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Tata Steel UK: Driving innovation for the future of mobility

Industry needs to play its part in the new era of British transport

By Deirdre Fox  

© TATA STEEL

This article was produced in association with Tata

From the pioneering car producers of the 1900s, to the mass-production techniques of the war years and the first of Issigonis’s Minis of the 1960s, the automotive industry is rightly regarded as being central to the UK manufacturing economy. The West Midlands, long a heartland of UK engineering is host to some of the country’s leading manufacturers and specialist supply chain players. It is also home to Tata Steel’s flagship automotive service centre at Wednesfield and its Warwick Technology Centre, both synonymous with long-term and continuous innovation and investment in the automotive sector.

An ever-evolving industry, the automotive sector has seen its fair share of historic turning points, from the development of
the diesel engine to the first hybrid car. Today, the industry finds itself at its latest crossroad—the transition to ultra-low and zero emission vehicles.

The Industrial Strategy published last year made clear the government’s vision for transformation in this industry, with its focus on support for maximising opportunities across electric, connected and autonomous vehicles. It also brings with it some key questions—how should government and industry work together to build a viable supply chain which in turn can deliver maximum value to the wider UK economy? How can capacity keep up if the uptake of electric vehicles surges, as the government hopes? And how do we build the necessary energy grid and charging infrastructure?

But whilst finding answers to these questions will be important to reach
that initial point of connectivity, we must also look under the bonnet to the key components, materials and systems that will make this transition possible.

Steel has a long-established role in supporting the automotive sector as it has grown, and is uniquely placed to support the sector as it develops through this latest transition.

As a major player in the automotive supply chain, supplying to every UK-based car manufacturer, Tata Steel is committed to driving forward innovation to meet the demands of the industry as it embarks on the next generation of electric vehicles. In September last year, we published a White Paper on electric vehicles which outlines a vision for the sector, and a proposed roadmap of steel’s contribution towards zero emissions for road transport. This roadmap looks to support the future of the industry by outlining what materials and technologies will be needed to meet tomorrow’s demands.

The White Paper found a clear demand from the automotive industry to save weight on battery-powered cars with lighter vehicle structures to make their range more comparable to that of conventional petrol- or diesel-powered cars. Demand for lighter vehicle structures will necessitate growth in a wide range of advanced steels.

Indeed, this demand is so great it has the real potential to place the steel sector ever more at the heart of Britain’s future economy.

The study shows demand for advanced steels for the vehicle structure will increase by approximately 2.6m tonnes by 2050. This is contrary to previous speculation suggesting other materials, like aluminium and carbon fibre, would replace it. Cost and sustainability drivers would suggest this as an unlikely scenario. Steel is infinitely recyclable with
no loss of quality, making it the world’s most sustainable material.

It is clear that a well-functioning domestic steel supply chain can play a vital role in the successful development of a lower-carbon UK manufacturing economy and make a real contribution to the decarbonisation of supply chains such as automotive. At the same time the steel industry recognises its own responsibility to continue to develop new technologies in steel making and processing to lower its own carbon footprint—it is a shared challenge.

In anticipating this demand and the challenges it may bring, Tata Steel is doing what the steel sector and the wider automotive industry have always done best—innovating. Tata Steel’s recent UK investments have included a cutting edge, £5.7m robotic laser welding facility at our Wednesfield site in the West Midlands and a state-of-the-art Automotive Finishing Line at our Llanwern works in south Wales, which support the production of optimised sheetsteel with different thicknesses and grades, enabling lighter and ultra- high-strength steel production. Tata Steel remains the only UK based steel maker with this end-to-end capability to service its automotive customers in this way.

Through our extensive R&D programmes which connect us with customers, technology partners and academia, Tata Steel continues to push the boundaries of what is achievable with advanced steel capability and investment in flexible supply chains that can truly add value.

“Demand for lighter vehicle structures is set to necessitate growth in electric and plated steels that improve an electric motor’s efficiency”

Whilst Tata Steel looks to continue to innovate and meet the changing needs
of the industry, the UK’s relationship with the EU, its biggest trading partner, is being redefined. As our trading links change post-Brexit it is important that the UK government pursues a strong, cross-sector Industrial Strategy that develops the whole supply chain for automotive.

If the UK really does want to be at the forefront of the electric vehicle revolution, whilst achieving the target of over 50 per cent local content that the automotive sector has set for itself, then the country needs the supply chain capacity and capability to match. Continued support
for innovation and strengthened domestic supply chains will be key to achieving this. Tata Steel is ready, along with the wider steel sector, to play its part as a future- looking foundation of the UK economy. Now is the time for both industry and government to work together to seize the opportunities offered by another historic era for British transport.

Deirdre Fox is Director of Strategic Business Development Tata Steel Europe

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