit. And so the smiling cleaner's friend was born.

A tour of Numatic should be compulsory for all those pub bores who insist 'everything is made in China'. Not every firm can follow suit, they have established a reputation for speed and bespoke manufacturing with which Asia cannot compete. But there are others. Printers making fast turnaround books for the topical market, for example ( think X Factor Winner, Royal Wedding).

And tomorrow, I visit a firm that actually exports to Malaysia.

Carbon Fibre Wings: I have a go at making one by hand

Dave Harvey | 09:10 UK time, Tuesday, 8 March 2011

The automatic Carbon Fibre Placement machine at GKN's factory near Bristol

 

You go to a lot of factories in this job.

Pie making plants, pump engineers, and, in this part of the world, a lot of plane factories.

The people that work there are always very courteous, and usually quite proud.

But they very rarely let you have a go yourself.

So imagine my surprise when the team who make carbon fibre wings for the brand new state-of-the-art Airbus lightweight passenger jet said yes.

A carbon fibre wing spar, and the tape it is made from

 

This is one of the spars of the wing, essentially the backbone that keeps the wing, the plane and several hundred people in the air. That flimsy looking tape tumbling onto it is the raw material it is made from.

To make A out of B, you just lay the tape on a mould on the diagonal, then lay some more the other way, about 45 degrees to the first lot. Make sure there are no gaps or wrinkles, and then once you have about 100,000 metres of tape laid down, cook it at 180C.

It is, of course, harder than it sounds. In fact, having tried it, I think I would say it is impossible by hand. Especially since they want you to lay some parts of the spar thicker than others, to carry the load of the wings ribs. And other parts are a funny shape, to allow for the flexing designed by Filton's aerodynamics wizards.

If you fancy a laugh at my expense, watch me try and make one here.

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Fortunately for the team at GKN, they have a machine. A very clever machine, worth £2.5m, which lays up the tape with perfect precision and astonishing speed.

This is the oven they cook the spars in. It gobbles up the 13 metre length like a snack, and then heats it to 180 degrees at ten times atmospheric pressure. Throughout, the spar is monitored and measured for every conceivable variable.


GKN's giant Autoclave cooks the wing spars at 180 degrees

 

So, lots of fancy kit then. In fact the whole complex cost GKN Aerospace £170m. Two factories and 300 people, who by June will be turning out 13 finished wing sets a month, that's 78 of those spars with all the clever aileron technology that makes the plane fly already assembled.

For plane-heads in the Bristol area - and there are plenty of them of course - this is all heart-swelling stuff. But there's a bit more to it than pure pride.

This factory embodies two of the big lessons for British manufacturing.

First, the world can't get enough lightweight planes. With oil soaring, the new generation of carbon fibre wings, which cut fuel bills dramatically, are flying off the shelves before they're even made. Airbus has sold 538 of the new A350 aircraft already, and we're at least a year from seing one in the sky. Cost cutting, and Green, this is the perfect low carbon manufacturing, which is the hot ticket in manufacturing.

Second, this place would cost the same in China, India or Brazil. There are no discount merchants for that carbon fibre tape laying machine, or the giant autoclave.
Manufacturing that uses expensive equipment and highly skilled labour is much more resilient to global competition. This is what ministers mean by "the knowledge economy".

And you can't get round the machines with cheap labour. As I discovered, you just can't do this by hand. But I must thank Tony Wilson and his team for letting me try.


GKN Team leader Tony Wilson inspects my handiwork.

 

 

New from Airbus: A bike to transform Aerospace

Dave Harvey | 17:13 UK time, Monday, 7 March 2011

Andy Hawkins on the EADS Innovation Bike

Engineers are often not the world's best communicators. In my experience, many of them are happy to beaver away in their workshops, solving problems for the rest of us before we've even realised they were there.

Every day, at Filton's famous Aircraft Factory, engineers do astonishing things.
A few make headlines. The Box Kite, the Concord, the Brabazon, the A380 Superjumbo.

But I spend a lot of time looking at innovations that are, to the outside, baffling.

Which was why my ears pricked up when I heard about the Airbus Bike.

I've just finished making a documentary about it, but this morning they had it on BBC Breakfast News.

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Two young engineers at the Innovation Works were so excited about a new machine they have, they decided to make a bike. Yes, two wheels, pedals, that kind of bike.

"You can show people satellite brackets, but they don't get it," explained one of them, Chris Turner. "My mum asks me about work, and I can show her brackets and stuff, but a bike - now that she understands."

It's a bit of a revelation this. Engineers who care that we understand.

Chris and his colleague Andy Hawkins have been working weekends on their pushbike. They want people to get as excited about ALM as they are, and they think the bike will do it.

ALM? Ah, the technology. Additive Layer Manufacturing.

It's basically quite simple. You take a 3D object, like a bike saddle, and slice it on computer into thousands of 2D layers. A pile of these layers will make a complete object. The clever bit is how they make their layers.

Nylon Powder, used to make the bike

 

They start with this powder - nylon, in this case. Heated to 177 degrees C, it is about to melt. A laser traces the outline of the 2D shape, fusing the nylon solid.
Another layer, 0.1mm thick, and another laser.

Gradually, the object takes shape. Because it is encased in powder, you can create solid objects in space, in other words, moving parts. The bike would come out of the machine with ball-bearings already in place, a crank shaft that would turn, wheels that would spin, without any additional parts.

 

 

Sound simple? Well, I've been watching them for six weeks, and it was anything but.

The first attempt at creating the wheel hub went horribly wrong.

The measurements were out, by a few millimetres, and the bearings simply fell out.

But Chris and Andy understand communication so well, they knew they had to let us carry on filming. If things went wrong, their project would become a struggle we care about.

Typical engineers, they blustered about prototypes, and 'back to the drawing board', lessons learnt. Then, I asked Chris how it felt.

"It feels rubbish!" he laughed. "It feels like I really don't want that to happen again, I want to get back and make it work properly."

Chris Turner and Andy Hawkins, of EADS Innovation Works

See, now you care about this technology, and whether they'll manage to make the bike work. To find out, just watch the film we made. It's on Inside Out West, which you can find here.

Meanwhile, a few thoughts about what ALM could do.

 The real breakthrough is that ALM smashes the barrier between designer and manufacturing shop floor. You no longer have to design parts around what you can actually make, using lathes, casting, machining etc. Instead, the designer just draws on a 3D computer programme, and the ALM machine effectively prints it out.

 In aerospace this means they can make wing parts with hollow truss structures built in, saving weight and material. They can create complex labyrinths of pipes for F1 engines that would be impossible the old way. Most of all, it means the designer is king again. And that, more than anything, is good news for the UK.

 Increasingly, UK manufacturing has been going hi-tech, high value. Anything that you can make in a box is usually shipped in from the Far East. Companies like Dysons now design here, and manufacture 'over there'. But if design and manufacturing move closer together, British firms can hang on to a reason to be here.

 So the factory that gave us Concorde and the Box Kite may yet transform British manufacturing, with a little nylon bicycle.

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