Thursday, June 23, 2005

Chasing air

To the Paris Air Show last week, where all eyes were on Airbus' mammoth offering, the A380. (Click here for more pics of this and other eyecatching tech from the show.)

Inside the exhibition halls, almost everyone was boasting of their connection with, or trying to catch the eye of, Airbus and its trans-Atlantic rival Boeing. And not just the equipment suppliers, pushing everything from complete engine and landing gear assemblies to improved rivets and sheet titanium. The regional development agencies were out in force.

Yorkshire Forward had a large stand in Hall 4, alongside the Japanese delegation. The RDA had made a deliberate decision to position itself away from the main UK presence over in Hall 2. There, the reps from Wales, the North West, the Midlands, the South West, and most points in between were crammed together, trying to get a slice of global aerospace pie. In between, you'd find the stalls set out for everywhere from Ile de France to New Mexico. Everyone, it seems, has or wants an aerospace cluster.

The industry ticks all the regional development boxes: it employs everyone from engineering PhDs to trolley-pushers, and pays them well; it can draw on and support traditional manufacturing industries that otherwise face decline; there are plentiful opportunities for academic collaboration; most of the signs are for continued growth in the sector; and, not least, it's real gee-whizz stuff.

But with every region chasing the two big players, and their first tier of OEM suppliers, it's obvious that most are going to be disappointed. Yorkshire has a good toehold with the 'AMRC with Boeing' on the border of Sheffield and Rotherham - an enginnering research centre spun off from the University of Sheffield, to which the US giant has lent its name as a centre of excellence (I'll have to admit some vested interest here, as t'other half works there - but for more info, see this feature from 2003).

The AMRC is intended to form the keystone for a wider cluster development, the Advanced Manufacturing Park - but building on this first success has proved difficult. The AMP, a joint venture between Yorkshire Forward and landowners UK Coal, has so far only attracted a handful of other research centres, not any of the promised private sector investment. For a development that's supposed to be bringing 7,000 hi-tech jobs to South Yorkshire, this is obviously a problem.

The park has not been short of interest - there's been plenty of inquiries from businesses wanting to move on, mostly from elsewhere in Yorkshire, but these have been judged to be not of the necessary technical calibre. In terms of Yorkshire Forward's long-term cluster development, that may well be the right strategy. But practically, it's risky - UK Coal will sooner or later want to realise the value of its land, whether or not it fits with the RDA's aims. That'll be a particular worry if Alchemy Partners succeed in their takeover approaches and set about maxing the group's bottom line.

Yorkshire's marketing efforts at the Air Show also featured a gourmet cruise along the Seine. A very pleasant time was had by all, but filling the AMP - and landing a slice of the aerospace pie - certainly won't be plain sailing.

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