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Ford Bridgend closure

20 June 2019

In our latest post, Professor Calvin Jones and Dr Gavin Harper explain how the UK’s car industry could stage a revival by recycling rare earths.

The intended closure of Ford’s Bridgend engine plant in 2020, with the loss of 1,700 jobs, has sent shock waves through Wales. Plaid Cymru leader, Adam Price, has described it as “one of the worst acts of ‘industrial vandalism’ seen in the UK for decades.” Ford representatives have said that the company needs to “make its engine manufacturing base suitable for the vehicles it produces in the future.”

With electric vehicles (EVs) commanding a growing share of the global car market, many including Professor David Bailey have stated that the “production of electric motors was much more important to securing Ford Bridgend’s future” in order to stay competitive in the global automotive industry.

Engine manufacturing is the most valuable part of making a conventional car. An enormous amount of knowledge, skill and research and development is required to make highly sophisticated internal combustion engines.

Ford is the largest producer of these engines in the UK – and about half of its output comes from the Bridgend factory. Experts have observed that the electrification of cars “is arguably more of a threat to the UK automotive industry than Brexit.” But there is still a chance for the UK to stage a revival.

Opportunity knocks

There is already some EV manufacturing taking place in the UK, by Nissan in Sunderland and Aston Martin in South Wales. There are also new facilities being established to manufacture EV batteries and the materials required to make them, from Port Talbot to Coventry.

But there have been setbacks: critically, the UK is no longer a headquarters for any major auto producer, let alone one leading in the EV space. It’s difficult to build up sustainable operations when decisions are made overseas.

This is evident in Jaguar Land Rover’s decision to cut UK production of its Discovery model, while subcontracting i-Pace electric production to Magna Steyr in Austria.

“Without being able to rely on any favour from an indigenous car maker, the UK must take its own steps to become the best place to make EVs.”

With the UK government keen to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050, there’s an opportunity for the nation’s automotive industry to develop and deploy EV technology and become a global leader – but this needs to start now, or the chance will be lost.

Supply and demand

There are two key factors for success – supply and demand. Of course, there must be enough demand for products manufactured in the UK, and the nation must be able to export to those markets. But the UK must also have good access to the supply chains that provide the parts and materials needed to manufacture EVs.

Many commentators already lament the effect that Brexit is having on the UK automotive sector. Less obvious, is how this may affect the supply of critical materials needed to develop and manufacture EVs. Global concerns about the supply of these materials is rising – and organisations, including the International Energy Agency, are investigating.

Professor Calvin Jones is Deputy Dean for Public Value and External Relations at Cardiff Business School.

Dr Gavin Harper is Energy Development Manager at the University of Birmingham’s School of Physics and Astronomy.

This article was originally published on The Conversation UK.