Engineering opportunities in the UK automotive sector

The key players in the UK’s automotive industry are looking to safeguard and expand the sector for the coming decade

In the UK the automotive sector may currently face ’a pretty tough and challenging market’, in the words of Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) chief executive Paul Everitt. But there is also much to be optimistic about.

Spending cuts and tax rises are putting a dampener on domestic demand, and around 1.93 new cars are expected to be registered in 2011, down around 5 per cent on last year. But both light and heavy commercial vehicle registrations are rising strongly and will be significantly above the figures for 2010.

From a manufacturing perspective, although not yet back to pre-recession levels of output, the sector is making steady progress, bolstered by a string of recent announcements from global investors. This month, BMW announced a £500m investment in its Oxford, Swindon and Hams Hall plants, for the next-generation Mini. This came a day after Nissan said it would invest £192m to design, engineer and build the new Qashqai in the UK; it had already confirmed its Sunderland plant would produce the Leaf electric car. General Motors has announced Luton will build its new van, while Jaguar Land Rover has confirmed the future of its three plants and is introducing the new Range Rover Evoque.

Nissan’s new Qashqai will be built in the UK
Nissan’s new Qashqai will be built in the UK

In all, Everitt said these initiatives safeguard vehicle production in the UK for the next decade.

’It is a very strong position and I think that reflects the shift we’ve seen in government attitudes to the automotive sector.’ This began towards the end of the last administration but has been carried forward by the Coalition: ’It’s about the need to refocus the economy, create high-value jobs, and design, develop and manufacture more things that we can sell around the world,’ he added. There is a strong focus on the transition to a low-carbon economy and low-carbon vehicles. In addition, there is a new emphasis on exports. ’Eighty per cent of what we produce here in the UK is exported,’ said Everitt. ’We see ourselves, and I think the government sees the sector, as being at the heart of their vision of the economy of the future.’

The industry faces two big challenges. One is to attract more research and development investment into the UK, both by companies that already have an R&D base here, but also by those with a manufacturing footprint but no R&D capability.

The second is to ensure that more of the value of the new vehicles that will be manufactured in the UK is also created here: ’We need to see a repatriation of sourcing into the UK,’ said Everitt.

“From the point of view of skills, the industry needs engineers at all levels, from design to manufacturing”

The transition to ultra low-carbon vehicles is a great opportunity, he added, because it will need new technology and will disrupt current sourcing relationships. However, ’to ensure we’re ahead, it’s important that we start to focus our R&D resources’.

The Automotive Council, established in December 2009 to bring together industry leaders and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, has produced a road map for the production of ultra low-carbon cars, identifying four priority technologies: next-generation internal combustion engines; lightweight materials; electronics; and energy storage.

He continued: ’We’ve now got a clear understanding of the technology road map, the UK’s capabilities and the priority areas. That has been reflected in calls the Technology Strategy Board has been producing for its own competitions. We’re also working with the EPSRC to marry up industry priorities with high-level research at universities.’

From the point of view of skills, the industry needs engineers ’at all levels and all disciplines’, from design and development of products and subsystems to manufacturing operations. To help attract candidates for the future, the Automotive Council and the Department for Business have launched the See Inside Manufacturing initiative, focusing this year on automotive. Everitt said: ’The aim is to re-engage key people parents, teachers, careers advisers and ultimately students in understanding what the modern motor industry is all about, by getting people to come and see what we do.’

A series of open days at a wide variety of sites around the country from production plants to the Millbrook proving ground is being organised, for teachers and careers advisers in July and for students (aged 14+, making decisions about GCSEs, A-levels and degree courses) in October. These aim to raise awareness of opportunities in the sector and sweep away outdated perceptions of the industry.