The shortage of skilled engineers is an ongoing challenge for manufacturers now working on highly complex connected cars, warns Dr Martyn Jeffries, head of Automotive Solutions at SQS.
With UK car plants producing the highest number of vehicles last year since 2007, the UK automotive industry is undergoing a welcome resurgence. By 2017 The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) predicts that this is expected to rise more than 2m vehicles a year, a new record.
These numbers might be impressive, but this sudden growth in production quantities and rising manufacturing complexities, due to the next generation of “connected cars” is leading to calls for the UK automotive industry to future proof their manufacturing processes.
Technology market intelligence company, ABI Research expects that the number of connected cars with Internet of Things (IoT) type capabilities will hit 400m units worldwide come 2030.
Growing consumer demand for the connected car has led to a paradigm shift in consumer expectation. In a recent What Car? Motoring Panel survey, connectivity was deemed a more important purchasing factor than a car’s brand prestige, previous experience with the model, ability to personalise and its Co2 emissions.
So while the growing automotive industry is a positive sign for the future of UK manufacturing, the shortage of skilled engineers is an ongoing challenge for manufacturers now working on the next generation of sophisticated, highly complex connected cars.
This has also led to the importance of implementing stringent quality assurance standards to guide the engineers’ hand, such as ISO 26262, to eliminate avoidable errors in the manufacturing process and ensure brand reputation is maintained.
There is a planned investment of £5.4m that was announced last October by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to help UK automotive suppliers keep pace with demand while attempting to close the growing skills gap.
The investment includes £2.7m from the Employer Ownership Fund automotive supply chain competition, designed to help employers in the industry design training projects that can address the 100,000 person skills shortage thought to be holding back further sustained growth in the automotive industry.
But it will be several years before the fruits of this endeavour will ripen. The established automotive industry cannot wait this long and gamble on its future, when new player’s such as Tesla or even Google could make the next leap in vehicle technology.
Companies need to take action now to ensure the current engineering resource can be utilised most effectively towards engineering better products. Whereas technology should be the enabler of businesses progression, many of the enterprise software systems originally promoted to save manufacturers time and money have also become large drains of intellectual resources.
Companies struggle to deploy ever more complex ERP or PLM solutions, often running over budget and behind schedule. There’s understandable disillusionment within the industry with some of these IT solutions, but even when successful the burden on product engineering departments to help design and then test solutions before they can be deemed fit for purpose can be substantial.
In an industry already short of skills this only exacerbates the challenge when these engineers should be adding more value to the final product, not working on IT projects.
To address this, one starting point should be software quality assurance (SQA) and its role in helping translate business processes into functioning, capable software.
Just as quality assurance in the manufacturing process ensures both measurement and control of the final product, the same principles can be applied to any software system. In essence, there is no excuse for software which isn’t fit for purpose – whether within vehicles or systems used to design them.
By working with quality assurance specialists enlightened, manufacturers are able to ensure the increasingly complex software support systems are delivered faster, more robustly and ultimately are more suited to developing the complex vehicles of the future.
This not only allows a companies’ skilled engineers to concentrate on product areas where they are more valuable, but also ensures delivery of software which gives them greater scope to achieve engineering excellence in the finished vehicle, increasing competitiveness and ultimately keeping customers happy.
Engineering talent will be sourced in the coming years and manufacturers need to be able to capitalise on this inevitable skills injection when it arrives. To do this, it’s vital these organisations deliver better quality enterprise systems to in turn reach and sustain the record-breaking production levels predicted by the SMMT.
It’s all about working smarter, not harder and ensuring that through SQA, business system infrastructure is ready to meet these demands without placing further burden on an already overstretched workforce.