Interview with Colin Turner: sustainability, innovation, place and technology


10 minute read
Jo Reid

Jo Reid

Chief Executive Officer

Aerospace & Engineering

Digital Insights

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In order to reach net zero emissions by the mid-century, society needs radical new models and mindsets. For both society and nature to benefit from new forms of economic growth, we need to rethink our economies and how we consume – and we need to innovate at speed. 

With this in mind, Calvium has been speaking with leading industry figures to share their ideas about what can be done to achieve sustainable innovation. Colin Turner is the CEO of the West of England Aerospace and Advanced Engineering Forum Forum (WEAF), which supports over 200 businesses in the aerospace, defence and advanced engineering sectors. He also owns and runs a family pub and brewery. 

In the latest of our interview series, Colin tells us where he sees opportunities for digital innovation in the sector, why digital is a double-edged sword and why he’s betting on technology being a key enabler to counter climate change.

Interview Artwork Colin

From your experience of working at the intersection of aerospace innovation and sustainability for a number of years, have you seen a change of approach from governments, industry and the public relating to sustainability? 

Prior to the Covid pandemic sustainability was seen as being important to industry but it was not driving change. Post the Covid pandemic the global economic pressures have forced Industry to consider sustainability as an opportunity for innovative growth and as a mechanism to reduce costs.

We can consider this in two ways.

In terms of carbon reduction from the operation of companies, sustainability is accelerating because of the problem with the energy crisis caused by the war between Russia and Ukraine. Alongside the global supply chain pressures which is producing a change in globalisation producing resourcing policies within procurement. The need to reduce energy and logistic costs has a direct effect with respect to CO2 production.

In aviation, we’re seeing a massive acceleration into R&D, driven by customer demand and potentially by climate change regulation. Predominantly, the airlines are wanting to reduce fuel, but also wanting to keep their customer base who are now starting to question, whether rightly or wrongly, that aircraft is a major polluter. 

Aviation has already achieved a great deal, modern engines are 35% more efficient and this is accelerating fleet upgrades with new engine options (NEO). Atmospheric scientists believe that the ice crystals coming out of the exhaust engines are as significant.

So the aerospace industry is rapidly investing to find solutions for both CO2 and contrails. We will see a progressive introduction of carbon reduction processes and technology which will lead to ultra-efficient, net zero and zero emission aircraft.

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What examples of great practice have you seen? 

In terms of sustainability, companies are starting to focus on the carbon footprint. There is a fantastic company in Lancashire called Crystal Doors, which makes kitchen doors and has won the Queen’s Award for sustainability. 

As an SME, they are world-beating in the way they’ve looked at sustainability. They monitor and measure the CO2 and energy usage and have implemented electronic dashboards that monitor all their processing. They also incorporate a monitoring system for their external supply chain on the major CO2 emissions and then implement reduction. So for heating they’ve invested in biomass, for rooms they’ve invested in solar panels, for transportation they’re aiming to use contracts with low CO2 emission vehicles. 

Sustainability at an SME level is about cost-saving. Business owners understand the need to save the planet, and the summer heat wave is really starting to make people think, but the problem is it’s an issue around capital investment and having the cash to change their supply structure and internal operations. If you can put in energy saving capabilities that ticks the box on CO2, it’s a win-win. 

How do you see digital technologies enabling innovation in the aerospace sector, near-term as well as mid-to-long term? 

We have a challenge with digital, it is important to demonstrate a return on the investment for digital technologies. Investing in internal digital systems in a controlled way to monitor data to understand efficiency, or to remotely automatically operate through a ‘lights out’ with a reduction of staff. Digital can a double-edged sword. It can be a threat but also an huge advantage, and companies have to be educated and supported in terms of what is the real benefit of implementing digital technologies. 

At WEAF, we’ve gone through a digital transformation because of Covid-19 – we’ve closed our office down and we all work remotely. The digital capabilities of things like Teams, enhanced web-based CRM, even WiFi connected phones, improves your productivity and allows people to have a better lifestyle. For us, digital is fundamentally about doing more with less. 

Robotics is a good example. People say we should all be using robots, but now, in certain circumstances, human beings are better. You haven’t got a maintenance cost, a programming cost, a quality and measurement control cost. In a car factory, it makes sense, but when you go into aerospace and a small-scale manufacturer, robotics investment is sometimes difficult to justify. Each investment needs a clear cost /benefit analysis which includes training. 

Where digital has real potential is design simulation and testing, as well as replacing paper: quality audits, quality systems, monitoring of shop floor quality, Also understanding where things are using, GPS location finally digital virtual training. 

Digital is a balance based on the return that you get from digital. All you’ve got to do is determine what’s the benefit to the business? What’s the return on investment? Why do we need it? Does it make us more efficient and aid our customers.

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Fast-tracking tech innovation has been defined by a make things and break them mentality underpinning practice. What can the aerospace industry do to innovate at speed and with care? 

Aerospace can innovate by using a creative model of known as a ‘skunk works’, or ‘phantom works’. Bringing your creative people out of mainstream production and putting them in an environment that actually allows the creative spark and thought processes to work in a more connected and focused way. 

Formula One does this all the time: they have to change cars between races so their design teams are set up to be very reactive, innovative and speedy in terms of the solutions. 

That’s the way you do it; you put clever people together, unrestricted. We can’t have total unrestricted practises you have to create some boundaries but you must let them think outside the box. This method has been has been proven by Lockheed – some of the most innovative aircraft in the world have been created by small groups of individuals focused on clear output and a demand. 

Another example is the difference between NASA and Elon Musk’s Space X. NASA is about to launch its version of the next moon rocket, but when you look at the innovative ideas that Musk has got, his teams are more innovative than NASA because NASA has to use the big teams around the big industrial suppliers in America. Therefore the innovation takes longer and is more costly.

Which organisations do you feel are doing the most exciting and impactful work regarding environmental sustainability? 

Nobody’s doing anything at the pace that we need to do it. The fuel companies are dominated by the ongoing ability to pump oil out of the ground, and therefore why should they change? 

Where we are getting innovative thought is, again, within the mobility system. We’re looking at the way the systems can be used: JCB have looked at the internal combustion engine and if it can be run on hydrogen; Toyota are looking at using hydrogen fuel cell and we have electric vehicles.

I’m really interested in the plans to build electrolysers to try and produce hydrogen as cheap as petrol. Companies in this field are going through real innovative growth at the moment.

The other area that will start to really drive again is nuclear, which I think we’ll see a massive investment in fusion and small reactors over the next 20 years. Whatever people think about nuclear, nuclear has an ability to produce zero CO2 power. 

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What opportunities do you see for digital innovation in relationship to the management of terminal estates and airfield projects or manufacturing? 

For airfields, I think digital ticketing is one way. There’s got to be a better way of using digital technology to get queuing people onto an aircraft. People don’t queue in train stations like they do at airports. 

For security, I think the identification of baggage is a big area. Whether that’s by a tracker device in your luggage, we’ve got all this digital capability but nobody seems to want to use it, and that’s restricted in the passenger experience. 

Again, we’ve got a situation where we’re burning CO2 by travelling people to airports. You could have more of a joined up approach with the likes of Amazon picking luggage up at your house, taking it digitally. Imagine the amount of stuff that Amazon and Tesco move around, and yet we’re still expected as human beings to take luggage up to an airport and get it on a plane. Why have we not got a digital system where a van picks luggage up in a controlled way, which is tracked into airports and arrives on time? It might mean changing to the luggage industry, or using a standardised suitcase, but there are better ways of operating. 

In terms of manufacturing, in the short-term it’s all about energy-saving and doing more for less. So apps that help you do more with quality, apps that monitor and allow you to make decisions about your energy use, being able to look at a maintenance piece of care and then pull up relevant documentation. There’s only so much you can do with a mobile phone, so I think there is an element somewhere in terms of looking at tablets again for quality systems. 

Who or what inspires you and why? 

What inspires me is innovative design, challenging the norm and doing things differently, which is a little bit difficult in the aerospace industry because it is highly regulated because of safety. Therefore, innovation has probably been a bit stifled over the last 20 years. 

With the explosion in sustainable aviation, we’ve seen a number of start-ups and they are basically doing the innovation. However the big companies are now joining the race. Digital technologies are key enablers in design, testing or manufacturing. We are looking at an exciting future in innovation.


Thank you Colin for sharing your time and insights, it has been a pleasure and inspiration to speak with you.


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