Hear the West Midlands and the automotive sector mentioned in the same breath and you could be forgiven for expecting a sob story.
Certainly there have been tears aplenty over the years as famous car names galore succumbed to bankruptcy or overseas sale, but thankfully one of the most famous partnerships in UK industrial history shows no sign of giving up just yet.
With 1,500 companies in the region still serving the auto sector, 115,000 people employed in the industry and a £13bn turnover, predictions that the loss of Rover spelled the end for the area’s car industry were wide of the mark.
Automotive is one of five designated priority areas for the region, alongside aerospace, medical technology, energy and digital media.
The Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG) works extensively with automotive companies. WMG principal adviser Dr Alistair Keddie said: ‘One of our biggest successes is working with Jaguar Land Rover and 160 of its suppliers to develop lightweight materials for vehicles. We investigated the way they’re integrated into vehicles, joining them, crash testing, systems integration and electronics.
‘We’ve also been involved in a £70m five-year programme jointly funded by regional development agency Advantage West Midlands (AWM) and Jaguar Land Rover to investigate interior air quality for European legislation. Some materials used in the fascia and carpet release potentially harmful substances.’
Dr Mark Williams, a principal research fellow at WMG, has for the past five years been working with key Indian companies including Tata Motors and TVS motorcycles to bring regional automotive innovation to overseas markets. He has been involved in designing an effective interface between the vehicle and the driver for future vehicles with partners including Jaguar Land Rover and Tata.
‘There are safety issues with technology such as a touch screen as there’s very little feedback so you have to divert your eyes from the road to look at it,’ said Williams. ‘We’re working on feedback mechanisms so that when you touch it, it feels like a switch.’
Williams and the WMG are also involved in the Premium Automotive Research and Development (PARD) project, whose craftsmanship programme is looking at different areas to try and keep automotive capability within the region.
Automotive is just the most prominent element of a proud manufacturing heritage that defines the region to this day.
Manufacturing accounts for 27 per cent of the regional Gross Value Added (GVA), and generates GVA per employee 30 per cent above the regional average.
Roy Pulley, product innovation consortium manager at the Manufacturing Advisory Service West Midlands (MAS WM) said: ‘We’re moving our manufacturing into the more value-added technical end of the market, and it’s our priority to support hi-tech businesses. We can’t compete with low-labour cost economies, so we’re not going to make nuts, bolts and rivets any more.’
An important innovation project MAS WM supported was with Metrasens in Malvern, a spin-out from Qinetiq, which makes a device for ferrous metal detection used in MRI scanning rooms to stop metal objects being pulled into the scanning chamber and hurting people and damaging the equipment.
Highlighting the region’s focus on digital media, Dr Philip Extance, director of innovation at AWM, said: ‘We recognised we had strengths in IT for education, and through our big games companies such as Blitz Games and Codemasters.
‘We’ve also worked with C4’s 4IP fund for funding digital media and pilot activity. We chose to invest alongside them to create a ring-fenced pool of around £10m in the West Midlands to invest in new digital media opportunities.’
MAS WM helped set up the Serious Games Institute at Coventry University, a research, demonstrator and incubator space for computer games, Warwick University’s digital laboratory which explores new IT applications for industry and healthcare and the e-Innovation centre at Wolverhampton University, which supports SMEs in the ICT field.
In medical technologies, the West Midlands is the lead region on the Assisted Living innovation platform, which is designed to use technology to allow elderly people to stay in their own homes longer.
‘We have two properties in which to test technology,’ said Extance. ‘One is a “two up, two down” kitted out with voice actuation, lifts, remote lighting and cameras, everything to make that home somewhere you could stay in longer as an old person.’
It is being run by an organisation called Medilink West Midlands, which brings together SMEs in the medical industries.
MAS WM is also leading the Technology Strategy Board’s low carbon vehicle innovation work, driven by Julia King, vice-chancellor at Aston University.
In the energy field, Prof Philip Mawby of Warwick University, specialises in processing systems for power electronics, which are used in power supplies from mobile phones to the National Grid.
‘We’re working on novel underpinning technology that allows it to work efficiently, converting energy from one form to another,’ said Mawby. ‘We have a project with Converteam, based in Rugby and Kidsgrove, which makes the electronic guts of wind turbines. Their electronics match the AC waveform to the grid’s frequency and voltage “heartbeat”.’
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The West Midlands may have lost many famous car names, but enduring automotive strengths and a focus on four other key sectors ensures the region is thriving. Berenice Baker reports.