SECTOR FOCUS: Automotive – joining the electric revolution

As we entered 2021 a cloud of uncertainty hung over the automotive sector in Knowsley and the wider Liverpool city region – but the turnaround since has been dramatic.

Similar to many automakers, Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) had endured a torrid time at the height of the COVID pandemic with factory shutdowns across its global network and plunging sales.

Although the models assembled at Halewood in Knowsley, the Ranger Rover Evoque and Land Rover Discovery Sport, were good sellers, the company reported a full-year loss of more than £400m in the 12 months to March 31. It announced it would have to make cost savings of £2.5bn.

The arrival of new chief executive Thierry Bolloré added to the uncertainty. All of JLR’s plants, in the UK and across the world, wondered what the new boss would have in store for them.

At the Ford/Magna/Getrag transmission plant nearby, workers were also wondering what the future held. With the industry looking to rapidly move away from petrol and diesel engines to hybrid and electric, where would a factory making transmissions for internal combustion engines fit in?

Things were looking even more troubling over the river at the Vauxhall Factory at Ellesmere Port. The plant had been producing the Astra for a number of years but there had been talk for several years that the plant would become surplus to requirements.

In 2020, its French owner PSA completed a £40bn merger with Fiat Chrysler to form a new automotive business called Stellantis. This added to the gloom. The factory had already seen significant job losses over the past couple of years and the UK exit from the European Union made it vulnerable.

The world’s automotive sector was about to embark on an electric revolution – but would the Liverpool city region and wider North West automotive industry play a role in this exciting new era? The answer was yes. And this was fantastic news not just for the factories mentioned above, but also the extensive supply chain supporting them.

A study published in October by Bruntwood SciTech forecast the North West would see the creation of 111,900 new jobs by 2050 to support the transition to a low-carbon economy. And many of them will be in automotive.

Across the UK, automotive remains critical to the economy. With a combined annual turnover of more than £80bn the industry adds £18.6bn in GVA value to the national economy. It produces more than 1.3m vehicles, eight out of 10 of which are exported to 160 overseas markets. It employs around 1m people directly and in the supply chain.

Bright future for JLR

In February, JLR announced it would spend more than £20bn to convert all its models to electric by the end of the decade. As part of its new global Reimagine strategy the company said  its Jaguar range will be all-electric by 2025 with Land Rover following by 2030.

Laying out his vision for the next two decades, JLR chief executive Thierry Bolloré said the  British-based business, owned by India’s Tata Motors, was committing to become a net zero carbon operation by 2039.

JLR said it would invest £2.5bn in the transformation to electric and says it currently has no plans to close any of its three UK manufacturing plants, which include two in the West Midlands as well as Halewood. It will also invest heavily in clean-hydrogen fuel-cell power.

Halewood’s Land Rover Discovery Sport and Range Rover Evoque models will be part of this transformation. These include plug-in hybrid models. Over the next few years the plant will be converted to produce electric-only cars.

By 2030, the company’s target is for all Jaguar sales to be electric-only with 60% of Land Rover models sold all-electric. Mr Bolloré said the Reimagine plan was based around an approach that prioritised “quality over volume”. Diesel models will be phased out by 2026.

Although Halewood will continue to produce hybrid models by the end of the decade it is expected to see a significant slice of the £22.5bn invested by the company in the switch to electrification by that time. JLR says it is not planning to discontinue any existing models.

Mr Bolloré said: “In order to realise its vision of modern luxury mobility with confidence, the company will curate closer collaboration and knowledge-sharing with Tata Group companies to enhance sustainability and reduce emissions as well as sharing best practice in next-generation technology, data and software development leadership.

Jaguar Land Rover has been a wholly-owned subsidiary of Tata Motors, in which Tata Sons is the largest shareholder, since 2008. We have so many ingredients from within. It is a unique opportunity.

“Others have to rely solely on external partnerships and compromise, but we have frictionless access that will allow us to lean forward with confidence and at speed. Sustainability that delivers a new benchmark in environmental and societal impact for the luxury sector is fundamental to the success of Reimagine.

“A new centralised team will be empowered to build on and accelerate pioneering innovations in materiality, engineering, manufacturing, services and circular economy investments.”

In October JLR said it was investing a further £1.7m in a new tool-making plant at Halewood. Its new press die manufacturing centre means the company will make its own press tools in-house for the first time. This function had previously been outsourced. Staff will have the opportunity to learn new skills.

Speaking earlier this year, plant director Trevor Leeks said: “We are proud to have our Merseyside manufacturing roots in Knowsley and of the contributions our business makes, not only to the local economy but also to the wider UK economy through our UK supplier contracts.

“We are passionate about investing in home grown talent and approximately a third of the workforce – around 1,200-employees – live in Knowsley.”

“The new Reimagine strategy, which will see the complete electrification of the Jaguar and Land Rover brands by 2039, promises continued investment in our factory- so there is a bright and exciting future ahead for Halewood and the Knowsley region.”

Ford’s vote of confidence

Just a few weeks after the initial JLR announcement, there were early signs that the Ford/Magna PT transmission factory, employing around 700 people, would also be part of the electrical transformation. Ford offered a big vote of confidence in the site by taking over full control with Magna PT exiting the partnership.

Shortly after the announcement, plant manager Andy Roche spoke of his hope for the future of the plant, which originally opened as a car assembly facility in 1963. He said it was part of the industrial fabric of the city region

He started there as an apprentice in 1979. He said: “The automotive industry means a lot to people here. They would queue from the Pier Head to the factory gate if we advertised jobs at the plant.”

And in early October the good news finally came through that Ford was going to invest £230m in the Halewood factory to convert it to make e-drive systems for electric cars, safeguarding hundreds of jobs.

Power unit production in Halewood is expected to begin in mid-2024. Production capacity is planned to be around 250,000 units a year. The investment – which is subject to and includes UK Government support through its Automotive Transformation Fund – will help safeguard the Ford jobs at Halewood.

“This is an important step, marking Ford’s first in-house investment in all-electric vehicle component manufacturing in Europe. It further strengthens our ability to deliver 100% of Ford passenger vehicles in Europe being all-electric and two-thirds of our commercial vehicle sales being all-electric or plug-in hybrid by 2030,” said Stuart Rowley, president, Ford of Europe.

The decision is being welcomed by the UK’s Advanced Propulsion Centre (APC). Ford has secured funding through the APC’s Automotive Transformation Fund. It is seeded in a number of earlier collaborative low-carbon research and development projects.

Julian Hetherington, APC automotive transformation director, explains: “We know that the insight and capability gained from various APC-supported projects, together with the ATF investment funding from Government to support the transition of its operations, put the Halewood site in a really strong position.

“It is a great example of the importance of continuing to invest in collaborative research and development, as having that engineering expertise in the UK makes a stronger case for siting the manufacturing activity here and accelerates the UK’s progress towards net zero.”

EDUs, in simple terms, control all the elements that move the wheels on an electric vehicle, including the speed, torque and direction. Mr Hetherington added: “Our insight has identified more than £24bn of opportunity in the UK for the EV  passenger car market alone and £12bn of this is in power electronics and electric machines.”

Vans for Vauxhall, over the river

The good news is not just reserved for Knowsley as the Liverpool City Region Automotive sector has seen further good news for our neighbours, bolstering the strength and depth of the Automotive sector in the Liverpool City region…

In July, the 1,000 or so people working at Vauxhall in Ellesmere Port also received the news they had been hoping for. Stellantis a new generation of electric vans are to be built at the site as part of a £100m investment.

Stellantis said: “This new era of manufacturing will see a transformation of the Ellesmere Port plant fit for the future, with a new body shop, upgraded general assembly, a compression of the site area and the creation of an on-site battery pack assembly.

“In addition, there will be further support to enable a pathway to carbon neutrality for the plant by the middle of this decade. The plant aims to be 100% self-sufficient for electricity and work will commence imminently on potential wind and solar farms.”