West Midlands Gains Momentum on the Road to Electrification
Regions: West Midlands
Above: Brandauer is providing a blueprint on how to leverage government funding to develop new technologies and capabilities. Credit: Brandauer
History has a habit of repeating itself. Some 260-odd years on from the first great industrial revolution and the West Midlands is jockeying for position with all the major automotive regions to lead the way in the electrification race.
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The electrification prize is significant and there’s a genuine confidence among government, academia, the big OEMs and wider supply chain that there is something special building here.
It’s not without its challenges, but there is unanimous support for acting swiftly so we can set the agenda rather than play catch-up with our domestic and international rivals. And all industrial revolutions usually happen quicker if they are being driven by societal and political change, which, in this instance, is the UK’s ban on the sale of all petrol and diesel cars by 2030.
The West Midlands is heavily invested in this arena. A quick look through the data shows that it hosts a third of all British car production and a 46,5000-strong workforce.
“Electrification is a massive opportunity, yet also a massive challenge to our supply chain who have built many of their processes around supplying into the internal combustion engine,” explains Charlotte Horobin, Make UK’s region director for the Midlands and East of England.
“That’s going to take some sizeable changes, but if we act now then I see no reason why we can’t play a defining role in how the electrification puzzle can be solved in the UK. We’re not going to have a big bang moment; this is about evolution and making sure we play to our strengths and tap into the Catapult centres, the universities and the wider innovation of the supply chain.”
According to the latest Manufacturing Outlook report by Make UK, Transport Equipment accounts for a staggering 35% of industrial output. This is followed by metal products on 14.9% – another sector that has a significant role to play in the lightweighting conversation.
There are currently 292,000 people employed in industry in the West Midlands and the area generates 15.4% of its regional output from manufacturing, well above the UK average of 9.9%.
“We are definitely geared up for electrification and we have probably the largest academic and technology cluster that is ideally suited to developing new battery, hydrogen and motor/lamination components,” continues Horobin, who pointed to the MTC, the Centre for Advanced Low Carbon Propulsion Systems (C-ALPS) at Coventry University and WMG as three real strengths for the region.
“There was a lot of talk about trying to attract Britishvolt, but the North East won that specific battle. Getting a Gigafactory set-up in the West Midlands should be pivotal to the electrification strategy and Coventry Airport could well be the destination having received local authority backing in February.”
While the big factories and the OEMs always tend to steal the headlines, one of the biggest challenges facing the region is building infrastructure and capacity within the supply chain.
Forty EV charging stations are apparently being built every day, but the reality is that we need to be closer to 700 if we are going to keep up with sales figures for electric cars.
Engagement with SMEs is a slightly more positive picture and we’ve got tens of example of companies leading the net zero charge with new products and components.
Birmingham-based Strip Tinning, which manufactures electronic components for applications including heated windows, recently raised £8m in new capital after floating on the AIM stock exchange.
The family-run company is aiming to diversify and is working on six circuit board prototypes for electrical vehicle firms and has already forged commercial ties with Williams and McLaren.
Less than 10 miles across the city and precision metal stamping specialist Brandauer is making waves in the production of wafer-thin laminations for use in electric motors.
It is also providing a blueprint on how to leverage government funding to develop new technologies and capabilities, a key competitive advantage CEO Rowan Crozier believes others need to exploit.
“We’ve managed to secure over £2m from various funding streams to help us push forward into electrification. This has seen us become part of consortiums with JLR, Saietta and Ricardo, which is worth its weight in gold.
“My advice to other SMEs looking to access grants is to partner with the bigger Tier 1s and OEMs. It tends to open doors and, with them as a project lead, they take on a bigger proportion of the project responsibility. If you are adding innovation and expertise, they’ll be more than happy to have you on board.”
Journey to net zero
Electrification isn’t just purely reserved for automotive. The world’s desire to move to Net Zero is touching every inch of the West Midlands and every sector imaginable.
In the Potteries, the ceramic sector is calling for more government support to help it cut carbon emissions, with trade unions warning that more than 40,000 jobs could be at risk.
As ceramics are fired at high temperatures, usually above 1,000°C, the energy-intensive industry faces a challenge to achieve net zero by 2050.
A proposed sustainability hub is one suggestion and could help companies implement new technologies, such as fuel switching to hydrogen and bioenergy, and carbon capture, utilisation and storage.
James Roper, sales and marketing director of Tunstall-based Churchill China, adds his backing; “The establishment of a local sustainability hub would be an important part of assisting the UK tableware and wider ceramics industries in moving towards a low carbon environment over the coming years.
“It would also help to maintain the position of the UK as a producer of world class ceramics delivering a high level of technical excellence.”
Sixty minutes down the M6 and Very Light Rail (VLR) is the topic of conversation in Coventry.
Coventry VLR is a research and development project, using the latest automotive expertise to deliver an innovative and affordable light rail system. The aim is to create a reliable, frequent, environmentally friendly, battery-driven hop-on hop-off transport system that will work in small to medium-sized towns and cities at a fraction of the cost of a traditional tram.
A revolutionary new track, developed by French engineers Ingerop, WMG and the University of Warwick, is expected to cost as little as £10m per km compared to current tracks that can cost upwards of £25m per km.
Preparing for take-off
While many sectors have seen a major upturn in fortunes following restrictions lifting, aerospace is still very much in a holding position.
Covid not only grounded flights, but also saw a collapse in production schedules and many industry experts don’t expect a return to pre-pandemic levels until 2024.
This is a train of thought that Andrew Mair, chief executive of the Midlands Aerospace Alliance (MAA), agrees with.
“Aerospace suppliers have had to restructure, in order to cope with the drop in volumes and that could pose one of the biggest challenges when things pick-up. A lot of the manufacturing talent may be lost to other sectors and then you have the issue of Brexit reducing the labour pool from 460 million to just 60 million.
“A lot of content we produce in the West Midlands is for the big Rolls-Royce engines, so we’re less likely to enjoy the rapid upswing of Airbus activity that is expected on the smaller narrow-body single-aisle aircraft.
“The Ukrainian invasion could accentuate supply chain disruption, with titanium and other materials sourced from Russia. On the other hand, it will probably accelerate more defence spending and that represents an opportunity for companies to be involved in more aircraft production.”
Black Country-based CCR Forming, a specialist manufacturer of precision cold formed metal rings, has not been put off by the difficulties experienced in aviation.
If anything, the firm is eyeing significant growth after appointing industry expert Craig Fullwood to increase aerospace sales from its current 20% of annual turnover.
“Our processes and technology lend themselves to the exacting tolerances and performance expected by the major primes and, in the last month alone, we have received our largest ever enquiry from the US,” says Fullwood.
“If we are successful, we’ll have to employ more people and invest in more machines – it could be a gamechanger for the business.”
The MAA’s Andrew Mair, who has been leading the organisation for more than 15 years, was quick to point out that aerospace is going through its own evolution.
“There has been significant movement in what we are calling ‘urban air mobility’, which covers anything from flying taxis through to drones. It’s a start-up industry so there will be casualties along the way, but there are also lots of opportunities for suppliers to take their core expertise and apply them into this emerging field.”
He concludes; “What I would like to see is more aerospace funding reflect the emerging technologies right across the supply chain and ensure that the money is cascaded down to SMEs.
“The automotive sector is doing this much better, and I think that’s a model the Aerospace Technology Institute could and should follow.”
News in Brief
- Welshpool’s Invertek Drives has invested £10m in expanding its variable frequency drive (VFD) manufacturing and distribution centre, creating 85 new jobs in the process. Three new production lines will see output increasing from 350,000 units a year to 600,000. “This is part of our drive to create the leading next-generation VFD technology that will help to further reduce energy use and associated CO2 emissions globally,” says CEO, Shaun Dean
- Labware manufacturer DWK Life Sciences, which has three sites in Stoke-on-Trent, Stone and Trentham Lakes, plans to double in size to £40m over the next five years. “We have doubled the size of this business in the last six years, having grown annual turnover from £10m to £20m, and in that time we have also created 60 new jobs. We have been able to maintain a viable business despite the pandemic, and we are in a position now to move forward having not suffered as much as some other manufacturing companies have,” says CEO, Gareth Rowlands.
- Packaging manufacturer Sirane has expanded into a third site in Telford following a multimillion-pound investment, which will create up to 100 jobs. “Technologies which allow for plastic replacement in packaging are becoming increasingly important, and this investment is about both the present and the future. We’ve been looking for additional space for a while, so it’s great news for the company that we’ve finally got the keys. It will also give us space to expand our co-packing and fulfilment business, an area which has seen significant growth in the last few years,” says managing director, Simon Balderson.
- Wolverhampton brewer Marstons has broken ground on the redevelopment of its new St John’s House HQ, which will involve a complete refit of the derelict 1970s building into space for more than 250 employees. Coventry-based Aurrigo has embarked on an aviation first in the US that could provide the blueprint for the airports of the future. The autonomous vehicle specialist is creating a ‘digital twin’ of airside operations at Gerald R Ford International Airport in Michigan to help enhance the passenger experience, boost operational efficiency and achieve lasting positive environmental improvements.
Coventry-based Aurrigo has embarked on an aviation first in the US that could provide the blueprint for the airports of the future. The autonomous vehicle specialist is creating a ‘digital twin’ of airside operations at Gerald R Ford International Airport in Michigan to help enhance the passenger experience, boost operational efficiency and achieve lasting positive environmental improvements.
“One of the biggest challenges facing the region is building infrastructure and capacity within the supply chain”
Above: Charlotte Horobin, Midlands and East of England Region Director at Make UK, highlights the challenges ahead for EV manufacturers
“My advice to other SMEs looking to access grants is to partner with the bigger Tier 1s and OEMs. It tends to open doors”
Above and below: At the £50m Centre for Advanced Low Carbon Propulsion Systems (C-ALPS), researchers and industry are working together on the next generation of electrified propulsion systems. Both credit: C-ALPS
“Aerospace suppliers have had to restructure, in order to cope with the drop in volumes”
Below: Midlands precision stamping specialist, Brandauer has been selected to be part of a new clean mobility consortium led by tech company Saietta. Credit: Saietta