High-tech future requires keen new talent

Jason Ford - News Editor, The EngineerJason Ford, news editor

There can be little doubt that the automobile is undergoing its own revolution right now, whether it’s by redefining the driving experience itself, or the methods in which they are assembled.

Only last week Nissan took to the streets of east London to demonstrate how a suite of technologies including millimetre wave radar, laser scanners, cameras, high-speed computer chips, and a specialised Human Machine Interface could be combined to safely enable autonomous driving.

In the first demonstration of ProPILOT technology in Europe, Nissan showed how the self-drive technology could safely negotiate London’s busy roads.

Nissan’s autonomous ambitions – namely to eliminate vehicle emissions and fatalities – are part of its Intelligent Mobility strategy that has seen ProPILOT installed in the Nissan Serena and is set to be rolled out in Europe, Japan, China and the United States, with 10 models to be launched by 2020 by the Renault-Nissan Alliance.

On an entirely different level of the autonomous spectrum, the Roborace series will see driverless electric racing cars negotiate Formula E racing circuits at speeds of around 199mph using a suite of devices that include cameras, ultrasonic sensors and radar up front, plus 360º TV camera and AI cameras, LIDAR and more radar at the rear.

Some have questioned the rationale of a race series where cars make their own split-second decisions, whilst others counter that such cars will be the technology platforms from which spin-out applications can develop.

Image by Chief Design Officer Daniel Simon / Roborace Ltd.

And whilst this exciting era of autonomy continues its inexorable shift into higher gears, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the very methods of making cars are changing, with Ford breaking cover on its use of Stratasys’ Infinite Build machine in trials of large-scale parts made via additive manufacturing.

We already know that additive has its place in the tooling domain and Ford is now exploring potential applications for future production vehicles, like Ford Performance vehicles or for personalised car parts.

Infinite Build rear detail
Infinite Build rear detail

High-tech whizz bangs and buzz words are particularly prevalent in the automotive world where competition is fierce but which comes together this week in Switzerland for the Geneva Motor Show.

Behind the glamour and excitement, however, is an understanding that the need for highly-skilled workers is as important as ever, a point made last week by Ferrari North Europe. They acknowledge that today’s youngsters are a tech-savvy bunch but need to get back to basics when it comes to the parts that make a car tick. For this reason, they’ve added modules on classic car technology to their apprenticeship programme so that by the end of their training they’ll know their ballast resistor ignition systems from their down-draught 6-carb Webbers.

As seen this morning, there will be those at UK Vauxhall plants wondering exactly what PSA Group’s acquisition of GM’s European operations will mean to them. As pointed out by Len McCluskey, the head of trade union Unite, Vauxhall’s plants are the most productive in the company’s European operation, adding that government should use this Wednesday’s budget to provide assurance to the automotive sector.

Caroline Milton, partner and manufacturing sector specialist at accountancy firm Menzies LLP, added that the budget provides chancellor Philip Hammond an opportunity to support manufacturing businesses by helping to speed up the adoption of key technologies such as data analytics, robotics and 3D printing.

“Doing so will help to drive efficiency, productivity and create a deeper understanding of customer needs,” she said.

Further calls to Hammond include improvements to the R&D tax credit regime and an increase to the Annual Investment Allowance (AIA), which is currently limited to £200,000 per year.

“For manufacturing businesses, which are typically capital intensive, this limit is too restrictive. It could slow growth and make it harder for manufacturers to compete globally,” said Milton, who added that more focused support for SMEs to support skills development and retention is urgently needed.

However, a study from the 5% Club – which coincides with the start of National Apprenticeship Week – has found that employers are worried about availability of information on apprenticeships in schools. Three-quarters of the 200 UK employers that took part in the study said that this was the main barrier to young people taking up apprenticeships. A total of 90 per cent of respondents believe that ‘improving the quality of information offered by school’s career services could help to change the image of apprenticeships at a national level.’

According to the 5% Club, the emphasis on pursuing higher education was viewed as the second greatest barrier to the uptake of apprenticeships. 87 per cent of employers surveyed felt that more should be done at a government policy level to promote apprenticeships as a viable alternative alongside higher education routes.

The Spring Budget takes place on Wednesday March 8. National Apprenticeship Week begins today and concludes on March 10, 2017. The Geneva Motor Show takes place between March 9-19, 2017.

Click here for a glimpse at undergraduate apprenticeships at Airbus.