Postgraduates at the Aerospace Integration Research Centre at Cranfield University working with a UAV

Interview: Iain Gray, director of aerospace, Cranfield University

Image credit: Nick Smith, Cranfield University

Cranfield University’s director of aerospace, Iain Gray, discusses the need for ‘high-value design’ in order for the UK to compete in a crowded marketplace, as we enter the ‘third revolution’ in air travel with significant challenges facing both the engineer and the airlines.

“There is a danger of everyone just looking at their individual part in an overall aerospace and aviation agenda,” says Cranfield University’s director of aerospace, Iain Gray. “But it is entirely possible to integrate every aspect of air travel. That is part of the ‘third revolution’ happening today, based on technology solutions and a business model that needs to be put in place.” This vision of the past has a ‘first revolution’ of piston aircraft and a ‘second revolution’ seeing the introduction of the jet engine. The third “is simply how we use digital technology to assist the passenger experience”. Gray explains there is a trend in current thinking that says when a passenger gets off an aeroplane they should feel better than when they get on it.

There are two main elements to Gray’s role as director of aerospace at Cranfield. First – and the one that he accepts is far easier to define – is the formal responsibility for the market-facing faculty or ‘theme’ of the university that includes “staff, teaching and the research agenda for all that we deliver in the aerospace theme at Cranfield”. Second, which Gray categorises as “slightly more nebulous”, is working with a broad subject that has strong links with the manufacturing, transport and energy sectors. “My role here is in developing the aerospace strategy across all the different themes in the university.”

Cranfield University, which is a postgraduate and research centre, has always had aerospace as its main concern. Founded in 1946 as the College of Aeronautics, it was established as a result of “a need expressed by industry and government to provide postgraduate students for the aerospace industry and to provide research to support it. It was quite explicitly set up to meet those needs.”

Gray says this has been a common thread at Cranfield – the only university in Europe with its own airfield – for the past 70 years. “Having the airfield means that we can do things that other universities cannot. Also we are business-facing, which makes us different. Which is not to take anything away from the undergraduate effort by other universities, rather it is to establish ourselves as a business resource for the aerospace sector.”

Keeping up with the times is a critical part of Gray’s management strategy, as “the changing nature of the sector means that there is now interdependency in the industry. You can no longer treat engines, airframes or even aeroplanes on their own. You have to look at aeroplanes in the context of the space in which they are flying and the airports they are flying into. Today, everything is more integrated.”

All of which means that Cranfield is “less about the depth in very specific capabilities and more about the breadth of how we can integrate across different disciplines and look at what I call the ‘Four ‘A’s Strategy’”. These four elements are “defining and delivering aircraft of the future, airspace management of the future, airports of the future and airlines of the future. We need to see how they are all joined together.

“The really big issue in aerospace at the moment is the integration of ever more aircraft into an ever more congested airspace and airport environment. It’s also about absorption of new technologies and effectiveness of the competitiveness of the UK’s aerospace industry against the emerging capabilities of the Far East. It’s about ensuring that every conversation taking place within industry today is talking about providing the engineering skills for the future. These will be the issues, I suggest, for quite some time.”

Gray says Cranfield’s origins reflect the way industry worked in the past, where the subject of aeronautics was traditional as it tended to be about aerodynamics, avionics, structures and systems. However, today is a different story, where emphasis is “on managing complexity, making the integration of technologies and systems key”.

As an example, Gray cites Cranfield’s Aerospace Integration Research Centre (AIRC), which “is all about working with industry and looking at how those technologies interact with each other. For example, how you might get the optimum engine and airframe configuration. We can no longer have a situation where there are companies that are the best in the world at manufacturing engines, and companies that are best in the world at designing overall airframes, and just assuming that you can put their technologies together and end up with the optimum solution, particularly when we are looking at novel and emerging configurations.”

Gray says it is ridiculous that Great Britain “has definitively, in terms of manufacture and design, the number two aerospace sector in the world [the US being first], and yet for the best part of 50 years we’ve been living in parallel universes. We’ve had the world of aerospace and the world of aviation.” More explicitly, aerospace in the UK is managed by BAE Systems, while the Department for Transport is responsible for aviation. “But in today’s world you need to bring those parallel universes together.”

Gray says “from an engineer’s point of view, it seems pretty thankless to spend years, say, optimising an aeroplane to deliver the best efficiency and fuel-burn performance, and then find yourself a passenger in that plane doing three or four loops of an airport waiting to land. Or spending hours on the ground at an airport.” Which means the need for the left hand to know what the right hand is doing “is becoming increasingly important”.

Gray goes on to say that he can see a scenario where it might be better for the consumer to have a sub-optimum aircraft efficiency performance combined with increased efficiency of the airport passenger throughout procedure. “My argument about the part Cranfield has to play in this is that we are performing a very traditional role of aeronautics and providing the very best aircraft of the future. Yet with increased digital capability that exists today, what is becoming more important is that we can link aerospace and airspace management, airport and airlines together. What we have to do is ensure that we draw in the expertise to achieve this.”

If you read the history books, says Gray, you’ll find the UK “played an enormously strong role in defining through its aerodynamics, design and structures capabilities, the basic aircraft platforms that we have today. Although they have evolved, the aircraft we have today are pretty much the same as they were 10 or 20 years ago.”

This means that Gray sees the manufacturing capability of the UK aerospace industry as fundamentally what was put in place “maybe 30 or 40 years ago. It’s a long-term industry, and my fear is that unless the UK does something to protect its high-value design skills, it will lose that opportunity to influence the high-value manufacturing capability of the future.”

Gray says that over the past decade there has been a strong focus on the UK’s manufacturing potential, “and there have been some sizeable investments into aerospace. My premise is this was all dependent on what was a high-value design capability that existed a quarter of a century ago. However, because of the way the industry has evolved, and because of lack of overall UK company leadership of aircraft projects – we no longer design complete aircraft for ourselves – we have seen erosion of that high-value design capability.

“As we approach a cusp of new technologies, if we don’t have in place that capability, then dependency we have on manufacturing may also erode to the point where we become nothing more than just a link in the supply chain. There’s a call to action now to ask what we can do to influence the next generation of products, to ensure we can influence where their long-term manufacturing base is.”

In one way or another, Gray’s entire career has been connected with aerospace. The British engineer, in describing his career, admits there’s a “little bit of post-event rationalisation”. Yet the story he tells is of growing up with a father in the aerospace industry working on the Vulcan project at Avro in Manchester. “Subliminally, that must have played a part in my early interest and I recall being taken to air shows at places like Lossiemouth, and I’m a great believer, from an engineering profession point of view, that these can be pivotal moments in the way you think.”

He goes on to say it might be a bit obvious, but his generation grew up with “massive engineering achievements” such as Apollo missions and the maiden flight of Concorde, as well as the QE2. “I think it was the summer of 1969 when I said that this is what I want to do. My father gave me a poster of Concorde I had up in my bedroom. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the space agenda, but the seminal moment for me was Concorde. That was our Apollo 11 project.”

Armed with this enthusiasm, Gray went to Aberdeen University to read for an engineering science degree during which he was shown a photograph of a Concorde test rig “and I thought ‘wow’. All the accelerometers, strain gauges and so on produced a moment of reaffirmation. Concorde made me go into engineering. When it came to job applications, British Aerospace was going to be pretty high on my list. When I went for my interview at Filton, they walked me around the hangar where Concorde 216 – the last one to fly – was still being built. I was very lucky because I had a number of jobs in my first five years that were linked to Concorde. I became part of the project that had inspired me.”

While still at BAe, Gray took a postgraduate research degree at Southampton University, which “kept me close to the business and taught me something about career retention. It was what kept me in the industry when I might have looked outside the sector for career progression.”

This progression was to lead him into the role of director of engineering and later managing director of Airbus UK, followed by the post of the first chief executive of Innovate UK (formerly known as the Technology Strategy Board) on its establishment in 2007. As his career has progressed, his influence has spread. Quite apart from being the chairman of the Bristol Aerospace Museum, he is a board member of Engineering UK, SEMTA, the Energy Technology Institute, and sits on the council of the City of London University. In 2014, the year before he took on his role at Cranfield, he was awarded the CBE for his contribution to innovation, science and technology.

Gray says: “I’ve had three careers so far. The first and longest was in industry, then in the public sector with Innovate UK, and most recently in the university sector at Cranfield. They are all to a large extent big organisations. One of the key learning points for me though is the languages used in these sectors tend to be totally different from each other, while problems they face are similar. They have more in common than most people think. Every organisation has change management and financial challenges. The recognition that the role engineering plays within an organisation is also very important.”

Notionally the aerospace industry is about a century old and today, says Gray, we are on the brink of its third revolution. While the first two were more connected to the engineering behind getting into the air in the first place and then making us go faster, the third is about bringing together separate considerations with the passenger as the key focus. While this will inevitably concentrate in part on the integration of new materials and systems in the overall aeroplane of the future, aspects of airport pass-through such as security, identification and retail will play another.

It is a revolution predicated on managing complexity, to get the consumer not just from Heathrow to Los Angeles International in a reasonable time. “It’s actually about managing the entire process, getting the passenger from his home at 23 Acacia Avenue to his room at his hotel in California. It’s about managing that chain of events by integrating all of the technologies. It’s about making the passenger feel better when they get off the plane than when they got on it.”

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