Future-proofing the UK’s battery supply chain

Future-proofing the UK’s battery supply chain

Following the creation of Hyperbat, Managing Director of Williams Advanced Engineering Craig Wilson explains to Shaun Hunter the state of the UK’s mobility industry.

The UK’s largest independent vehicle battery manufacturer will open in Coventry early next year, creating approximately ninety new jobs, at a brand new multi-million pound, high-tech facility that will produce batteries for future hybrid and electric vehicles. The facility is part of a new joint venture between Williams Advanced Engineering and Unipart Manufacturing Group, named Hyperbat, aimed at the UK's contribution to reducing carbon emissions through new, alternative power. By combining world-leading expertise in manufacturing, logistics and safe, innovative, high-performance vehicle battery technology, the facility will provide a secure future supply chain for UK-based car-makers as vehicles transition over to electric power. Just last month, Hyperbat announced Aston Martin as its first customer with the automaker's first fully-electric vehicle: the Rapide E. Ultimately, this business reflects the UK automotive industry's focus on cleaner transportation across the board, creating new opportunities for companies involved in the region. 

Craig Wilson

Craig Wilson

New Mobility Editor Alex Kreetzer speaks to Craig Wilson, Managing Director Williams Advanced Engineering, to understand more about Hyperbat and how the UK is working towards realising its vision of cleaner mobility. "Williams Advanced Engineering has been heavily involved and positioned at the forefront of alternative propulsion systems and electrification for the last seven years,” he says. “What we have seen is a very large trend from companies wanting support with design engineering, which is the core of what we do, to increasingly identifying what products are needed in future systems. It's really a journey of evaluating this change and starting to take action.” As part of this solution, Wilson and his team felt that it was important for Williams to play a bigger role in the UK’s supply chain and now, thanks to the rise of the electrification sector, saw the battery as an obvious choice for the company. A lot of people are involved with electric motors and powered electronics, but battery systems are missing which is, fundamentally, the engine of these products. “We have been supported by the Advanced Propulsion Centre for a battery-related programme in terms of evaluating production systems. Through this, we were introduced to Unipart who, from the angle of manufacturing and supplying vehicle systems, had a different desire. They could foresee the future of propulsion systems and wanted to join us on this journey,” adds Wilson. Through additional discussions with Aston Martin, Williams quickly recognised that there was an opportunity to take the next step in establishing a business and become the new face of battery system supply.

The UK’s mobility push

In recent times, the larger OEMs have started to invest in their own battery facilities, identifying the shift towards cleaner mobility. However, there are an enormous amount of product requirements that are needed for battery systems that these companies simply cannot do by themselves. “For years and years, automakers have bought engines from different suppliers, but where will they get the battery from?” questions Wilson. There is now an industry need within the UK to enable the sustainability of all of these companies to have future products. Although there are some companies who are entirely focused on electrification, such as Tesla, the established players in the automotive industry still need to adapt their business structures to allow organic growth into this new sector. In addition, Wilson believes that China cannot be underestimated, as they have skipped internal combustion engines and gone straight into electrification. “They are, in some ways, forcing the hand of the rest of the world to chase them. I don't think it's a ‘nice to have’ thing now, it's becoming an essential asset, which is one of the main reasons that motivated us to get on the front foot and support UK businesses in this space,” says Wilson. 

With the addition of government legislations and the combination of global electrification market pressures, manufacturers are being forced into this new era which, in turn, has seen a rapid increase in the demand for battery system suppliers. The challenge for manufacturers is affordability, with most of these traditional businesses being capital intensive that require large amounts of investment. “We need these businesses to be highly successful and invest in this journey towards future mobility,” states Wilson. “On top of this, the government and other organisations have to come to the party with sufficient infrastructure that supports this new world which is rapidly moving.” There needs to be an industry-wide understanding of where the market is going and, with this, collaboration in order to create a sufficient supply chain for battery supply in the UK that will help the region develop within the global electrification market. 

The heart of innovation

The Midlands is developing into a hub for future transportation, with top universities, factories and test centres - especially ones involved in alternative energy and future mobility solutions. The likes of Williams, Unipart, Aston Martin, University of Warwickshire, University of Coventry and Jaguar Land Rover are all part of the region's journey towards becoming a future transport pioneer. This is great news for the UK, especially during a time of uncertainty, as it is becoming a driver of electrification and competing with the likes of Silicon Valley and some of the Asian markets. "I think there is definitely an opportunity to be at the forefront of this new mobility revolution,” Wilson predicts. “I equally think that, if we don't seize this opportunity, we will be left behind and what might be a reasonably robust industry now, as opposed to 20 years ago, can quickly return to a very fragile industry. It's a great opportunity, but there is also a great risk to the UK if we don't do this properly." 

Finally, UK companies are diving into the pool of mobility, with many companies making significant changes to business structures in order to incorporate for this new wave. Williams has worked alongside many automakers in the UK, mostly through the company’s motorsport background, but now it is time to focus on this new space, expanding from what the company is known for, to what it will become down the line in a couple of years time. "We are looking at a few strategic areas where we will take our design capabilities, industry knowledge of batteries and lightweight structures; areas where we think we have the ability to develop technologies and leading-class components for systems that are enablers for not just automotive products, but further afield as well,” says Wilson. “We will be a big competitor in the future mobility world, with other innovations such as flying devices and other areas where our skills and capabilities can be scaled, not just in the engineering space but also within the manufacturing supply chain. We want to create a supply chain of new components that will be needed in the future.” It is important to identify that four-wheeled transport will not necessarily be the only form of mobility in the future, with autonomous pods, drones and electric bikes already emerging around the world. This creates an opportunity for companies like Hyberbat, which will capitalise on new drivetrains and power sources for a range of different transportation devices. "A big part of our future is identifying where we can utilise our engineering knowledge and know-how to expand a new manufacturing supply chain to, in turn, benefit the UK's industry.” 

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