Employee walking past Trent XWB in Customer Training Centre in Derby, United Kingdom
Rolls Royce Trent XWB engine © Jane Stockdale

Derby is located in the heart of England but vocationally might be more at home in Germany, Europe’s manufacturing champion.

Manufacturing accounts for 20 per cent of economic output, twice the UK average.

Derby has been a centre of advanced skills since the Industrial Revolution. To cite one example, at Cromford Mills, north of the city, Sir Richard Arkwright first used water power to spin cotton in 1771.

With business evolving faster than ever, the challenge is to build on that past for the future, served by Derby’s technological prowess.

Main employers are Rolls-Royce, with its civil aerospace and nuclear divisions in Derby, trainmaker Bombardier and carmaker Toyota. A host of other companies either supply these big three or are pioneering their own technologies.

Rolls-Royce employs 14,000 people in the city it has operated in for more than a century. Bombardier’s local workforce is 1,600. Toyota, producing at Burnaston just outside Derby since 1992, employs 2,600.

Rolls-Royce employs 14,000 people
Rolls-Royce employs 14,000 people © Zoe Savitz

Canada’s Bombardier in February agreed to sell its train unit to France’s Alstom for €7.5bn. Since the Derby plant produces for the UK, jobs should be safeguarded if orders keep coming. Bombardier recently recruited 400 people to fulfil a £900m order from South Western Railway.

Rolls-Royce, one of only two companies — GE being the other — capable of making the largest aero engines for wide body jets, has had a tough time recently. Last year it found problems with the blades in its Trent 1000 powering Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner. Its operating loss was £852m in 2019, following a loss of £1.2bn the previous year.

Since 2018 it has been cutting white-collar jobs. Nevertheless, it is bullish. Rolls has invested £150m in a new testing facility for its latest generation of engines, the UltraFan. Phil Curnock, chief engineer for mature large engines, rates the UltraFan — expected to burn 10 per cent less fuel than the previous XWB model — as the biggest leap forward in engine design for years. He adds that it is part of Rolls’ answer to those who criticise flying for its contribution to climate change.

Rolls is working with oil companies on creating more sustainable fuel from biomass. It is exploring electrification, which, after propellers and the jet engine, says Mr Curnock, is “the third generation of flight”.

High voltages at high altitude are difficult, he adds, and electricity is unlikely to propel long-haul aircraft. “But it could work for aircraft going hundreds of miles rather than thousands.”

The Derby site has 10 years’ work ahead of it because of full order books. As more Rolls engines come into operation, it creates more jobs in servicing and maintenance. Despite big aerospace investment by Chinese rivals, Mr Curnock sees Rolls and GE keeping ahead for years yet. “The investment and effort it takes to develop a new product is huge,” he notes.

Next to the vast Rolls facility, a small start-up is on the brink of a breakthrough in electrical flight. VRCO is developing a two-seat flying car, the NeoXcraft, that would taxi wealthy clients direct to city centres.

“Just above us we have the world’s biggest, free highway,” says company founder Dan Hayes. Advances in automotive electric propulsion have enabled electric flight to become possible. “It’s for people that have superyachts, who are time poor,” says Mr Hayes, though adding that “you will be able to get from A to B as cheaply as rail.”

The company has raised £1m and tested a one-quarter scale craft. It needs £10m in order to build a full-size version. Its range would be 75 miles and it could be flying by next year if the law is changed to loosen restrictions on urban flights. “This is the next big market opportunity,” he asserts.

Others have started similar services in China and Singapore. Uber hopes to launch in the US in 2023.

While VRCO presents a potential view of the future, fears persist for the city’s involvement in carmaking.

Toyota of Japan has recently invested £240m in its Burnaston plant, which is expected to produce more than 130,000 cars in 2020, mostly Corollas and about two-thirds of them hybrids. Many of its cars are exported to the EU.

The company is also to start manufacturing hybrid vehicles for Suzuki, after striking a deal with its Japanese rival that should prolong the life of the plant.

But Toyota says it relies on just-in-time supplies of components from the EU. These could be threatened by any UK exit from EU customs arrangements later this year. Rival Honda is shutting its Swindon plant in south-west England in 2021.

Marvin Cooke, Toyota’s UK managing director, said recently: “We have consistently said . . . continued free and frictionless trade and common automotive technical standards will be essential to support the international competitiveness of the UK automotive sector.”

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