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Growing the aerospace, defence, security and space industry in Northern Ireland

  • ADS is the UK trade association for the aerospace, defence, security and space sectors and has more than 1,100 members.

    Whether representing industry, connecting members with business opportunities or driving forward innovation and growth, ADS is at the forefront of an array of activities, events and programmes that benefit its members.

    Membership ranges from major global organisations with substantial UK presences, to hundreds of small and medium sized (SMEs) companies in every part of the country. The organisation is headquartered in London and Farnborough and is headed by CEO Kevin Craven. 

    ADS NI overview

    ADS Northern Ireland was established in 2010 and is led locally by Dr Leslie Orr – Director, ADS NI. Starting with a membership of 7 member companies, ADS NI has grown to more than 100 companies who contribute more than £1.9bn per year to the NI economy.  

    ADS NI works to further grow and support the success of the aerospace, defence, security and space industries. In Northern Ireland, these sectors are vital and support high-value skills, jobs and UK prosperity. 

    ADS NI is directed by an industry council and works closely with national & regional government and Invest NI to drive forward the sector strategy. ADS NI has six industry working groups focusing on Sales, Skills, Research and Development (R&D), Supply Chain, Defence and Security, and the Space sectors. 

    Aerospace industry

    Northern Ireland is home to great engineers and pioneering spirit and is a regional aerospace cluster with significant aviation heritage, more than 100 aerospace companies within Northern Ireland are within a one-hour radius of each other. 

    These companies have spear-headed aircraft innovation for decades and are supporting the UK as it works towards net zero by 2050. For example, composite wings for the Airbus 220 are made at Spirit AeroSystems in Belfast and are lighter than conventional aluminium wings, cutting CO2 and NOx emissions. 

    There is also a significant specialism in the aircraft interiors market and Northern Ireland is responsible for around 50 per cent of the UK’s aircraft interiors output. Any seat from economy to luxury business class seats and like flat cabins are manufactured in the region and companies such as Collins Aerospace and Thompson Aero Seating produce one third of the world’s aircraft seats. 

    ADS often comes up with new and innovative ways to support its members, and many Northern Ireland members such as IPC Mouldings and Bradfor operating in the aircraft interiors sector can be found in the ADS Digital Cabin. The ADS Digital Cabin is a virtual aircraft space allowing members to showcase their products and services to a global audience in a new and immersive way and was launched at the Aircraft Interiors Expo. 

    Supporting the larger Northern Ireland organisations is a very strong SME supply chain, with more than 100 companies. These small and medium enterprises have vital expertise and supply nearly every major aerospace programme across the globe and their supply chain excellence is recognised through the ADS 21st Century Supply Chains (SC21) and Operational Excellence programme with many organisations in the region retaining consecutive gold standard awards (more on that later). 

    Defence industry

    Northern Ireland has some specific strengths in the defence sector and there is real opportunity to further grow the defence industry. This is the specific focus of the ADS NI Defence and Security Special Interest Group, bringing companies together to promote and grow the industry.  

    Members of ADS NI have a unique opportunity to be part of the United Kingdom Pavilion at various trade shows and exhibitions such as the Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) and Security and Policing. During the shows, members get the opportunity to engage with Government, industry stakeholders and international delegations. In recent years, there has been very good engagement with the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy that will lead to prosperous opportunities for ADS NI members operating in the maritime sector. 

    Security industry 

    There are a number of Security sector members operating in the region, and one particular strength is in Cyber Security – a vital strength relevant to all organisations, no matter the sector.

    Queen’s University Belfast is home to the Centre for Secure Information Technologies (CSIT), the UK’s national innovation and research centre for cyber security. The ADS team works closely with CSIT to host business engagement events and promote NI capabilities and technologies.  Recently the RAF announced that they would set up an innovation node at CSIT to engage with the great industry capabilities in the region, a key indicator of the region’s strengths in Cyber Security. 

    Space industry

    The global space industry is growing rapidly and by 2030 is estimated that it will be worth $600bn, the UK has set an ambitious target to capture 10 per cent of this market share.  

    ADS has a Special interest Group and hosts the secretariat for the NI Space Leadership Group with the goal of further growing the space industry here.  Already Northern Ireland has some great strengths in the space sector. 

    NI based companies are working with NASA to develop solutions for Space Weather prediction and developing many satellite data applications. Queens University are doing research into CubeSats, and Ulster University has patents with NASA on technologies for deep space exploration.

    The space sector presents “Upstream” opportunities in manufacturing hardware like satellites, propulsion equipment and rockets and “Downstream” space opportunities is developing software applications to process and commercialize vast amounts of valuable space data.  Northern Ireland with the industry capabilities is well positioned to grow in both these areas.

    Business excellence

    Northern Ireland is the leading UK region in aerospace and defence business excellence and leads the national SC21 Medal table. 

    The SC21 programme is a voluntary programme designed to accelerate the performance and competitiveness of the aerospace and defence sector supply chains and is coordinated by ADS. Launched 14 years ago at the Farnborough Air Show, it has grown into the largest Supply Chain Improvement programme in the UK Aerospace and Defence sector. Becoming a participant in the programme is free of charge and is endorsed by the Aerospace Growth Partnership, Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy, Ministry of Defence as well as leading aerospace and defence companies. In Northern Ireland the programme is supported by InvestNI.

    The programme has had more than 880 participating companies engaged in a continuous performance improvement journey. Companies achieving the criteria in terms of delivery, quality, sustainable improvement and the associated improvement frameworks (business, manufacturing and relationship excellence) receive national recognition in the form of a Bronze, Silver or Gold Performance Standard Award. Northern Ireland companies hold more than 25 per cent of the national awards and 5 out of 6 of the gold awards, with many the majority being retained for consecutive years. 


    What is the outlook for this region that plays a vital role in the global aerospace, defence, space and security sectors? 

    2022, is already a significant year – we are starting to see slow but sustained recovery in demand through increased aircraft orders and deliveries as the aerospace sector moves past the COVID-19 pandemic. The backlog of aircraft continues to rise with demand and is above 13,000 - a positive marker for the long-term health of the sector. In the coming years, the backlog could be worth up to £186.2 billion to the UK aerospace industry and with its expertise, Northern Ireland is well positioned to gain a good share of this.

    There is no doubt that the ingenuity and innovation in the region will continue to be leading the way. This year, Farnborough International Airshow takes place, and I look forward to seeing Northern Ireland companies big and small showcasing how they solve challenges and support the global ambition of net zero by 2050.

    This article first appeared in the Spring 2022 edition of the Sync NI magazine. You can download your FREE copy and sign up to receive future digital editions here.

    About the author

    Aoife is a Sync NI writer with a previous background working in print, online and broadcast media. She has a keen interest in all things tech related. To connect with Aoife feel free to send her an email or connect on LinkedIn.

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