Blue sky thinking to boost jobs and fire up economy in Ayrshire

This article featured recently in The Herald on the ambitious plans to develop the aerospace and space activities at Prestwick.

The Ayrshire Growth Deal is bringing renewed optimism to the region, with the new ‘Beyond Launch’ tagline for Prestwick’s planned spaceport encapsulating the soaring confidence that the only way is up. By Andrew Collier

For decades, Ayrshire has been a place where business has literally reached into the skies. The area has built an enviable reputation as an aerospace hub, and now its future is about to get even brighter.

This has long been a highly visible industry. Aircraft of all types and sizes are seen flying in and out – in its day, Concorde was a visitor on more than one occasion and in the present era, it’s not unknown for the mighty Antonov – the world’s largest aircraft – to stop by.

Global companies such as BAE Systems, GE Aviation, Spirit AeroSystems, Woodward and Collins Aerospace have all helped to create a specialist cluster in the area employing thousands of people.

Now, this well-established cluster – which accounts for more than half the sector’s workforce in Scotland – is set to dramatically expand as a result of the Ayrshire Growth Deal, a new partnership being driven forward by the Scottish Government, the UK Government and East, North and South Ayrshire Councils. In total, the new package is worth £250 million, with £80 million of this allocated directly to establishing Ayrshire as one of the UK’s leading aerospace centres.

“As our new Beyond Launch tagline illustrates, the deal will position the area as a centre of technical, economic and innovation excellence”, says Mick O’Connor CEng CDir, Programme Director at Prestwick Spaceport.

“It will offer a host of opportunities beyond the spaceport, both for the aerospace sector and the people of Ayrshire.”

Prestwick has built its aerospace reputation and attracted global blue-chip companies in the sector because it has a highly skilled workforce as well as strong and evolving industrial facilities, laboratories, workshops and testing centres. “It also has incredible transport links across rail, air, sea and road”, Mr O’Connor adds.

“The Ayrshire Growth Deal funding will further support technical infrastructure and skills development around Prestwick.

“This will equip the local aerospace sector to develop, build and test innovative technologies using advanced state-of-the art manufacturing and maintenance repair and overhaul (MRO) facilities.”

Looking forward, future growth in the aerospace sector will be catered for though the provision of high quality industrial and commercial properties.

There is also likely to be a need for companies working in the emerging “New Space” market in areas such as rocket and satellite manufacturing – with South Ayrshire Council already in discussions with a number of potential partners in this area.

Mick O’Connor cites the planned new Aerospace and Space Innovation Centre as an example of the technical infrastructure that will come to the area.

“It will include a visitor attraction focused on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and will provide a central hub to drive the development of new technologies and new skills in aerospace.

“As well as providing facilities for new business incubation, development and training, the centre will accelerate existing research into advanced manufacturing techniques. This will help to support businesses in the sector.”

Another advantage of a research and business incubation capability, he adds, is that it will provide a connection between Ayrshire and the wider Scottish research ecosystem. “It will allow partnerships to be forged with closely connected education institutes both at local and national level. These include Ayrshire College, the University of the West of Scotland, the University of Strathclyde and the University of Edinburgh.”

As well as capital investment, the Ayrshire Growth Deal will also provide an opportunity to leverage skills and investment locally – something that will benefit not just the aerospace sector, but the whole wider community.

“In addition to developing skills in the local workforce, the boost to the aerospace cluster around Prestwick is expected to add some 4000 jobs to the area,” Mr O’Connor explains.

“A further major goal of this investment is to inspire people to explore careers in STEM and the aerospace sector – the development of the aerospace centre will create a wide variety of possibilities for outreach and mentorship of learners, from primary school through to higher education.”

The visitor facility and STEM hub at the Aerospace and Space Innovation Centre in particular will provide opportunities for school and college students to understand and explore career options in these sectors.

Mr O’Connor explains: “Many of our future workforce are currently of school age, therefore it is crucial they consider a career in space as something attainable. We will require highly specialised engineers and scientists however, we also need many other types of skills therefore it is vital we promote the study of not just the academic subjects but also the practical creative subjects as creativity and innovation are key to unlocking the potential of Scotland’s space industry.

“We will also offer a dynamic innovation and training facility for educators and the local workforce. And the visitor centre will provide a unique tourist attraction for Ayrshire, drawing on the widespread fascination with flight, space exploration and technology.”

There will, he says, be other local benefits too. “The plans for commercial development also include improvements to the region’s transport infrastructure – something that will bring benefits for local residents.”

Growth is also taking place within aerospace outside the Ayrshire Growth Deal, with two projects having obtained investment from the Scottish Government’s Advancing Manufacturing Challenge Fund (AMCF).

These ventures – the Aerospace Digital Visualisation Suite and Supply Chain AeroSpace – have both been established following a successful collective bid by South Ayrshire Council, Ayrshire College, the University of Strathclyde and the Ayrshire Engineering Alliance which secured £2 million in investment.

Mick O’Connor is an enthusiast for these projects and for the Ayrshire Growth Deal, about which he says: “It will help secure Prestwick’s reputation not just as a centre for aerospace excellence – it will also bolster its ability to support the growing global space sector.

“Through new and established businesses along with the creation of highly skilled jobs, educational outreach programmes and supply chain opportunities provided by a growing hub, Ayrshire really is poised to support the UK’s aerospace and space activity beyond launch.”

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