Paul Jackson on the Airlander 10 project

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Find out what it's like to be working in partnership with the creators of the world's largest aircraft, the Airlander 10.

It's 92m long, 43m wide and can cruise the skies at 80 knots - all with a significantly lower carbon footprint than other forms of air transport. It's a new breed of hybrid air vehicle that's been described as combining the best attributes of an aircraft and an airship. So it's no wonder that Hybrid Air Vehicles, the company dedicated to creating this hyper-efficient aircraft, was so keen to draw on Forward Composite's experience in the aerospace market. With a proven ability for designing and building flight-critical composite solutions that reduce aircraft weight, without compromising passenger safety, it was a fitting partnership.

Forward Composites designed and manufactured the payload module, allowing the Airlander to carry people, cargo and even search and rescue equipment. They also modified the mission module, repaired the payload beam and manufactured the pylon and strakes. In short, Forward Composites has played a crucial role in turning the Airlander into an incredibly lightweight reality, and over half the staff at the firm's Huntingdon headquarters have been involved in this exciting project to date. Ed Collings, Forward
Technical Director, has led the engineering activities.

Airlander 10

As the Airlander 10 prepares for its maiden flight, Paul Jackson reflected on some of the key challenges they encountered on the project: "The Airlander was originally designed for military purposes, but after the Department of Defence shut the book on the project, its engineers were committed to bringing it back to the UK and seeing the project through.

"Since its inception the focus of the project was being innovative. We were constantly trying to do things in a way that was faster and more cost-effective than is usually achieved in aerospace, from innovative ways of using tooling, to weightefficient materials. It was a challenge that called for a very different approach and a very strong working relationship."

Nick Allman, Programme Director at Hybrid Air Vehicles, added: "One of the reasons we've worked so well with Forward Composites is that they really understand the ethos of the project. Standard procurement in aerospace revolves around detailed designs and proposals, but what we achieved with Forward Composites was an agreement to do these in parallel.

Throughout the project we've been working out how to do it together, rather than in a traditional client-supplier model. Forward Composites has become more than just a supplier, it's a partner."

Paul continued: "With the full support of private investors and more recently over 2 million pounds in crowd-funding, the intention is to build six air vehicles a year and, as the composite partner, we look forward to supporting this exciting programme. Part of our own strategy is to continue to build a customer base with longevity in the aerospace, defence and automotive sectors. We're already manufacturing components for some of the most successful Formula 1 engines you'll see on the winners" podium. Aircraft interiors is another key market for us, as our aerospace components continue to bring to aircraft weight savings, and positively impact on fuel efficiency."

So what's next for Forward Composites? Just three years old, the company now has over 100 employees, including a number of apprentices and a senior team to lead and inspire the workforce. It's investing in the future in more ways than one too, working with local schools and colleges to promote engineers of the future, and is also making a significant financial investment in its own facility to build an automation cell that will build composite structures more efficiently.

For this thriving Huntingdon manufacturer, the sky really does seem to be the limit.

Article reproduced by courtesy of Cambridgeshire Chambers of Commerce. Originally published in Connected magazine, May 2016. Click here for the complete magazine.

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