Wind turbine blades at Venture Quays, Cowes.
Wind turbine blades at Venture Quays, Cowes.
The Isle of Wight, especially Cowes, is a mecca for sailing and a centre for composite boat building. ‘Lifestyle’ is listed as one of the inducements for businesses thinking of relocating to the island.
The Isle of Wight, especially Cowes, is a mecca for sailing and a centre for composite boat building. ‘Lifestyle’ is listed as one of the inducements for businesses thinking of relocating to the island.
Wet lay-up of moulds at Vestas in Newport.
Wet lay-up of moulds at Vestas in Newport.
Composite fan blade at the CRC.
Composite fan blade at the CRC.
Robust GRP working catamaran from South Boats.
Robust GRP working catamaran from South Boats.
A400M spar on the jig, part of development work at the CRC.
A400M spar on the jig, part of development work at the CRC.

Probably the island's largest consumer and producer of composites by volume is Vestas Blades UK, which manufactures blades for wind turbines. According to Zoe Moore, project coordinator (blades), Vestas' main challenge at present is producing blades fast enough to meet demand from around the world.

Last year the company produced some 1100 blades and virtually all of them were exported. Vestas would happily sell some of its output in the UK, but the home market is unreceptive, thanks in part to the protracted nature of the permissions seeking process. The Isle of Wight itself exemplifies this, local opposition having so far stymied plans to construct a small wind farm at Wellow, near Yarmouth in West Wight. A decision is expected in October on whether the latest application from Your Energy for six turbines will succeed. Rob Sauvern, managing director of Vestas Technology and Paddy Weir, Vestas Blades' managing director, have publicly backed the planning application, saying the Vestas blade-equipped turbines would help its research and development, as well as being a useful step in building up the onshore markets in the UK, Ireland and France.

Meanwhile, production attention remains, as it has been for the last couple of years, focused on 40 m blades for the Vestas V82, a 1.65 MW machine that is popular worldwide, especially for low-wind sites. The main factory, near Newport, produces the resin infused wood/composite blades that it is uniquely known for, though Vestas also manufactures blades using prepreg materials and techniques. Vestas says that there is little difference in performance and cost between blades produced by the two methods, but adds that wood construction is simpler to replicate when new factories are set up and new staff trained to run them.

Each blade is moulded in two halves that are then adhesively joined. There are five 40 m moulds at Newport and each of the blades is produced in a 24-hour cycle by operatives working a two-shift pattern.

Although it has expanded production overall by 30% per year for the last several years, and despite having raised the production rate of prepreg blades in particular, Vestas still cannot meet all current demand. Its island workforce has steadily expanded to its present level of around 600, though a shortage of engineers and production managers with relevant experience is an ongoing issue.

One reason for Vestas locating to the island originally was the existence there of a significant skills base in composites, stemming originally from a strong boat building tradition. Another crucial factor was the availability of waterside locations for blade manufacture. Ever increasing blade size is making it less feasible to transport blades by road or rail, so shipping them is the only viable option.

Vestas uses two eco-friendly flat-bottomed, self-propelled barges to load blades at the riverside factory at Newport and convey them on the River Medina to East Cowes for finishing and across the Solent to Southampton Docks for loading onto the ships that will convey them to various parts of the world. The larger of the two barges, Bladerunner 2, will be able to transport the new 49 m wood/carbon composite blade that is presently under development on the island. Several prototypes have been built as a prelude to full production.

Gurit

With a representative 40 m blade weighing approximately 7 tonnes, Vestas clearly requires high volumes of composite materials for its operations. Fortunately, one of its major suppliers, Gurit Composite Technologies (formerly SP Systems), has its main UK facility right next to its own at Newport. Gurit can virtually wheel drums of epoxy resin, plus prepreg fabrics and other materials, from one factory to the other, usefully minimising delivery times and miles.

SP Systems was started on the island in 1978 by entrepreneur Paul Rudling, who had an interest in high-performance boats. Advanced composites, principally carbon and glass/epoxy, became the company's mainstay and a springboard into other high-performance sectors including aerospace, automotive and wind energy. The latter has been the fastest growing area of the business over the last decade.

In 1999, SP moved from Cowes into a new headquarters and factory, purpose-built on eight acres of the Dodnor Business Park, Newport. Three years later it was acquired by the Swiss group Gurit-Haberlein. Gurit has since amalgamated the business with its own composites interests, while continuing to expand its activities internationally. The SP brand is retained only within the marine sector where its association with low-weight structural excellence is particularly strong.

Paul Rudling retired as CEO and in March became chairman of the Isle of Wight Economic Partnership, a role in which he can use his knowledge and influence to further develop the island as a composites centre of excellence.

According to production development manager Martin Starkey, fully half of the Newport factory's output now goes to the wind energy sector, where the company claims to supply ‘all the major players’. A workforce of some 450 currently turns out approximately 3500 tonnes per year of epoxy-based resins, along with a range of materials utilising them. These include unidirectional and multiaxial fabrics, both woven and stitched, made with fibres sourced from other suppliers. SP Resin Infusion Technology (SPRINT) material, in which pre-catalysed resin film is interleaved with carbon or glass fabrics, is also proving popular across several application sectors.

Starkey explained that, in terms of its mainstream resin output, the company is ‘not in commodity formulations’. Its strength is in tailoring products to specific client requirements and, at the last count, some 12 500 formulations were on its database. Material supply goes hand in hand with a high level of service, including technical support, structural design, prototyping and testing. A brief tour of the Newport facility encompassed the main blend area, filler room, reactor area and several well equipped laboratories – including material and mechanical test labs.

Highest tech

The highest composites technology on the island is arguably that to be found at GKN Aerospace at East Cowes. A tradition of low-weight construction here dates back to 1906 when boat builder Sam Saunders completed a move from the Thames, bringing with him his ‘Consuta’ constructional principle in which fine canvas cloth impregnated with boiled linseed oil was sandwiched between thin layers of diagonal and longitudinal planking stitched together with copper wire.

SE Saunders went on to build many fine launches having monocoque structures made from this early form of composite. The company extended its weight saving technology and advanced hydrodynamics into floatplanes and thence progressed to wheeled aircraft. Successor company Saunders-Roe built many flying boats, warplanes and other aircraft, as well as pioneering the hovercraft and constructing anything from rockets to novel buildings to light helicopters.

Composites – in their more modern guise – came back into the frame after helicopter manufacturer Westland Aircraft had acquired the business in 1959. Items produced for helicopters include exhaust diffusers for the Westland Lynx and the forward upper cockpit for the EH 101 Merlin. Under Westland Aerospace and latterly GKN Aerospace, the site has focussed strongly on composite aerostructures, and has to date produced aircraft engine nacelles, radomes, control surfaces, ducts and other structural items in their hundreds for the world's leading airframers and Tier 1 suppliers.

A high state of composites evolution has now been reached at Cowes. A tangible sign of continued investment from GKN Aerospace plus official UK and European Union sources is a new composites research, development and manufacturing centre at Osborne Works, East Cowes. Here advanced fabrication and test facilities include leading-edge gantry tape laying machines, autoclaves, filament winders, CNC machining centres, hot drape forming facilities, ovens and spray bake booth, plus C-scan and other non-destructive inspection equipment.

Work at the Composites Research Centre, which forms part of the complex, is focused on reducing the costs of aerospace-quality composites by applying automation. Engagement in a number of European research programmes including Efficient Composite Primary Structure (EFICOMP), Advanced Low-Cost Aircraft Structures (ALCAS) and Aircraft Wing with Advanced Technology Operation (AWIATOR), has helped establish a world-class expertise. This is being further extended by participation in the current Integrated Wing, Advanced Technology Verification Programme (IW-ATVP), an Airbus UK coordinated initiative aimed at delivering a step change in wing technology and manufacture by 2020.

Results are evident in the adjacent manufacturing cell where advanced carbon composite wing spars are being produced for Europe's new military airlifter, the Airbus A300M. Although initial examples of these substantial monolithic components, up to 14 m long by 1.5 m wide, are being laid up by hand, in future they will be produced with minimal manual intervention. A 12-axis CNC controlled tape layer will produce ply stacks which will then be infused and hot drape formed, before undergoing final cure in an autoclave. Machine finishing, again under CNC control, will be the final step in fabricating parts of top quality, produced more affordably than is possible using standard aerospace composite processes.

Head of technology John Cornforth, comments that such cost reduction strategies are essential if manufacturing jobs are to be retained in countries like the UK. GKN Aerospace plans to extend its technological reach into other flight-critical structures, including in aero engines.

“We see propulsion as a growth area. Given increased environmental pressures and the continued expansion of air transport, aviation has to further intensify its efforts to reduce fuel burn,” Cornforth adds. “We therefore foresee the trend to lighter structures, now well established in airframes, being replicated in engines too.”

Composites will inevitably continue to be part of the weight saving impetus.

B-N Group

A few miles to the east, at Bembridge, is located an airframer which, though small, is the sole surviving UK-based producer of commercial passenger aircraft. B-N Group, successor to aircraft manufacturer Britten-Norman, still produces a trickle of Islander light utility aircraft, adding to the 750 or so working around the world (out of over 1200 originally built). These have very traditional metal airframes, however, and for composite interest one has to look to the assembly, in one of the Bembridge hangars, of Cirrus SR20 light aircraft for American manufacturer Cirrus Aircraft.

Manufacturing primary structural items in prepreg fibreglass/foam core sandwich has enabled Cirrus to produce an attractive, low-aerodynamic drag two-seater that is proving widely popular. Cirrus crates up and ships aircraft intended for Europe and adjacent markets to Bembridge where B-N unpacks and reassembles them, then flight tests them and prepares them for customer delivery. Reassembly involves re-bonding major airframe elements, such as the tail to the fuselage.

According to B-N chief executive William Hynett, B-N Aero Composites Ltd, the subsidiary formed to handle the Cirrus and other composite work, is assembling SR20s at a rate of 100 a year and growing. Hynett professes himself inspired by the American ‘can do’ culture and hopes to inculcate more of it closer to home.

Tradition maintained

The Isle of Wight's boat building tradition is maintained to this day, through a number of active boat builders.

Ventnor-based Cheetah Marine, which builds 5.5 m to 10 m LOA fishing and working catamarans in GRP, recently delivered a 6.9 m cat to the French Navy for hydrographic survey training, and a 7.9 m example to the Saudi Ports Authority for use as an integrated survey vessel. Another 6.9 m boat went to the Bristol Port Authority while an open-style 6.2 m Cheetah has gone to Gabon, Africa, for use as a river boat.

South Boats uses ex-shipyard premises at West Cowes to mould and construct a range of highly seaworthy catamarans for fishing, charter, survey, research, crew and cargo transfer, wind farm support and other working roles, primarily in GRP. Dozens of craft have been built in the eight years of the company's existence, ranging from under 10 m to 20 m vessels now plying Solent and adjacent waters in passenger service.

Craft can be supplied complete, or as kits of mouldings and other parts for client completion.

A relative newcomer to the Wight is Seaward Marine, which relocated from Guernsey to Cowes in 2002. The company moved because manufacturing on Guernsey was in decline and a major skills shortage threatened to constrain business expansion. Skills in GRP boat building were readily available around Cowes and the move was both encouraged by IWEP and assisted financially by SEEDA. Proprietor Barry Kimber says that Seaward has benefited from resource sharing among local marine companies that is championed by the Cowes Marine Cluster.

Seaward has a healthy order book for its businesslike custom-fitted launches of 23-49 ft LOA.

Cowes-based Corby Yachts specialises in designing and building fast, structurally light sailboats for keen racing owners. It uses advanced composites for many of its craft, though not exclusively as a number have been built with strip cedar coated with epoxy. Fairly representative, however, is Flirt, an IRC 49 which was constructed in carbon/epoxy foam sandwich, with structural engineering by SP Systems.

Wight advantages

The Isle of Wight has managed to avoid becoming too reliant on tourism, leisure and agriculture by building on its marine, aerospace and engineering roots. Advantages used to tempt new and existing businesses include a lifestyle described as vibrant, attractive surroundings, a substantial pool of skilled labour, a good educational infrastructure, an active manufacturing and small business sector, good ferry links to the mainland and rapid onward transportation, from Southampton and Portsmouth, to London and other major UK cities.

Nowadays, the proximity of South-ampton Airport and its growing range of flight connections facilitates access to UK, European and other overseas destinations. Future development, guided by SEEDA, IWEP and the local authority is set to upgrade the Cowes waterfront and Medina Valley, already attractive to businesses needing waterfront access.

According to Mike King, chairman of IWEP, over the last decade the island has become the fastest growing economy in south-eastern England, having created nearly 3000 jobs, 320 new businesses and 86 000 ft2 of new workspace.

The carefully fostered composites cluster is backed by a substantial infrastructure that includes a lively IT sector, and structural engineering consultancies such as Gurit (SP Systems) and Newport-based Enabling Technologies. The latter applies finite element, CAD, CATIA, NASTRAN, laminate analysis and other IT-based tools to design and optimise structures ranging from skin-stringer combinations for aerospace to automotive power trains to rigging components for high-performance sailboats.

Composites IQ is a network of 28 partners across Europe (currently) which are willing to share their expertise in order to promote composites interests and growth. Launched earlier this year, this Isle of Wight-headquartered composites network is described by its chief executive Chris Brammell as a ‘virtual institute for composites’. For a modest fee, subscribers can access a range of intellectual property including over 150 articles accessible via a web portal.

Altogether, the Isle of Wight offers an attractive environment for organisations specialising in composites.