The car industry has long been at the forefront of manufacturing innovations. From the assembly line that made the Ford Model T, to the obsession with manufacturing quality that helped Toyota become a byword for reliability, the way cars are made has always been at the heart of the automotive industry’s development. As well as being a piece of unqualified good news for the manufacturing sector in this country, Jaguar Land Rover’s announcement last week of 1,700 new jobs at its facility in Solihull is also an exciting continuation of this story.
Jaguar Land Rover has always worked hard to develop highly advanced design and production capabilities in the UK. The latest expansion covers the development of car designs that can be quickly adapted to satisfy the rapidly changing demands of the market. Amongst other things, it is the company’s use of technology that makes such flexibility possible, empowering it to get products to market faster without compromising on quality. For example Jaguar Land Rover uses advanced, 3D design technology and immersive projections of virtual prototypes to rapidly assess and evaluate the impact of changes to the design of its vehicles. This empowers the company’s engineers to make alterations to the virtual vehicle, and simulate its operation, before the parts for the physical prototype are manufactured. It means that Jaguar Land Rover’s vehicles can be optimised for safety, style, efficiency and performance with much less physical testing than would historically have been necessary, accelerating their time to market and building their competitive edge.
Automotive manufacturing is one of the most obvious applications of such technology, since cars are amongst the most complex consumer products of all. However, consumer products form only a part of the global manufacturing output, and a smaller part of the UK’s. Many non-consumer products can be even more complicated to develop than cars, and the timelines even more demanding – think of drilling equipment for the energy, transport and water industries, of aircraft assemblies, or of refining equipment for rare metal ores. Changing trends in the global economy and changing priorities in global business mean that the flexibility and responsiveness afforded by design and manufacturing technology such as that used by Jaguar Land Rover will become a significant advantage for many different areas of the manufacturing sector.
This ought to be good news for the UK. The ups and downs of British manufacturing are well-documented but, as we look to the future, we should do our best to take advantage of the opportunities offered by changes in global business. In recent decades, Japan and Germany have succeeded through a focus on efficiency and high quality, and China and Korea have flourished through a drive to reduce cost and time-to-market, but the business world of the future will reward flexibility, agility and innovation. The current changes happening in the manufacturing industry reflect this and the application of the technology in use at Jaguar Land Rover has the potential to help British manufacturers address these priorities.
Modern technology and global supply chains are fuelling accelerated change in dozens of industries. In energy (, smart grids, renewables), in transport (composite aircraft, hybrid cars), healthcare (sensor supported care), defence (UAVs, robotics), in entertainment (mobile broadband, smartphones) and in many other industries, technological advances over only the last 15 years have completely altered the competitive landscape. In the UK, we have the right combination of creativity, computing, design and engineering expertise to give us an edge in this new world order of manufacturing.
We’re unlikely ever to repatriate the manufacturing of high-volume, low-value products (and it’s debatable as to whether we would want to), but the success of the automotive design and manufacturing in the UK shows what can be achieved here when we use our expertise to tackle premium and specialist markets. Jaguar Land Rover is a fine example of what can be done when existing technologies are applied in an innovative manner, and there is much that British industry could do to replicate its success in other sectors.
Further recent signs of recovery in the UK economy are encouraging, but they cannot be sustained by internal consumption alone. The UK has run a trade deficit in every year since the Falklands war, and closing that gap should be a long-term priority for any government that wishes to see a robust distribution of jobs, wealth and stability in this country. Manufacturing has a huge part to play in that and, if this government is serious about facilitating the "march of the makers" then encouraging the kind of innovation in evidence at Jaguar Land Rover would be a good place to start.