A Brave new world for transport manufacturing in the post-COVID-19 era

Jon Lawson
A glance in the rear-view mirror, then a look forward. What’s in store for the transport manufacturing industry after COVID-19?

COVID-19 has affected almost everyone in one way or another. It’s certainly placed a corona-shaped spanner in the transport industry works.

The industry has done its part to help in the short term, with many companies adapting existing processes to help with healthcare, in particular with making PPE such as gowns, masks and visors.

Some have been more ambitious. Ford and the Ohio State University have teamed up to trial a new system to decontaminate police cars. Jesse Kwiek, a laboratory supervisor at The University department of microbiology says, “Our studies with Ford indicate that exposing coronaviruses to temperatures of 56°C for 15 minutes reduces the viral concentration by greater than 99% on interior surfaces and materials used inside police Interceptor utility vehicles.”

So Ford’s solution has been to adapt the HVAC system in the 2013-19 model range to do just that – cook for 15 minutes, so hard to reach areas can be sterilised.

Once the occupants are safely out of the vehicle, the process can begin, as signalled by the hazard lights flashing in a pre-set pattern. On completion a cooling phase occurs before the lights signal a different pattern to indicate it’s safe to reuse the vehicle.

Stephen Tyler from Ford says, “Law enforcement officers are being dispatched as emergency responders in some cases where ambulances may not be available. During one trip, officers may be transporting a coronavirus patient to a hospital, while another trip may involve an occupant who may be asymptomatic. Officers can now use this self-cleaning mode as an extra layer of protection inside the vehicle in areas where manual cleaning is prone to be overlooked.”

Transport manufacturers turned ventilator manufacturers

The UK-based automotive technology expert Prodrive has worked with Cambridge University to create a low-cost ventilator prototype. The Open Ventilator System Initiative (OVSI) unit has been created with non-medical supply chain parts to accelerate production. The university’s Whittle Laboratory led with the design stage before Prodrive built a full working prototype ready for production.

Project leader Professor Axel Zeitler from the Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology says, “Fulfilling the unique requirements of local clinicians was key to this project. Clinicians told us the ventilator needed to cover the wide spectrum of patient ventilation requirements, and therefore work in three modes – non-invasive, mandatory or patient-triggered ventilation.”

Over five weeks 20 Prodrive engineers designed the electronic and electrical system architecture and wrote new software to control the unit.

Prodrive chairman David Richards says: “It’s a true vindication of our strategy of applying a motorsport culture to complex technical challenges that require an innovative approach.”

Two South African companies, Defy, a domestic appliance manufacturer, and Denel, a state-owned business are looking to lead mass production.

Transport manufacturing in a post-coronavirus era

Restarting production has not been straightforward. Some of the car makers started with a skeleton staff only to see virus outbreaks stall production.

There have been countermeasures to this though. For example, Bentley Motors researched and published its own COVID-19 risk assessment, triggering numerous changes in the way the factory is organised. After the first week back (in May), Dr Astrid Fontaine, member of the board for People, Digitalisation and IT, said, “Our objective, from the very beginning, was to make Bentley the safest place any colleague could be. We walked every inch of the site, looking for areas to improve and new methods to introduce. The result was 250 safety measures implemented covering all of our areas, and helping to protect every one of our colleagues, their families and our customers.”

Initially production was at around 50%, with all the distancing and other measures in place. One-way systems have been employed around the site, washing facilities adapted and screens placed in offices where staff cannot work from home. Numbers of staff on-site are strictly controlled. So as the industry takes tentative steps back to normality, what does the future hold? There is no doubt the economic climate we are entering will be dramatically different from anything seen recently. So let us speculate about sector demand for the rest of the year.

The aviation industry and Coronavirus

The airline industry has been hit hard. The OEMs are making large staff lay-offs. For example, at the end of May Boeing president and CEO Dave Calhoun made this grim statement: “Following the reduction-in-force announcement we made last month, we have concluded our voluntary-layoff (VLO) programme. And now we have come to the unfortunate moment of having to start involuntary lay-offs (ILO). We’re notifying the first 6,770 of our US team members this week that they will be affected. We will provide all the support we can to those of you impacted by the ILOs — including severance pay, health care coverage for US employees and career transition services.”

Ironically, on the same day, after suspension since January, the troubled 737 MAX resumed limited production at the company’s Renton, Washington, USA factory.

Predicting the future demand for air travel is dependent on several factors. Although travellers will always want to visit new places, the pandemic has proven that many office jobs can successfully be done from home; why fly to a conference when it can be done virtually? Also, the enclosed environment on a plane makes it likely to discourage potential passengers until a vaccine is found. Even with masks and efficient filtering many may be reluctant to fly in the short term, spelling difficult times ahead for the aero industry OEMs.

The picture is not much better for Tier 1 suppliers. Warren East, Rolls-Royce CEO said in May: “Our airline customers and airframe partners are having to adapt and so must we. Being told that there is no longer a job for you is a terrible prospect and it is especially hard when all of us take so much pride in working for Rolls-Royce. But we must take difficult decisions to see our business through these unprecedented times. Governments across the world are doing what they can to assist businesses in the short-term, but we must respond to market conditions for the medium-term until the world of aviation is flying again at scale, and governments cannot replace sustainable customer demand that is simply not there.”

He went on to announce 9,000 job losses and a reorganisation designed to save £1.3billion.

Despite this terrible news, the company has many other business areas that remain strong, in particular the power generation sector, so in time some of these jobs may return.

There is a spark in the drones market though. A trial in Scotland backed by Argyll and Bute Health and Social Care Partnership, NHS Highland and Argyll and Bute Council will see Skysports flights using Wingcopters delivering personal protective equipment. Based at Lorn and Islands Hospital in Oban, the trial will consist of two-way flights between there and Mull and Iona Community Hospital in Craignure 10 miles away on the Isle of Mull. Currently the road and ferry trip can take up to six hours. It’s just 15 minutes by air.

The impact of Coronavirus on sea transport

The picture here is similar. At the start of the pandemic cruise ships were infection hotspots, so this doesn’t look like a holiday option any time soon. And the demand for new container ships may suffer as a result of pressure to abandon the globalised model of business in favour of something more localised. As above, business as normal will not return this year.

COVID-19 impact on land transport

Some managers will be looking at staff working from home and wondering why they are paying huge rents for swish offices in New York, London or Berlin. If these people can function perfectly well from home, let them pay the heating bill in winter and the cooling bill in summer. Many of these will commute by train, so could this translate to reduced demand for new railcars?

This seems possible and when coupled with a general belt-tightening by all, demand may be subdued for the rest of the year.

Car makers have recently been able to start selling stock again, although oversupply may temporarily reduce prices. Looking forward, some prospective owners who would previously have got finance are now unemployed, which will not help demand. Some statistics, especially from the US suggest many owners are already struggling to keep up with current payments.

Government schemes will likely try to boost sales, with an emphasis on greener models. For those producing vans, the move to more home deliveries for shopping may be good news if this trend continues. As many of the major supermarkets are keen on this and customers become more accustomed to it this could finally be good news.

And to end, another piece of good news: the pandemic has triggered a sales boom for bicycles and more countries are examining a legal framework for small, personal electric scooters, so for some at least in the transport manufacturing industry, there is light at the end of the tunnel.