Lean, mean, profitable machine

April 22, 2005

Trouble at MGRover disguises a thriving sector that researchers can fine-tune, says David Mullins

Despite the difficulties of MG Rover, the UK automotive sector is busy creating high-value products and services with significant benefits for other sectors of the economy.

But the industry needs more investment in research and development if it is to stay alive and kicking, and it needs a body of university researchers better aligned to the global market.

Behind the headlines there is broad agreement on trends in the sector. The key points are neatly summarised in the Department of Trade and Industry's Foresight vehicle technology roadmap.

The wider political and policy drivers of change are the environment (reduction of carbon and other pollutants), safety, choice (design and manufacture), mobility (infrastructure development), security and economics (reducing the cost of manufacturing).

Hybrid, electric and alternatively fuelled vehicles and advanced software, sensors and electronics are identified as key to the next 20 years.

The West Midlands is still the main focus of the UK's automotive industry.

It accounts for a third of UK vehicle output and for more than 85,000 jobs.

Three volume vehicle manufacturers are based or have operations in the region, including strong premium brands, plus nine niche vehicle makers, at least 1,500 automotive suppliers and significant research and development capabilities.

But how well placed is the region to build on this in the face of growing global competition?

A commitment to research and development is vital. Fortunately, the Jaguar Land Rover, Aston Martin and LDV product engineering facilities are all located in the region. Toyota and other suppliers have smaller facilities, and in some cases also research and development activity. MIRA (in the East Midlands), Ricardo and Prodrive are global suppliers of specialist research and development, backed by technology specialists such as the Warwick Manufacturing Group.

These are underpinned by strong university research centres with international reputations. It is worth citing, in particular, the International Automotive Research Centre at Warwick Manufacturing Group, Birmingham University's work on vehicle safety and fuel research, Coventry University's vehicle styling and design capability and Loughborough University's energy storage research in the East Midlands.

Globally the automotive market is growing, and there is healthy demand for the niche products that are the region's strengths. But to continue to supply these markets will require a greater international outlook, a constant flow of new products and ruthless focus. Automotive companies need an underlying research and development capacity that generates new products. MG Rover's problem was that although it could manufacture cars, it just wasn't creating them.

Universities have a key role in designing the new generation of products, and must be better aligned to the needs of the market and invest in more facilities.

Manufacturers large and small will also have to collaborate more. And universities must learn to work with the whole supply chain, not just big companies. As the House of Commons Transport Select Committee says in its report Cars of the Future , the UK's position is under threat through insufficient research and development funding, and will continue to lose ground in areas such as low carbon technologies. The committee calls for more focus and leadership in these growth areas.

The innovation and technology councils being set up by regional development agencies with strong university involvement must provide the leadership to bring the research community and manufacturers closer.

David Mullins is research director of the Warwick Manufacturing Group at Warwick University.

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