Overview of the UK Surface engineering sector

Surface engineering is a sub-discipline of materials science and covers a multitude of processes such as electroplating, anodising, electro-polishing, heat treatment processes, physical vapour deposition and the like. The term surface engineering was promoted by, amongst others, Professor Tom Bell of the University of Birmingham defining it as “the design of surface and substrate together as a functionally graded system to give a cost-effective performance enhancement of which neither is capable on its own”. Imagine a world without cars, aeroplanes, trains, computers, mobile phones, medical implants, buildings, electronics, in fact virtually no manufactured products – that’s a world without surface engineering. Thus, the application of surface engineering is vital to the success of almost every commercial and industrial product: from aero engines to aeroplanes, from iPods to surgical implants and from razor blades to racing cars.

The UK has been at the forefront of surface engineering development from the first commercialisation of the electroplating process by the Elkington cousins in the Birmingham Jewellery quarter in the 1800s through to recent developments with Plasma Electrolytic Oxidation (PEO) Coating Processes.

Blue plaque indicating location of Elkington factory

Blue plaque indicating location of Elkington factory

Typical “glow” from PEO process

Typical “glow” from PEO process

Current state

Obtaining accurate and reliable data about the surface engineering sector has been notoriously difficult due to its extremely diverse nature but the most recent reports indicate a sector worth some £11bn and playing a key role in products worth some £140bn. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) there are some 1,250 enterprises operating under the industrial classification code C25.61 – the treatment and coating of metals, employing around 21,000 people. However, this is not the full picture because this excludes the in-house or captive surface engineering plants which don’t offer a sub-contract service or those companies that are listed under another industrial classification code. The vast majority of companies (those carrying out the coating processes) in the surface engineering sector are classified as SMEs (Small to medium sized enterprises). The SME classification though is extremely wide – up to 250 employees and turnovers of up to £35million but a closer examination shoes that around 37% of companies employ under 20 people with a further 37% employing up to 50 people and the remaining 26% employing over 50 people.

An analysis of the markets being supported by surface engineering processes is shown below with the figures in €millions:

A similar analysis of the main process types being undertaken is shown below:


10 to 15 years ago and perhaps even earlier, the key challenge was from the low-wage economies and we saw vast levels of production move from the UK to the Far East, particularly in relation to high volume electronics. Today the key challenge comes from within the EU and the implementation of the REACH Regulation which is threatening the whole EU manufacturing supply chain due to its uncertainty and lack of clarity. I personally know of a company that spent many years and finance developing a new surface engineering process to coat a special impellor used in diesel exhaust systems that enabled them to operate at elevated temperatures, improve fuel efficiency and significantly reduce emissions – everything that you would expect from a forward thinking company. The only problem was that the coating process used boric acid as a buffering agent and now the European Commission and European Chemicals Agency have decided that boric acid is a substance of very high concern (SVHC) and should be subject to authorisation under REACH. This is an extremely costly and time consuming process with no guarantee of being granted an authorisation at the end. Guess what has happened? This revolutionary surface engineering process will now take place in Mexico and finished components imported into the EU automotive supply chain.

Another significant challenge facing the UK surface engineering sector is a lack of skilled workers coupled with a lack of capital investment which is hindering significant growth in the development of new processes. A recent report by the Surface Engineering and Advanced Coatings Special Interest Group entitled “Time for a Strategic Change: UK Surface Engineering and Advanced Coatings Industry” highlighted a number of challenges for the sector including: high financial risk through poor cost-benefit analysis over the short term when introducing new technologies which often requires the purchase of relatively expensive equipment and complex as well as costly qualification processes for heavily regulated markets such as aerospace and healthcare.


The global power generation sectors is facing a period of unprecedented investment and development over the next 20 years or so due to the global demand for electrical power being set to almost double. Surface engineering technologies will be required for hydro-power, wind power, wave and tidal technologies as well solar power and nuclear power.

The growth in air traffic has been dramatic and forecasts indicate that it will continue to grow at between 4 and 5% per annum for the foreseeable future, with substantial growth in the emerging markets of China, India and Latin America. Surface engineering plays and important role in the aerospace sector by not only reducing its environmental impact but also in achieving the necessary safety and affordability and reliability.

Recently developed roadmaps for the automotive sector identified key challenges which include energy efficiency and the use of lightweight materials. Surface engineering is of critical importance to developing technologies to meet these challenges.

In the healthcare sector, surface engineering has a major role to play because of its flexibility in addressing particular applications and requirements such as adopting nanotechnology to create functional structures at the cellular scale.

The Future

Surface engineering underpins most industrial and manufacturing sectors and is vital to the success of many commercial and industrial products and the creation of competitive advantage and income streams. The UK surface engineering sector is well established and has a long history of innovation, so it should be well placed to take advantage of future developments. However, the research base, supply chain and end users need to be better integrated to incorporate the principles of design for manufacture and design for process excellence. As the majority of the applicators of surface engineering coatings are SMEs, it is difficult to see how new processes which require significant capital investment can be introduced without the support of both the end users and OEMs.


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