GKN Aerospace marked the official opening of its Global Technology Center (GTC) in the UK with an October 18 conference focused on the technological challenges the company and its partners face in achieving the goal of delivering a zero-carbon future for aviation. Speakers also addressed how the industry can respond to an increasingly urgent skills shortage and improve its still-limited success in recruiting talent from beyond the traditional pool of largely white male job candidates.
The GTC facility at Filton, close to neighboring Airbus and Rolls-Royce factories, represents an initial investment of £32 million ($44 million), almost half of which the UK government covered through its Aerospace Technology Institute. It concentrates entirely on future aerospace technology, including Airbus’s “Wing of Tomorrow” program, advances in composite materials and additive manufacturing, and electric and hydrogen propulsion. Earlier this year, GKN launched a £54 million project called H2Gear to develop a hydrogen-electric powertrain.
In July, the facility delivered the first full set of wings, empennage, and wiring for Eviation’s all-electric Alice aircraft, which the manufacturer expects to make its first flight in December. GKN is also partnered with eVTOL aircraft developers Vertical Aerospace and Joby Aviation.
John Pritchard, president of GKN’s civil aerospace business, said that the aerostructures and components supplied to Eviation were completed within 12 months of being specified by the customer. He attributed the accelerated development to the high degree of focus in the GTC, which completed the work in around a third of the time he estimated it would have taken in one of GKN’s existing production sites. “We’re entirely focused on future technologies and decarbonization of aviation, and we can’t do that alone," he told reporters. "We have to work closely with our partners, and recruiting the right skills is also very important to us.”
Part of the decarbonization effort involves making the production process more sustainable. According to Pritchard, the Airbus “Wing of Tomorrow” will require at least 60 percent less energy to produce and will involve a 20 percent reduction in waste materials.
The conference, called "Shaping a Sustainable Future of Flight," also heard from Airbus UK general manager Trevor Higgs and Rolls-Royce chief technology officer Paul Stein, who both said that their companies are collaborating to meet the industry’s goal of achieving "net zero" carbon outputs by 2050.
“To get to net zero in 2050, we’ve got to supercharge what’s been done already,” said Emma Gilthorpe, CEO of the UK’s Jet Zero Council. With the UK government set to host the COP26 environment conference in less than two weeks, it is consulting with industry leaders to agree on attainable interim goals. “Initially, we talked about a goal of cutting emissions [from aviation] by 10 percent by 2030, and, at the time, that seemed ambitious but now it seems as if we have to at least achieve that,” she explained.
The new GTC, which complements similar facilities that GKN operates in Sweden and the Netherlands, will house around 300 people from the company and its partners. It will receive an annual investment for research and development work of approximately £30 million.
“The challenge that we as an industry face is: how can we continue to deliver the huge benefits of flight, but in a truly sustainable way?” said GKN Aerospace chief executive David Paja. “That is why GKN Aerospace has set itself the target to become a net-zero business by 2050, with ambitious five-year targets along the way.”