Having the right partners is essential for electronics companies looking to be successful in defence

4 min read

A CV of the UK would list defence as one of its key skills. While some may put this down to an unduly turbulent history, it is probably more accurate to attribute it to innovation and clever application of related technologies. Although it lays claim to almost an eighth of the world's arms trade (see p16), the UK is not known for producing large volumes of standard equipment. It is the high end, high technology equipment that comes from these shores.

While projects will be led by the huge defence primes, there are plenty of opportunities for smaller companies to bring their expertise into the supply chain. But their expertise needs to be tailored to fit in with the needs of military customers, which is where having an experienced manufacturing partner can help. "We get involved at a very early stage, something particularly important in defence," explained Dave Pearce, managing director of contract manufacturer Nemco. "You tend to have much tighter specs so it is important to understand from day one what they are trying to achieve. We make sure that it can be manufactured, where we can put screening cans, how we are going to inspect and test – the whole thing is a melting pot and the sooner we can talk to them about that the better." Some of the components employed in military designs, like specialised connectors and RF ICs, are both critical and can have very long lead-times. "We can manage this and make sure that it is ready in time for prototyping and production," said Bob Parker, operations manager. "You can only do things like that, and getting the test strategy right, when you get involved right at the beginning of a project. Moreover, using an experienced CEM can ease the pain of working in a highly regulated sector. SC21 (Supply Chains for the 21st Century) was introduced by the defence and aerospace primes to provide competitive and efficient supply chains. Pearce commented: "SC21 is what has got us into the defence market having been sponsored by a prime. In theory it means you are approved and they don't need to go through all the QA. In practice it is not that simple, but it does help to ease the path." SC21 is not a mandatory standard, it just makes it easier to work in the defence and aerospace industries. Nemco also has AS9100, which covers manufacturing and traceability and is mandatory for aerospace products. This means that electronics companies who have not got AS9100 can use the manufacturing services of Nemco and still sell into the defence or aerospace sectors. Pearce explained how this could be of advantage: "An electronics company we are dealing has standard power supply designs that it customises for different military applications. Obviously the design has got to be able of meeting the spec in terms of temperature and vibrations and all the other stuff that the end product has to meet, but then it has got to be manufactured by a company that has got the quality and the traceability systems for it to be used in that military application. "That is where someone like us fits in. A small company might be good at designing power supplies, but they are not going to have the systems and quality personnel to be acceptable to a defence prime in terms of manufacturing and supporting the product." With defence budgets annually being squeezed, it may not be an obvious market to want to be in, yet Nemco has invested heavily in such items as flying probe and x-ray test equipment, RF shielded room and conformal coating capabilities, all of which are critical to conducting defence related work. Pearce commented: "We definitely see it as a serious market and, maybe because budgets are being squeezed, the primes are pushing a lot more work out. People like us can do it more cheaply than they can do in house with their level of overhead. We are going to benefit from that." The same logic applies to electronics companies who believe their products have potential in this market. The primes would rather buy in 'off-the-shelf expertise'. Pearce added: "Take a ruggedised processor board for example. If it is to fit into a particular space requirement, like a handheld radio, they will do it themselves. If it is a system that sits in a ship or vehicle they will buy that sort of equipment in and design the things that are important to their application like radar, radio controllers, data processing." Despite the longevity of the projects, it is inevitable with long and complex supply chains that flexibility is important, and Parker concluded: "They make a lot of decisions very slowly, but when they make decisions they want product straight away - but that is the game we are in!" UK attacks global defence The defence sector in the UK is on the up. It is a sector that has in commercial terms always been one of the UK's strongest suits, and in 2013 exports were £9.8billion out of a global annual spend of around £82bn. Total defence turnover in the UK last year was £22bn and 160,000 people were employed in the sector. Last September the government announced the Defence Growth Partnership (DGP), intended to ensure that our own armed forces were suitably equipped and also make the most of export opportunities, and meat was put on bones when it introduced its Delivering Growth document at the 2014 Farnborough Air Show in July. In a joint foreword, Secretary of State for BIS Dr Vince Cable and the Secretary of State for Defence at the time, Philip Hammond – just before his promotion to Foreign Secretary, said: "Reinforcing defence export success is a key goal for the DGP and for the Government more widely. We are committed to do our utmost to assist UK-based suppliers in obtaining export orders. We are creating opportunities for export potential to be built early into our own equipment and support requirements. And we are increasing opportunities for small- and medium sized enterprises. Through the DGP we are both determined to promote competitiveness, innovation and a strong international customer focus across the defence sector." While many of the industrial signatories include all the defence primes like Thales, BAE Systems, Raytheon and Airbus, the trickle down effect for the rest of the supply chain should increase opportunities for SMEs as time goes on. In terms of infrastructure there will be a UK Defence Solutions Centre based in Farnborough. This will bring together industry, with support from government, to develop defence technologies and identify future market opportunities. Another project that will be of interest to electronics companies will be the £4m UK Centre for Maritime Intelligent Systems based in Portsmouth. Government, industry and the Local Enterprise Partnership will bring together academics, scientists, engineers and naval specialists to develop technology for use in autonomous unmanned boats, submarines or other vessels. At the same time as the launch of Delivering Growth, David Cameron announced that £1.1bn would be invested in defence. This includes £800m in an Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance package – aimed at countering global terrorism – and £300m in existing capabilities including a new E-Scan radar for Typhoon and the purchase of Ice Patrol Ship HMS Protector.