Dr Charles Tennant, of Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG), talks to Chris Arnot about engineering in Coventry and WMG’s contribution to its renaissance.
Dr Charles Tennant left his Coventry comprehensive at 16 with the words of his head teacher still ringing in his ears: ‘You’ll live to regret not staying on to do your A-levels.’ Nearly 30 years on, and the recipient of this sombre prediction has three degrees under his belt and is associate professor at Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG), an ever-expanding part of one of the country’s top universities which just happens to lie two miles up the road from where he went to school.
None of which could have been predicted back in 1978 when he took up an apprenticeship in precision engineering at what was then Matrix Machine Tools. ‘Get yourself a trade, lad, and you won’t go far wrong,’ his father had said, as fathers did in those days. Young Charles was following in the footsteps of his great-grandfather, the splendidly named Austin Huthwaite, who had been number two to the founder of the company when it was known as Coventry Gauge and Tool. So Dr Tennant is steeped in his native city’s engineering past. He also knows more than most about engineering’s present and is well placed to speculate about engineering’s future.
‘Ten years from now,’ he muses, ‘50 per cent of the world’s commuter vehicles will be running on some kind of alternative fuel. For the past 15 years, WMG has been working on the development of hybrids. They run on electricity in slow-moving traffic. Above 20 mph, the engine kicks in and charges up the electric motor in the process.’
And the past? Well, 100 years ago, when the motor industry was in its infancy, the workshops and sheds of Coventry resounded with the clatter of craftsmen going about their business. ‘It was craft production for the first 20 or 30 years,’ Dr Tennant points out. ‘Then came the era of mass production, followed by a period of lean production – higher productivity from smaller workforces. The cars that we produce in the UK today are at the luxury end of the market where the margins are big enough to absorb the labour costs. Look at a Land Rover and you might imagine that the parts were hand built. It’s almost as though, at the beginning of the 21st century, we’ve gone back to the quintessentially British heritage of the early part of the 20th.’
Cutting edge technology
That heritage, mind you, is underpinned by cutting edge technology that his greatgrandfather’s generation could never have imagined in their wildest dreams. The Premier Automotive Research and Development Programme at Warwick has helped to empower the UK engineering industry to compete internationally. ‘We have over 100 engineers working with the companies who supply the likes of Land Rover and Jaguar,’ says Dr Tennant. ‘While their research centres are developing world class vehicles, they need suppliers who can work at the same level.’
As a university, Warwick has the necessary neutrality to be able to draw together a complex web of interdependent companies. ‘We can help them to develop designs and concepts while making sure that innovations are tested with the appropriate rigour,’ Dr Tennant goes on. So while the closure of Peugeot’s Ryton plant was seen as the last nail in the coffin of mass car production in Coventry, the obituaries for the industry as a whole were premature, to put it mildly. In fact, the knowledge economy of the city and the surrounding region is booming. Indian and Chinese companies want to tap into that knowledge. Hence Warwick’s involvement in finding research and development facilities for Tata of Bombay. Tata can build cars in Pune and Lucknow far more cheaply than Peugeot could at Ryton. But its executives are anxious not to make the same mistakes as UK motor companies made in the 1960s and ’70s by ignoring the international competition. There are already 80 Tata employees based at Warwick Manufacturing Group. A full Tata R&D base in the UK would involve around 1,000 highly trained engineers.
Professor Lord Kumar Bhattacharyya, an Indian himself, founded WMG at a time when the British car industry was crying out for graduates capable of matching Japanese rigour of design and attention to detail. He took on Dr Tenant in 1999 and knew exactly what he was getting. By that time, Tennant had added to the Matrix apprenticeship an honours degree in engineering from Lanchester Polytechnic (now Coventry University) followed by a master’s and a doctorate from Warwick. ‘Coming here woke me up to the international competition and the need for technology to be properly managed,’ he reflects. He has himself managed two large departments for the Rover Group and helped to develop the Land Rover Discovery 3. Which only goes to show, perhaps, that head teachers aren’t always right.