June 2016 | Richard Young

Driven to innovate

The auto industry demands perpetual revolution. Tata is helping speed up innovation in this sector with its support of the National Automotive Innovation Centre in the UK's car-manufacturing heartland of Warwick

On March 17, 2015, Cyrus P Mistry, Chairman of Tata Sons, and Ratan Tata, Chairman Emeritus of Tata Sons, unveiled the foundation stone of the £150m National Automotive Innovation Centre (NAIC) at the University of Warwick, in the UK. NAIC’s key industrial sponsors are Tata Motors European Technical Centre and Jaguar Land Rover — two Tata businesses that put innovation right at the top of their agendas.

Designs for a Range Rover model being sketched at the National Automotive Innovation Centre

NAIC is the kind of project that politicians of all stripes dream about. For the pro-business lobby, it shows that government, academia and the private sector can collaborate to support cutting-edge thinking and technology. For the community, the centre brings training, jobs and regeneration to Midlands industry. Even environmentalists can look forward to NAIC’s work in designing ultra-efficient manufacturing processes and low-impact vehicles.

For Prof Bhattacharyya, chairman and founder of WMG (formerly known as the Warwick Manufacturing Group) at the University of Warwick, and an expert who has advised governments and business, NAIC is a logical step for an industry that is in a particularly exciting phase of a never-ending drive to innovate. According to Prof Bhattacharyya, the motor industry is going through a period of incredible innovation, with connected cars, autonomous vehicles and the rise of electric power changing the face of the world’s roads.

“This is an industry in continuous evolution — it’s not about one project or one discipline,” Prof Bhattacharyya stresses. “NAIC is going to feed into that ongoing process of innovation and development.”

NAIC will include high-tech research facilities such as a design and simulation space, an advanced propulsion research laboratory, and the world’s most adaptable and advanced fully immersive drive-in car simulator. It will also provide focus research capability in breakthrough technologies in areas such as carbon reduction, smart and connected vehicles, and advanced propulsion systems, including internal combustion engines and hybrid and electric systems.

Little wonder then, that Jaguar Land Rover — which has been a huge success for Tata over the past eight years, in no small part thanks to investment in innovation — is, together with the Tata Motors European Technical Centre and WMG, one of the key industrial partners of NAIC.

At the foundation ceremony, Jaguar Land Rover CEO Dr Ralf Speth spoke about the expectations from the centre: “NAIC will have a significant role in inspiring the engineers of tomorrow and will help develop the skills we need the UK to nurture and develop to ensure we remain globally competitive. As well as helping us create key technologies that will provide new experiences for our customers, the centre will deliver wider benefits to the UK automotive industry.”

An artist's depiction of the National Automotive Innovation Centre

Prof Bhattacharyya puts the vision in perspective, explaining that NAIC is the largest private-sector investment in any university across Europe. “So we have to work on things that companies can adopt and commercialise rapidly — as quickly as two or three years. The UK has evolved into a different kind of manufacturing nation already — one that demands investment in technology and productivity as much as producing products people want to buy,” he says.

NAIC is coming to fruition at top speed. With the foundations in place, building work is progressing well. The 33,000m2 complex will welcome the first of its 1,000 engineers, designers, academics and apprentices in late 2017.

“These engineers and technologists will help develop the propulsion systems of the future, ranging from internal combustion engines to electric and hybrid vehicle solutions,” says Dr Wolfgang Epple, director of research and technology at Jaguar Land Rover. “Investing in collaboration, innovation, research and education is vital if we want to be at par with our international competitors. Our future sales success, the success of our global business — and the UK economy — lies in the engineering and innovation that will take place in NAIC.”

For Prof Bhattacharyya, the investment is part of a broader shift in UK manufacturing. “Britain has lots of great ideas. It remains a world leader in scientific research,” he says. “The traditional problem is that we tend not to be so good at commercialising that work. We need to be faster and surer about putting it into practice. With NAIC in close proximity to Jaguar Land Rover and, increasingly, to businesses in the supply chain, like Bosch, we think that will help.”

As a hub for breakthrough innovation, NAIC is set to give shape to the future of the auto industry.