West Midlands: Chain Reaction
Labelled a star performer in manufacturing data, the West Midlands is fast reinventing its industrial self by combining tradition with the future. Russ Cockburn finds out how the region – famed for its revolutions – is starting another one.
While the uncertainty of Brexit has seen car production figures dip slightly in 2017 there is still plenty to be optimistic about.
SMMT figures reveal that engine production had already topped 2.1 million by September and there have been major investment decisions announced, including Jaguar Land Rover committing to a host of new models in the UK.Just a few miles up the road from the former Rootes/Chrysler/Peugeot site at Ryton is London Taxi Company’s new £300m factory, which is expected to produce 5000 iconic ‘black cabs’ per year by 2019.
The two millionth seat structure rolled off the production line at Brose UK in Coventry earlier this year, marking an unbelievable transformation in fortunes for the 1st Tier automotive supplier.
Just over five years ago, the company employed 250 people and started recovering from the cruel winds of the global slowdown. Fast forward to 2017 and it has just taken on its 1000th employee, invested nearly £50m in its two state-of-the-art plants and seen sales pass the £240m mark. Its two plants in the heart of the West Midlands are alive with automation, new technology, model launches and, importantly, a concerted desire to train the engineers of the future.
This all provides a fantastic snapshot of modern day car manufacturing in the UK and the significant renaissance the sector has enjoyed, following the demise of MG Rover and the closure of the Ryton plant.
In the Fast Lane
A team of engineers from the University of Wolverhampton is following in the footsteps of the leading Formula 1 teams, thanks to the backing of FBC Manby Bowdler.
The independent law firm, which has six offices across the region, has agreed a three-year sponsorship deal that has helped the fledgling Wolverhampton team secure two second-place championship finishes in the F3 Cup.
This season, the University of Wolverhampton has secured five pole positions, three wins, nine podiums, five fastest laps and two fastest driver awards.
“The bigger picture for us is that we are helping young engineers gain valuable experience in a racing team and this has already led to some of them securing full-time positions with Aston Martin and Mercedes F1,” said Neil Lloyd, commercial director at FBC Manby Bowdler.
“We’ve taken our commitment one stage further by providing £500 bursaries for female engineers looking to get involved. This will hopefully encourage more girls to consider a career in manufacturing.”
University of Wolverhampton also runs cars in other disciplines, notably Formula Student, Morgan Challenge and Hill Climbing.
“Coventry was our first-ever location outside of Germany nearly 30 years ago and we’re very passionate about making it a success”
“It hasn’t always been easy and we’ve experienced ups and downs as much as any other business supplying the automotive sector. The good news is we’re currently enjoying increases in volumes across both our window regulator and seat structure businesses.”
Zahl is a man that has been brought up with the Brose philosophy and is adamant that the UK operation has to continue to strive to be the most competitive location in the Group. The softly-spoken German points to the firm’s £10m investment in a new paint plant as evidence of the company’s commitment and the competitiveness of the facility.
“We’ve come a long way operationally but there is always room for improvement. The recent installation of a new e-coat line gives us the opportunity to bring an external process in-house and the capacity to paint 3.5 million seat structures every year.
“The decision was made before the Brexit vote. However, there was never any suggestion we wouldn’t go through with it. The UK market is very good for us and we are about to introduce a number of new model launches.” Brose is just one of the many supply chain success stories that are benefitting from the recent boom in car production. You can visit any town, city or even shire of the West Midlands and you will hear tales of growth from fastener manufacturers, injection moulders, pressed metal specialists and design houses – all buoyed by expansion at the top of the tree.
Naturally, there’s a lot more than just automotive making up the various different layers of the West Midlands manufacturing fabric. The region is awash with an exciting mix of aerospace specialists, exciting independent food producers, a fired-up ceramics industry and a raft of high value manufacturers keen to make the most of 3D printing and the Internet of Things, the 4th Industrial Revolution, Industry 4.0 or whatever the big tech firms want to call it now.
Some of our more traditional sectors are also thriving. Metals and mechanical equipment are both enjoying growth off the back of an increase in global manufacturing demand. “Skills and getting people interested in the steel industry is an ongoing battle and the shifts in material supply away from the UK have not helped,” says Peter Davies, one of the founders of OSSL Group, which includes three companies: Brockhouse; Bromford; and JA Envirotanks, which are all based in the West Midlands. “However, if you invest and focus on doing what you do best, you’ll be able to compete – and that’s what we are seeing at the moment.
“Brockhouse, which supplies hammer and upset forgings, is dealing with increased demand in rail and mining, while our rolling mill is now seeing the benefits of huge investment. It’s a measured approach but one that also needs to incorporate product development and the latest technology.”
Strength and uncertainty
According to latest figures from the EEF, Davies’ confidence in the region is well placed, as the West Midlands is one of the UK’s star performers.
“Output and order balances were the highest of any area in quarter two of 2017, building on the impressive momentum already seen through the year. Recruitment and investment intentions, although not quite hitting the heights of the other balances, remain positive and above the UK average,” said Charlotte Horobin, EEF region director for the Midlands and East. “Performance has been very good in the region and, whilst we expect a little bit of softening at the start of 2018, we still expect the next 12 months to be positive. That’s not to say there aren’t challenges we need to face.
“At the top of that list will be the uncertainty that Brexit is and will continue to create. Manufacturers hate the ‘u’ word. They would much prefer to know what they have to deal with and get on with it. Trade tariffs, retaining and attracting the best people from around the globe and current issues around higher import costs are all playing on the minds of bosses.
“Encouragingly, the region is one of the strongest in the country when it comes to exporting outside of the EU and those existing relationships will certainly be a strength moving forward, as will innovation and design. These two facets of our DNA are going to be crucial as we re-position ourselves in the new economy.”
Skills to pay the bills
David Keene, CEO of RDM Group, agrees. His firm is helping to pioneer driverless vehicle technology through its work with Innovate UK and the launch of ‘Pod Zero’, a ‘first and last mile’ transport solution.
“In the last year alone, we’ve opened offices in Adelaide and Houston, as global demand for our technology and pods increases,” he said.
“We have also exhibited in Australia, Canada, France and Germany, and the reaction from everyone has been ‘wow, we need this technology.’ The ‘Made in the UK’ brand has been very important; people overseas buy into our design and our technology – it’s like a mark of quality.”
The West Midlands may well have found some possible answers to the much-discussed skills gap; academia and industry might actually be realising that the solution involves the two of them working much closer together.
The region is dotted with some striking, visible signs. In the Black Country, Dudley Advance II is supporting construction; in Wolverhampton, the Elite Centre for Manufacturing Skills is providing a focal point for high-value manufacturing skills.
Birmingham has seen a new EEF technology hub opened and, this year, the Coventry-based Institute for Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering (AME) produced its first industry-ready graduates.
At the heart of all of these initiatives is a desire from employers to become more closely involved in shaping the delivery and to take the lead in developing training that delivers what they actually need.
It’s a sentiment that Matthew Snelson, managing director of the recently opened Marches Centre of Manufacturing & Technology in Bridgnorth (MCMT), recognises.
A director at Grainger & Worrall since 2013, he was invited to lead an employer- led consortium of G&W, Classic Motor Cars, Salop Design & Engineering and In-Comm in creating a new state-of-the- art training hub.
The project officially opened on November 10th, backed by £1.9m of Government Growth Deal funding via the Marches LEP and with support from Shropshire Council.
The 36,000 sq ft storage facility boasts dedicated fabrication, foundry, lathe, metrology, milling, robotics and vehicle trimming sections.
There is also a 200-seat auditorium, along with smaller break-out classrooms and a CNC Zone that is full of 3-axis and 5-axis machines, donated by the Engineering Technology Group.
“All the training is delivered by Ofsted ‘Outstanding’ rated In-Comm,” Matthew pointed out. “We are tasked with creating 2020 learning opportunities by 2020. These will be through trailblazer apprenticeships, alongside upskilling courses for the local workforce.
“The MCMT has to be inclusive and has to benefit the supply chain as a whole; that’s the key,” he emphasized. “We need to stop cannibalising existing talent and flood the market with lots of skilled people. That will help industry grow.