The sheer pace of digitalisation is an existential threat to UK industry: this roadmap will helps us get back on track

Developed in partnership with the Advanced Propulsion Centre, a new digitalisation roadmap reveals the extraordinary impact that digital approaches will have on automotive design, development and manufacture in the future. Yet, as the Institute of Digital Engineering’s (IDE), CEO, Bradley Yorke-Biggs argues, it will take leadership, vision and sustained investment to ensure the UK remains relevant during these transformative years.

For many, 2021 has brought with it a strange combination of hope and fear. With the next chapter of the pandemic still unwritten, we’re all having to negotiate a way forward at a time of few certainties. Yet, at the same time, it’s hard not to feel exhilarated at the prospect of rebuilding and renewing our societies and economies after the shock and upheaval of the past 12 months.

Nowhere is this balance of emotions more evident than in the automotive sector. As industry pivots to deliver ‘net-zero’ mobility products and services, and the rapid development of the digital economy disrupts the market and shifts consumer expectations, it’s clear that the coming years will be transformative for the industry.

Yet with the automotive sector being at such a crossroads, it’s also evident that the UK’s position within the global market hangs in the balance.

The reason is that most of the industrial architecture we use today originates from the 1950s and 60s and is now reaching the point of obsolescence. Around the world, governments working in partnership with industry are developing new architectures to find answers to societal needs and environmental imperatives.

Digitalisation not only promises to deliver better quality products faster and cheaper; but it will unlock new business models and markets, solve societal challenges faster and result in happier customers for our products and services. The brutal reality is that organisations – and nations – that lead this transformation will attract investment from high-value global businesses and foster technological innovation. Those that don’t, risk failing.

That’s why, to complement existing Automotive Council technology and product roadmaps, we’ve launched our new digitalisation roadmap for the automotive sector last month. I say “our” deliberately, because this is a piece of work wholly developed in partnership with industry and academia, involving more than 150 experts around the world feeding their perspectives and insights to give what I hope is an authoritative picture of how digital technologies will transform the sector over the next 20 years.

In essence, the roadmap identifies the drivers and enablers for industrial transformation, showing where we believe investment in new capabilities needs to be prioritised across and beyond the automotive sector. It should help organisations to navigate the complex world of digitalisation successfully to ensure they tap into the next generation technologies that will define their industry’s future.

But it carries a warning too, because in engaging with industry to create this roadmap, it has become very clear that we urgently need a highly-coordinated portfolio of programmes, with greater levels of government intervention, to support industry in delivering this fundamental transformation. With countries like Germany and China investing heavily to incentivise digitalisation across industry, the growing fear is that the UK could be left behind in what is fast becoming a race for survival.

We urgently need to embrace the seismic shifts in technology and position the UK to lead the way in establishing and applying digitalisation. Doing so will mean we can innovate, engineer and manufacture new generations of relevant products and services and nurture world-class value chains within the UK. Failing to do so will mean UK industry languishes in the slow lane – a victim of analogue thinking in a digital age.

Yet while that’s the fear, there’s also plenty of hope too. I genuinely believe the UK has the all attributes to win this race and emerge as a powerhouse for digitally-powered industrial development. This is partly because of the strength and vitality of our innovation pipeline, fuelled by the ingenuity and passion of our start-ups – and also because of the unique ability of our world-class academic institutions to drive industry forward.

So, if we do indeed want to “build back better”, there would be no better place to start than using this academic landscape to nurture the skills we need, pivoting our education system so that we put a stronger focus on data literacy across all ages.

More immediately, we need to continue to invest in the pathfinder projects that show the power and the potential of digitalisation – whether it’s supporting a virtual product development process (see our ViVID case study) or by using machine learning and predictive algorithms to transform how we diagnose vehicle faults pioneered through our WaveAI pathfinder. The ideas and the talent are already here, but the argument is yet to be won.

It will take strong leadership, a shared vision and sustained investment, supported by government, to bring about the scale of change needed. But get it right and I believe the UK can nurture the best engineers in the world and attract the biggest and best companies due to the strength and maturity of our digital offering.

The roadmap, I hope, can be a guiding light on this journey. But it’s up to all of us now to take these bold steps forward.