Can the UK maintain a leading position in the composites industry?

British flag.By Amanda Jacob, Content Development Editor, Reinforced Plastics

Will UK manufacturing be left behind as others seize on international opportunities to manufacture and supply composite products and materials? 

Or will industry make a concerted effort to ensure that the UK continues to be a leading player in the composites sector?

These are questions the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE), a network of around 100,000 engineering professionals in the UK, asks in a policy statement issued this week.

The IMechE states that while the UK led the way in the 1990s, there has been a "slow and steady decline compounded by lack of research funding, poor skills development and obstructive codes and standards."

With growing competition from companies in countries such as China, Germany, the Middle East and India, the Institution says commercial barriers in the UK must be overcome to enable the UK composites sector to maintain its place in the growing composites industry.

Barriers to growth

The IMechE acknowledges the work done by the UK government and the National Composites Centre since 2009 but says the UK composites industry is still being held back by a number of factors, including:

  • Poor cross-sector collaboration between companies: Companies from one sector do not know what advances are being made in other sectors, resulting in slow commercialisation of R&D, poor understanding of composite applications and manufacturing techniques, an inefficient supply chain and an inadequately trained workforce unable to cross sector boundaries.   
  • Lack of appropriate codes and standards: If the UK is to maintain a competitive position it is vital that the UK composites industry be in the vanguard of international standard setting. The Institution recommends additional government funding be made available to bodies such as the CIMComp and the British Standards Institute (BSI) to guarantee the UK's position in composites standard setting.  
  • A fractured supply chain: Composites companies see themselves as part of a particular industry sector rather than a larger composites industry. The IMechE says it's vital that cross-industry capabilities be made visible to all manufacturing sectors to create a national composites supply chain network flexible enough to cope with market requirements on a global scale. UK Trade & Industry should also work with composites manufacturers to enable them to compete more effectively in the world market.  
  • Inconsistent skills and training: At operator level, the workforce is usually semi-skilled labour, taught on the job for the task related to the sector they work in. There has also been a reduction in the number of universities offering composites-related degree courses. The IMechE states that if this continues the UK composites industry will soon be unable to compete on an international level. It calls upon manufacturing businesses to develop a closer relationship with the composites industry to identify needs and emerging markets and enable appropriate training and education programmes to be put in place.  
  • Environmental concerns: The Institution highlights the fact that an estimated 98% of the 67,000 tonnes of GRP waste produced each year is likely to end up in landfill. It calls on the government to help in the development of cost-effective recycling methods as well as a collection and separation infrastructure. It also wants applications for recycled composite materials need to be developed and the use of bio- and natural composite materials encouraged.

What do you think?

Do you work in, or with, the UK composites industry? What do you think are the most important areas which need to be addressed?

Take part in our LinkedIn poll and let us know. ♦