Boeing and the University of Sheffield reawaken an industrial champion.
The Cutlers’ Hall in Sheffield, England, is ornamented from floor-to-ceiling with a millennium-old legacy of advancing the art and craft of metal work. Blades of all sizes and functions. Spoons. Forks. Tools and implements for a variety of tasks dating from the Middle Ages.
Not only has metal production here been perfected and practiced officially on behalf of the British Crown, the work done in Sheffield over the centuries has directly influenced industry around the world.
And it was at the Cutlers’ Hall in September that representatives from Boeing said they would humbly accept inclusion in this legacy when the company’s first European factory opens in 2018.
The facility—Boeing Sheffield—will manufacture high-tech actuation components and systems used in Boeing’s Next-Generation 737, 737 MAX and 777 aircraft.
“It has always been our aspiration that one day Boeing would open a manufacturing facility in Sheffield,” said Keith Ridgway, professor of engineering at the nearby University of Sheffield. “This is the culmination of a successful relationship that we have nurtured for more than a decade.”
The Boeing Sheffield story began 16 years ago with the creation of the University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre with Boeing (AMRC). The center is a £150 million research cluster employing more than 600 staff, pairing academia with industry partners to accelerate the adoption of advanced, and increasingly digitalized, manufacturing techniques into major production systems.
Ridgway, who is also executive dean of the AMRC, has worked tirelessly to transform a region that once teetered on the verge of permanent decline. Today the AMRC has investment from over 100 partners from sectors such as aerospace, medical, automotive and construction. The AMRC has become a global model for industrial research, and its partners are now also the centerpiece for the Sheffield City Region’s Advanced Manufacturing Innovation District.
From blight to brilliant
Standing on a hillside between the cities of Sheffield and Rotherham, the landscape around the AMRC looks like any other burgeoning economy. Buildings within the AMRC campus itself are bright and new. Housing developments are under construction. The place exudes renewal and enthusiasm.
Difficult as it is to imagine, this innovation district was once the site of a decaying coking plant and an infamously brutal confrontation between striking coal mine workers and police. The Battle of Orgreave in 1984 was one of the most violent labor clashes in modern British history, and continues to this day to be a public controversy.
“You look around this place, and you can’t understand what it was like,” said Adrian Allen, executive director and co-founder of the AMRC, standing inside the complex’s Factory 2050, a glass-walled jewel on the hill at Catcliffe, South Yorkshire. “It was here at Orgreave only 30 years ago, where you had neighbor fighting neighbor. The unemployment. The depression that followed.”
This, too, is part of Sheffield’s legacy.
Gen. Ulysses Grant, just having left his second term as the 18th President of the United States, stood for supper at the Cutlers’ Hall and appealed to the industrialists of South Yorkshire to work together with the United States for mutually beneficial economic prosperity.
“Business with us at this time is a little depressed,” Grant said, according to The American News Company’s account of his visit in September 1877. “But the day is not far distant … when trade and commerce will revive.”
When Grant visited Sheffield, the West was experiencing the advent of the Second Industrial Revolution, a dramatic transformation of manufacturing by the introduction of inexpensively forged steel and increasingly advanced machinery in factories.
The innovation of the Bessemer process, named for its inventor Sir Henry Bessemer, established Sheffield’s capability and reputation for steel in the 1850s. Thanks to metallurgist Harry Brearley in the early 1900s, Sheffield also introduced the world to stainless steel.
The mass of coal available in South Yorkshire fed the needs of the region for decades, especially the energy-hungry steel works dotting the landscape. The coal and steel economy created post-war prosperity in the North of England.
But like many steel- and coal-heavy regions of the world, by the time the Second Industrial Revolution waned, giving way to the speed of computers and the information age, the region’s prosperity declined. Coal mines were closed, steel works shuttered. Thousands of people were put out of work.
“It was a hard time, still is for a lot of people,” said Ken Worsdale, owner of Foxwood Diesel, an engine rebuild shop in the town of Chesterfield, just south of Sheffield.
Worsdale remembers moving to the area in 1988 when he and a friend started a business refurbishing and selling engine parts. They drove all over Yorkshire for business—past rusted, ghostly factories and neglected fenced up coal pits. “You could smell the coal. It was everywhere,” he said.
Today, he marvels at some of the same landscape as he drives by.
“Some neighborhoods, they’re still not great,” he explained. “But you drive by (the Orgreave site) and it’s amazing really. Every couple of months, it seems like something else is going in.”
The Sheffield model
The plan for the AMRC with Boeing was initially hatched during a chance hallway conversation at Boeing’s St. Louis site in 1999 between Pete Hoffman and Adrian Allen.
Hoffman, who at the time was developing technology relationships to support Boeing’s international sales efforts, was introduced to Allen, and they discussed advanced metal machining techniques that could help Boeing improve its current production.
Allen had a state-of-the-art titanium cutting tool that his company had developed with the help of Ridgway and his students. Allen tried to sell the tool to Boeing.
“It was quite an innovation, this cutter,” Allen said. He was unsuccessful selling the tool. But through further conversation with Hoffman, it struck both Allen and Ridgway that the research-and-development process they used to develop that cutter might be even more valuable.
For Hoffman’s part, he saw the active collaboration between academic researchers and an industry partner as a potential solution to traversing what is commonly referred to in industry as the “valley of death.”
The valley is the perilous investment gap between bold, new technology borne of university-level research and the readiness of that technology to become a commercial product. The valley is unavoidable for many promising technologies because of the costly risk needed by private companies to develop those technologies into application.
But if they built a consortium, and many private companies pitched in on the R&D, then the individual investment risk would be reduced. The valley of death could be crossed.
Hoffman brought Boeing leaders into the conversation, and they all decided to give the consortium a go.
“We started with a modest investment of money, but we also brought our own research and know-how to the table. The real key was figuring out how to structure research agreements that ensured we protected everyone’s intellectual property, while pursuing mutually beneficial innovation,” explained Hoffman, who is now Boeing vice president for Intellectual Property Management.
With the Sheffield model, the supply chain also comes to the table and has “skin in the game,” Hoffman added. As lower tier members of the research consortium, they received access to advanced techniques with less investment, “So innovations get absorbed into the supply chain faster and cheaper.”
The university-industry collaboration has been so successful, Boeing has replicated the AMRC model with more than a half dozen universities in locations around the globe.
Planning for the future
The first AMRC with Boeing building opened in 2001, and with added investment from the U.K. government and the European Union, the campus grew quickly thereafter. Big name industrials such as BAE Systems, DMG Mori Seiki, and even Airbus, joined the consortium. Jet engine maker Rolls-Royce sponsored an AMRC building called the Factory of the Future in 2008.
In 2013, another dream was achieved when they opened the AMRC Training Centre, where young people gain the knowledge and learn the skills needed to drive a revitalized manufacturing economy through industry-sponsored apprenticeships.
When their dream first emerged, Allen and Ridgway had already been partners through Technicut—Allen’s company—a local employer with a need for development work, and Ridgway having given that work to his engineering students.
“Keith and I set out to create a radical, unique collaborative research environment, one that would quickly grow and attract a pool of skilled talent, technology and inward investment,” Allen said. “This would be the critical success factor in achieving the vision.”
A long-established apprentice system in the U.K. pairs students just out of secondary school with simultaneous on-the-job training and formal education. Apprentices may take longer to earn a college degree, but they are employed throughout the process. Local companies typically partner with a college or university to provide apprenticeships.
“So far there have been nearly 1,000 AMRC apprentices trained, and every one of them has a different and better future because of what we are doing here today,” said Sir Keith Burnett, president and vice chancellor of the University of Sheffield. “We are changing the very ground we stand on, repositioning Sheffield as a high-value manufacturing city. We are bringing in new ways of thinking and new ambitions. We are opening up opportunities for young people in the Sheffield City Region and around the world.”
Because they work while they learn and are less likely to amass student loan debt, “the apprentice plan is appealing to a lot of young people” said Leigh Worsdale, Ken Worsdale’s daughter and Foxwood Diesel apprentice, who was named the AMRC Apprentice of the Year in 2017.
As part of the U.K. business plan, Boeing has hired 19 apprentices who are being trained at the AMRC in advance of the Boeing Sheffield factory opening in late 2018.
“We’re all very excited to have the opportunity,” said Thomas Pledger, a Boeing apprentice, whose family is several generations South Yorkshire. His parents worked in coal, as did his grandparents. “Most of our (Boeing apprentices) families worked in the pits,” he said.
Pledger said he had been taking regular college classes for the last two years, but “absolutely hated it.” The academic work wasn’t the put-off; the facilities and training equipment were inadequate. He felt hindered. When the chance to apply to the AMRC program presented itself, he jumped at it. And he said he was even more excited when he was asked to interview for Boeing.
“The AMRC Training Centre has all the best equipment and tools to learn on,” he said, cracking a smile while talking about the time he’ll get to work in a real Boeing factory.
The Boeing effect
Boeing Sheffield is expected to continue hiring new employees throughout 2018—capitalizing on the skilled workforce in Sheffield, as well as the AMRC’s existing capabilities.
Ridgway, Allen and many of their community and government partners knew that being connected to a company with a global reputation like Boeing’s would attract other industrial champions.
They call it “the Boeing effect.” That is to say, because Boeing employs a world-wide supply chain, wherever the company goes, a support economy grows up around it. That support economy then attracts other companies.
Earlier this year, McLaren Automotive announced plans to site a new production facility near the AMRC in the innovation district.
“These announcements send out a powerful signal that our region is a leading location for high-value advanced manufacturing,” Ridgway said.
Areas such as Sheffield could play a crucial role in a new industrial revolution for the United Kingdom, one centered on science and innovation working hand-in-hand with industry, Burnett added. For example, the AMRC is working with China’s Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology to create light-weight, high-performance metals for their rockets and space station.
“I was told early in our relationship, ‘Boeing don’t do small,’” Allen said. The AMRC started with a few dedicated colleagues. It now employs nearly 500 highly qualified researchers and engineers.
And the relationship has been a catalyst for an industrial resurgence, one that may transcend the current information age into the next industrial revolution bringing on artificial intelligence, additive manufacturing, autonomy and quantum computing.
The newest addition to the Sheffield legacy is Factory 2050, which opened earlier in 2017. A reconfigurable, digital production facility, it will develop techniques for digitally assisted assembly, component manufacturing and machining technologies. The factory is capable of rapidly switching production between different high-value components and one-off parts.
“When we first started, it was about getting people back into work,” Allen said. “Today, we’re talking about ushering in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. That’s a long way to come in just two decades.”
By Candace Barron, Boeing writer