Derby firm revolutionises composite manufacturing with our support

When Steve Barbour saw a market opportunity in composite manufacturing, he took his plans to our business experts in Enscite for advice and a critical eye. Now three years later he’s running Composite Braiding Ltd, which is pioneering new technology and winning global awards.

Spotting a market opportunity

In 2004, Steve Barbour took the unusual step of leaving his Head of Marketing role at Rolls-Royce to become General Manager of a composite manufacturer, at the request of a friend.

“Having had a commercial background, with 19 years at Rolls-Royce, it was a big change and a steep learning curve,” says Steve. “I suddenly found myself running production facilities in the UK and South Africa.”

Steve learned a great deal in a short space of time and after six years, started to use these skills to turn around other struggling composite manufacturers.

Around this time (2013/2014) there was a significant change in the composites industry, as Steve explains: “Composites had traditionally had a niche market — such as formula one cars — and they were fairly bespoke, expensive pieces. But all of a sudden, due to pressure on automotive companies to reduce their carbon emissions, the demand for lightweight composite materials skyrocketed.”

Steve saw an opportunity to revolutionise the production process so that composites could be manufactured in high volume at a much lower cost, and so the idea for Composite Braiding was born.

Composite Braiding logo

Establishing his new company

In 2016, Steve started working on the business plans for his new company and applying for funding. At this time he approached the University of Derby’s Enscite team for advice.

“I was already an experienced businessperson, but I still found their input really useful,” explains Steve. “I knew that I didn’t know everything, and I wanted to be tested and challenged; to hear new ideas."

"They looked through my business plans, conducted a competitive assessment, and made a host of recommendations.”

Taking their advice into account, Steve was able to get Composite Braiding up and running by the third quarter of 2017. He took a workshop and office in iHub, the new manufacturing-focused innovation and technology park in Derby.

The company specialises in thermoplastic composite braiding. This involves combining materials such as carbon fibre, glass fibre and basalt with a thermoplastic, to produce an advanced composite which is stiffer and stronger than steel but much lighter.

Steve has managed to replace labour intensive processes with highly automated ones, so that these materials can be manufactured in higher volumes at lower costs than was previously possible.  

Machine used by Composite Braiding - landscape

Opening up a network of support

Steve described Enscite’s support as “absolutely vital” and explains how those initial conversations have led on to further support: “Through Enscite, we are now in the process of signing up for the KEI fund (Knowledge Exchange for Innovation) to help us pay for a graduate and access academic expertise. My Senior Engineer also went on a leadership workshop organised by Enscite recently and thought this was very good.

"Enscite is also part of a wider network of support and through the process I have accessed support from Derby Connect and Marketing Derby too.”

Steve describes the positive relationship he has with the Enscite team, who act as ambassadors for his business: “They help us with referrals to potential customers and we get invited to networking events regularly as well; I feel they are really there to help us and are very pleasant to deal with.”

Gaining global recognition

In the last two years, Composite Braiding has proven the technology works through a series of funded collaborations. As part of a consortium of manufacturing companies, it won an international award for its work on the design of a lightweight train carriage — Technical Innovation of the Year (Rolling Stock) at the Global Light Rail Awards 2019. This project has also been shortlisted for a 2020 JEC World Innovation Award.

The company has already outgrown its workshop and office space once and is now looking for a bigger unit again. They also continue to take on more staff.

“It’s been very exciting to have our work called ‘ground-breaking’ and to be recognised on the global stage,” says Steve. “I’m confident that our profile is only going to grow — I can’t go into details yet, but we are about to win more funding that will help us develop a truly world-leading capability in composite manufacturing.” 

Man working on machinery in the University's Institute for Innovation in Sustainable Engineering

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