Can the UK composites industry compete with the rest of the world? (Picture © Aleksandar Mijatovic / Shutterstock.com.)
Can the UK composites industry compete with the rest of the world? (Picture © Aleksandar Mijatovic / Shutterstock.com.)

According to the London-based Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE), the growth of the UK composites sector is being hampered by a number of factors, including:

  • poor collaboration between companies;
  • lack of appropriate codes and standards;
  • a fractured supply chain; and
  • a drop in the number of university courses offering composite-specific degrees.

Addressing barriers to growth

The demand for composite materials is set to grow rapidly, with the end-product market expected to be worth £50 billion in the next five years, according to Dr Helen Meese, Head of Materials at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

“If the UK is to seize the opportunity presented by this growing industry, UK manufacturers must urgently look to address key barriers working with the composites industry," she says.

"The National Composites Centre has been very successful since its creation in 2009, but it is now time for the wider industrial community to build on this foundation."

We need extra funding to ensure the UK is in the vanguard of international standard setting for composites and that they encourage, rather than hamper progress.
Dr Helen Meese, Head of Materials at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers

“To enable the UK composites industry to grow, it is vital for us to identify gaps in the UK skills base and supply chain network, and government needs to work with the Composites Leadership Forum (CLF) and UK Trade & Investment to increase international exposure to the UK composites market."

“There is also a need for cross-sector engagement within the manufacturing industry. Engineers working on composites for the aerospace sector for example, need to share knowledge with engineers working on composites for rail and biomedical applications, otherwise we will continue to see the slow development of key skills, R&D as well as an inefficient supply chain."

The Institution also says the government needs to ensure the UK does not get overshadowed by competition from countries such as China, Germany, the Middle East and India.

The UK’s composites industry currently employs more than 40,000 people and has an estimated turnover of £1.6 billion a year.

Recycling concerns

The Institution of Mechanical Engineers' position statement Composites: Consolidating the UK's Competitiveness notes that the recycling of composites in the UK to date has been relatively small due to its low economic viability.

Recommendations

The Institution of Mechanical Engineers urges the wider industrial community to:

  1. Identify where composites could be used in their sector and engage with composites research organisations, manufacturers and material suppliers to develop new applications and cross-sector standards.
     
  2. Address where gaps exist in their knowledge and skills base by working with the CLF, so that appropriate knowledge transfer and training can be provided.

  3. Work with the composites industry to identify supply chain gaps and create a supply chain network, enabling improved capability and quality to meet UK and global demand.

The Institution also calls for the government and UK Trade & Investment to continue to work with the CLF to increase international exposure of the UK composites market and enable the composites industry to compete more effectively in the global arena. The key areas are sustainability, environmental management and the setting of international standards.

It reports that approximately 130,000 tonnes of glass fibre reinforced plastic (GRP) is produced in the UK each year and that of the 67,000 tonnes of GRP waste produced per annum, an estimated 98% is likely to end up in landfill. It is therefore essential that as the market for composites grows, methods of recycling and recovery are developed. The Institution calls for investment from the government to find more cost-effective recycling methods as well as a collection and separation infrastructure.

Applications for recycled composite materials also need to be developed and the use of bio- and natural composite materials should be encouraged. ♦
 


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