Mind the gap: can software substitute skills?

Paul Boughton

Dr Martyn Jeffries describes how software quality assurance can address the skills gap in UK automotive industry

After years of decline, the UK automotive industry is undergoing a welcome resurgence. UK car plants produced more than 1.5 million vehicles last year, the highest number since 2007. By 2017 that number is expected to rise to more than two million vehicles per year, a new record according to The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT)1. These numbers are impressive, but this has led to calls for the UK automotive industry to future proof their manufacturing processes to deal with the increase in production quantities and rising manufacturing complexities.

According to the Automotive Council2 an extra £2 billion could be brought back into the economy by growing the UK supplier base; a step that a report by Lloyds Bank3 suggests could create up to 50,000 new UK jobs.

The majority (70%) of the automotive firms surveyed for this report say they are looking to re-shore some of their operations by the end of 2016, drawn back by reduced costs, improved UK economic conditions and a desire to support local communities.

While the growing automotive industry is a positive sign for the future of UK manufacturing, the shortage of skilled engineers is an ongoing challenge. The rising demand for UK-built cars is just one of the contributory factors though. Manufacturers are now working on the next generation of highly complex, technical ‘connected cars’ built upon vehicles which today already have more software code than any other form of transport, (including fly-by-wire fighter jets and space shuttles) more even than your home computer operating system.

Technology market intelligence company, ABI Research, predicts4 that the number of connected cars with Internet of Things (IoT) type capabilities will hit 400 million units worldwide come 2030. Growing consumer demand for the connected car has led to a paradigm shift in consumer expectation. In a recent What Car? Motoring Panel survey5, connectivity was deemed a more important purchasing factor than a car’s brand prestige, previous experience with the model, ability to personalise and its CO2 emissions.

As consumer expectations rise towards more sophisticated cars, so do the manufacturing complexities and thus the need for ever more skilled engineers. The technology in todays connected cars is changing much faster than the development cycle of the vehicle and this has led to the importance of implementing stringent quality assurance to guide the engineers hand, eliminate avoidable errors in the manufacturing process and ensure brand reputation is maintained.

There is a planned investment of £5.4 million that was announced last October by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) to help UK automotive suppliers keep pace with demand whilst attempting to close the growing skills gap. The investment includes £2.7 million from the Employer Ownership Fund automotive supply chain competition, designed to help employers in the industry design training projects that can address the 100,000 person skills shortage thought to be holding back further sustained growth in the automotive industry.

But, it will be several years before the fruits of this endeavour will ripen. The automotive industry cannot wait this long and gamble on its future. It needs to look at all aspects of its business now, identify how their current employees can be utilised more effectively towards engineering better products and  understand what it can do to address concerns about the skills gap and offer the kind of world class workforce required by manufacturers.

Technology is often the enabler of businesses progression but with some irony many of the enterprise software systems originally conceived to save manufacturers time and money have become large drains of intellectual resources.

Companies often struggle to deploy ever more complex solutions, such as Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP); once called one of “the most expensive, time-consuming and complicated tasks an IT department can take on” by CIO.com; or Product Lifecycle Management (PLM), running over budget and behind schedule.

Furthermore, they often use some of the best and brightest engineers as so-called 'subject matter experts' (SMEs) to both design and test such solutions in fear that nobody else will be good enough. However, in an industry already short of skills this only exacerbates the challenge when these individuals could add more value to the final product, not working within IT functions.

To address this, one starting point would be software quality assurance and its role in helping translate business processes into functioning, capable software. In an increasingly IT-enabled, machine-to-machine, big data world, the manufacturing process relies on the effective use of software at every stage.

From research and development through to production, performance and distribution, software is everywhere, embedded and critical. By working with a quality assurance specialist, the automotive industry can ensure the increasingly complex software systems are delivered faster, more robustly and ultimately are more suited to developing the complex vehicles of the future. This not only allows a company’s skilled engineers to concentrate on product areas where they are more valuable but also ensures delivery of engineering software which gives them greater scope to achieve engineering excellence in the finished vehicle and keeping customers happy.

Reducing risk also depends on taking control of software systems. It requires applying innovation to tried-and-tested quality assurance methods in order to test and monitor how software is developed and deployed in the business. By seamlessly embedding quality assurance into the way a company plans, delivers and supports their software systems, quality assurance specialists can help automotive manufacturers to take the first step towards achieving more, achieving it better, in less time and for less cost than ever before.

Moreover, delivering better quality enterprise systems ensures when new engineering talent is introduced into these companies in the coming years they can be assured that the business will be ready to capitalise on this skills injection. The message is clear – giving your business the software backbone that will enable it to compete in the global marketplace could make the difference between success and failure. Therefore, if the automotive industry is to stay on the road of reaching and sustaining the record-breaking production levels predicted by the SMMT, it must ensure that its business system infrastructure is ready to meet these demands, without placing further burden on an already overstretched workforce.

Software is the enabler, but when it becomes excessively complex or even fails, it becomes the barrier, halting operations and growth in its tracks. Software quality assurance is one of the answers. Working smarter, not harder.

Dr Martyn Jeffries is Head of Automotive Solutions at SQS.

1 SMMT, 2014
2 Automotive Council UK, Growing the Automotive Supply Chain: 2014
3 Lloyds Bank, Automotive – Fuelling Growth: 2014
4 ABI Research, August 2014
5 Automotive Management, February 2015