Mike Farish reports on a UK initiative to prepare new technologies from small companies for mass production
Tata Steel’s manufacturing site in Rotherham, UK, was the location for the recent announcement of a venture called the Proving Factory, which aims to smooth the way to high volume production for small companies developing products relevant to automotive. It will do so by providing half a dozen such companies with both specialist production-engineering expertise to improve the manufacturability of their products, and by actually manufacturing the products in volumes of up to 10,000 units a year to establish them on the market as commercially viable propositions.
The rationale for the initiative is explained by Richard Bruges, chief executive of small London-based engineering consultancy Productiv, which has played a pivotal role in getting the whole initiative off the ground. He says that one of the major stumbling blocks impeding the introduction of promising new technologies to the automotive sector is precisely that of achieving reliable and mature manufacturing processes that could easily be ramped up to the sort of volumes that might interest a tier one supplier – say around 100,000 units a year or more.
Total funding is some £22m, of which just over half has been provided in a mix of grant and loan by the UK Government’s Advanced Manufacturing Supply Chain Initiative (AMSCI). A substantial proportion of the remainder – some £4.5 million – has come from Tata, which will be cooperating with a local centre of relevant competence, the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre based at the nearby University of Sheffield, to provide production-engineering input – not least in the use of steel materials. Similar input will be provided by Productiv itself, which will be adding up some £2m of its own money, in cooperation with the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC). Other organisations taking an active role include the UK’s Motor Industry Research Association (MIRA), Tier one supplier Schaeffler and OEM Jaguar Land Rover – the last three forming the venture’s steering group along with Tata and Productiv.
Bruges says that as far as he is aware, the initiative is unique. “I haven’t come across anything like it anywhere else,” he states. He confirms that there will be a series of related objectives to industrialise the products through effective production engineering; to manufacture them in quantities sufficient to establish them in the market; and to create a demand for higher volumes on the part of one or more vehicle assemblers such that tier one-level manufacture becomes feasible.
The business model will be one in which the originators of the technologies involved will shoulder immediate product development costs, while the Proving Factory will be responsible for both subsequent production engineering and actual manufacture. The products themselves have been chosen on the basis of a number of criteria that should, Bruges says, help ensure a degree of commonality across them, not just in terms of their purpose but also in their underlying technologies and material usage. The initial intention is that six technology developers will be involved, though at the time of the launch only five had been selected.