Low carbon, high potential

Posted on 28 Jan 2011 by The Manufacturer

MAS event reveals broader thinking on innovation priorities and more support for emerging technologies from SMEs are needed if the UK's potential in the low carbon automotive industry is to be realised in the UK.

An eclectic group of innovative manufactures hoping to exploit the potential of low carbon automotive futures met yesterday under the aegis of the Manufacturing advisory Service (MAS). Attending delegates represented a wide range of companies, many standing outside the traditional automotive supply chain but hoping to find new and lucrative applications for their products.

Key topics of discussion during a morning of industry presentations and case studies included; the long term potential of electric vehicles on a consumer scale, priority areas for innovation and the need to support innovation in SMEs by addressing a debilitating capability gap between the creation of working prototypes to winning commercial contracts.

Question’s put forward to speakers at the event, including representatives of Jaguar-Land Rover, Unipart, Lotus Engineering and Flybrid, a new player in the market pushing forward its mechanical hybrid model, drew out an almost unanimous feeling that the future of commercial scale electric car production was, as Michael Hurwitz, director of the Office for Low Emissions Vehicles put it, “an evolution not a revolution.” He went on to assert that “the internal combustion engine will remain the dominant form of propulsion for some time to come.”

This conclusion led to the message that those hoping to carve a sustainable space for themselves in the low carbon automation sector needed to look at a broader innovation remit, not only addressing engine innovations but also ways of de-carbonising fuel, considering the recycling and remanufacturing potential of components and redesigning supply chains and services to make a greener industry as a whole, not just greener methods of propulsion. Hurwitz emphasized that this was a trend being driven by the direction of EU regulation.

In relation to this need for a more and to end approach to green innovation Brian Davy, purchasing director at Jaguar Land-Rover showcased how the company has placed a programme of environmental innovation. This means that, as well as investing £800m over 5 years in projects which will support emerging technologies for JLR products, such as intelligent power system management and stop-start technology, there is also an imperative, driven right from the top of the company, to innovate around, in Davies words “everything that is not screwed to the car.”

Focusing on this approach Davy shared with delegates the organisational structure for collaborating with innovation and supply chain partners to ensure that the global enterprise and end-to-end operations engaged in by JLR not only cut out carbon take ecosystem and other environmental concerns into the balance. A key example was found in the company’s work with logistics company Wallenius Wilhelmsen.

Standing in the way of progress with all these kinds of ingenuity however, is what Richard Burges, head of innovation at Unipart Logistics, termed the “valley of death” between the creation of working, proven prototypes in SME companies to scale production and application in mainstream manufacturing.
Unipart have seen an opportunity to provide a service which bridges this capability and credibility gap and has established a core team, following approximately a year of pilot projects, to change the way the automotive sector approaches technology development. Unipart hope their approach will rationalise the complexity implicit in the diverse range of technologies needed to support a really sustainable low carbon industry and turn the traditional OEM driven technology development structure on its head. Burges explains: “In the 20 years since we invented the OEM, tier 1 structure what we have tended to see is an edict from the OEM that says ‘this is what I want to see from my suppliers in the next 3 to 5 years’ and the tier 1 supplier goes away, does the work, and brings it back in boxes for the OEM production line.

“While this works extremely well for continuous improvement we have a problem with emerging technologies in that most of this knowledge sits in SMEs that have spun out of universities, or possibly Formula 1; places where the agility of a small business can work. Unfortunately it is very difficult to secure your first contract from an OEM and this where good ideas enter the ‘valley of death’. Unipart want to create a UK entity specifically targeted at bridging that valley, delivering credibility at the small business level that converts into confidence in OEM procurement to buy into these emerging technologies.” In this way the automotive sector can really hope to change the shape of the industry for an economy, working world and consumer life transformed by low carbon interests.”

While delegates at the MAS event felt this to be true and welcomed Unipart’s initiative, which reflect government plans to focus on the commercialisation of technology ready innovations at levels 7-9 with a new network of Technology and Innovation Centres, there was a very real concern from fledgling companies about the protection of their IP.

There is no doubt that collaboration and fresh thinking around the way business partnership can work is needed to unlock the dynamism of UK automotive innovation for low carbon but there are still creases to be ironed out of licensing and patent regulations before all players are fully confident that they are not putting their reputation or continuity at risk.