BLOG: How innovation and technology is changing the automotive sector in Britain

In the year 2040 a ban will come into force that stops the sale of any new petrol or diesel cars in Britain. Many commentators have argued the ban should come into force sooner because of the negative impact vehicle emissions have on air pollution.

As I write this blog, the UK’s future relationship with the European Union remains uncertain and the UK car industry, for one, has been very vocal about the potential impact of Brexit on the sector.

The automotive industry is worth billions to the UK economy so how is the sector responding to these changes and what does it mean for the future of car production in this country?

There are more than 850,000 people employed in the UK automotive sector helping to generate a turnover of £82bn. Eight out of ten cars made in the UK are exported with 53.9% going to the EU. Cars are big business.

Here in North East England, we’re home to one of the most productive car manufacturing plants in Europe, Nissan Motor Manufacturing UK, and a thriving supply chain of 240 companies. More than 30,000 people are employed in the automotive sector in the region with a further 126,000 in the wider manufacturing sector.

So what does Brexit and a future ban on petrol and diesel cars mean for the industry? Well it’s not all doom and gloom. The automotive sector has always been one of the most innovative, and nowhere is that clearer than in the development of hybrid and electric vehicles – the future of car production in the UK – and the adoption of new advanced manufacturing practices.

Today’s assembly lines are full of new technology making the car manufacturing process quicker, cheaper and more efficient and the sight of electric vehicle charging points are commonplace at our supermarkets and in our city centres.

Nissan’s car plant in Sunderland produces 26% of Europe’s electric vehicles and its huge Electric Battery Plant is making sure the technology and capability of electric vehicles continues to improve. Many consumers are concerned about the distance electric vehicles can cover so improving battery life and electric vehicles’ range is vital to their future adoption. That’s why manufacturers like Nissan are investing so heavily in R&D. In Gateshead, electric vehicle component maker BorgWarner has begun work on a £2m research and development facility, which will be used by engineers to develop clean technology prototypes for testing.

As the UK’s first Low Carbon Economic Area specialising in ultra-low carbon vehicles, North East England has a strong supply chain that continues to grow thanks to major infrastructure developments in the region, including the International Advanced Manufacturing Park (IAMP) in Sunderland and South Tyneside. This high-quality strategic employment site for the Nissan supply chain and other advanced manufacturing businesses in the North East region has already welcomed its first tenant – car parts manufacturer SNOP UK – with many more to be announced in the coming months.

I’ve spoken before about Industry 4.0 and how advanced manufacturing will transform the manufacturing process. We’re already starting to see how a blending of the two will transform the car industry as we know it; companies like Nissan have already invested heavily in robotics, artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies in their North East operations.  That’s one reason why it’s one of the most productive automotive plants in Europe.

North East England is home to the fastest growing digital and IT sector outside London putting us at the forefront of the next technology-led industrial revolution. The innovations taking place here today will feature in the manufacturing sites of tomorrow, and our automotive sector is primed to take advantage.

Another key strength of the automotive industry in North East England is the North East Automotive Alliance (NEAA) – the largest automotive cluster in the UK and one of the fastest growing clusters across Europe. It supports the economic sustainable growth and competitiveness of the automotive sector in the region and has more than 300 partners, ranging from multi-nationals to sole traders. It’s another fantastic example of the collaboration that takes place in North East England.

Given the importance of the automotive industry to the UK economy, I’m confident our government will ensure it remains protected, whatever the outcome of Brexit may be. It’s a thriving sector that employs hundreds of thousands of people, generates billions of pounds for the economy and demonstrates our unrivalled advanced manufacturing capabilities to the world.

Guy Currey

Director

Invest North East England

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