Skip to main content Skip to navigation

Obituary of Professor Lord Bhattacharyya Kt, CBE, FRS, FREng, Regius Professor of Manufacturing

PROFESSOR LORD KUMAR BHATTACHARYYA Kt, CBE, FRS, FREng, Regius Professor of Manufacturing
6th JUNE 1940 – 1st MARCH 2019

Early Years
Professor Lord Bhattacharyya’s long and highly accomplished career in engineering and manufacturing began with his studies in Mechanical Engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology in Kharagpur. He was awarded his Bachelor of Technology (BTech) degree by Kharagpur in 1960.

In 1961 he came to the UK to serve a six year graduate apprenticeship at Lucas Industries. This was followed by further studies and research at the University of Birmingham earning him a Master of Science (MSc) degree in engineering production and management, followed by a PhD in engineering production in 1970.

Lucas and the University of Birmingham clearly saw something special as he was quickly awarded a Lucas Fellowship at Birmingham. However, his acumen and ability soon became known to a great many other people. This included Lord (then just plain Jack) Butterworth who in 1980 persuaded him to move to the University of Warwick to found and lead what was to become WMG (formerly Warwick Manufacturing Group).

The range of people seeing something special in Kumar was not confined to his professional life, in 1981 he married Brigid Carmel Rabbitt, known to all as Bridie and together they set about restoring their home.

Just a few short years after WMG’s foundation the leadership of the embattled Austin Rover group, at British Leyland, turned to Lord Bhattacharyya and his new team for advice on adapting and innovating automotive design and professional development.

Adviser to governments
Lord Bhattacharyya’s success with Austin Rover quickly caught the attention of Sir Keith Joseph, Mrs Thatcher’s first Secretary of State for Industry. In very little time Kumar found himself being introduced by Sir Keith to the then Prime Minister who welcomed him with the words “Kumar, we have just been in a Cabinet meeting discussing your work”.

Thus began four decades in which his advice on manufacturing and technology was actively sought and welcomed by a succession of Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat Industry Ministers and Prime Ministers; and many key leaders and business figures in Coventry, Birmingham, the West Midlands and Warwickshire. Lord Bhattacharyya’s passion for research, technology, engineering and manufacturing transcended merely partisan affiliation, allowing him to form alliances with advocates for industry and innovation of all political shades.

His advice was also sought far beyond Britain by many other international policy makers including political leaders in both India and China, Lord Bhattacharyya was in regular contact with researchers and business leaders, offering counsel and building relationships with those who were to become key figures in India and China’s rapid economic and innovation growth. He also served as a scientific adviser to the Government of South Africa, a Malaysian Prime Minister and several Singaporean research and higher education organisations. WMG itself also expanded internationally, opening centres in Hong Kong, China, India, Thailand, Singapore, North Cyprus, Turkey and Malaysia.

Growth of WMG
WMG continued to rapidly grow and 1990 saw the opening, by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, of its new Advanced Technology Centre with support from Rover and Rolls Royce. The 1990s saw WMG running the largest Business Management programme in Europe, building the International Manufacturing Centre (which was twice visited by Tony Blair), training around 1,500 management students and developing research programmes and partnerships with global giants such as: Astra-Zeneca, Rolls-Royce and Petronas and British manufacturers such as Short Brothers (now Bombardier), Lucas and Rover.

Awards and Honours
In 1998, Lord Bhattacharyya’s many achievements were honoured with a CBE, which was followed in 2003 by a knighthood, and in 2004 by a peerage. India awarded him the Padma Bhusan in 2002. In 2015 he was made Honorary Freeman of the City of Coventry in recognition of his impact on the City. In 2017 he was bestowed with the Great Wall Friendship Award, from Beijing Municipal Government, and Chinese Government Friendship Award - the premier national award to a non-Chinese National.

These global awards presented by a range of political leaders were matched by accolades from academia. In 2014, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS). He is also a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering. Several other prestigious professional bodies have awarded him fellowships and a great many other universities have awarded him honorary degrees and medals. In 2016 WMG was awarded a Regius Professorship by the Queen’s Royal Warrant and Lord Bhattacharyya became Regius Professor of Manufacturing (Engineering).

Sitting in the House of Lords, as a Labour peer, Lord Bhattacharyya was a highly regarded expert on manufacturing, technology and training. He was a strong advocate of an effective industrial strategy, seeking a revitalisation of skills policy, a growth in apprenticeships, a focus on the impact of research and training and technology partnerships between industry and universities. He was a leading force in the creation of the Technology Strategy Board in 2007, which established a new mechanism for the funding of industrially relevant research at universities. He later sat on the Nurse review of the Research Councils.

Innovations in education and research
In recent years, the need for industrial renewal led WMG’s engineering education to extended far beyond the University of Warwick main campus. Lord Bhattacharyya was passionate about technical education and saw the value in providing school children with the opportunity to develop skills by working directly with business and industry, leading to WMG sponsoring two University Technical Colleges for Young Engineers in Coventry and Solihull.

The range of business knowledge Lord Bhattacharyya had developed led him to play a leading role in encouraging inward investment into the UK. Most notably, he played a key behind the scenes role in persuading Tata to invest in British manufacturing, taking Mr Ratan Tata personally on a tour of the Midlands automotive suppliers to show the depth of skills, innovation and knowledge which the Indian automotive sector could draw on. Tata’s subsequent investment was to transform the fortunes of Jaguar Land Rover, create an array of research and training partnerships between Jaguar Land Rover and WMG, bring new technologies and investment to the UK steel industry, and create the Tata Motors European Technical Centre alongside WMG on the University of Warwick campus in 2005.

The respect he was held in by industry leaders was perhaps a reflection of his decades long role as mentor and adviser to former colleagues and students. Whether at global corporates like Tata, Jaguar Land Rover, TVS and TAFE, the hundreds of SMEs helped and supported by WMG, or university researchers in fields as diverse as lightweight materials to the implementation of automotive battery technology, Professor Lord Bhattacharyya was always willing to offer his support, his contacts, his guidance and, perhaps most importantly, his unstinting encouragement. As a result, generations of engineers, managers and politicians would seek his counsel.

Lord Bhattacharyya was also quick to understand the value digital technologies could bring to manufacturing technologies but also the impact the same technology in healthcare, cyber security and supply chains. That thinking then literally became concrete when Prime Minister Gordon Brown laid the foundation of the WMG’s new International Digital Laboratory in May 2007 visiting the building again in 2009. Most recently, WMG has been invited to develop the new UK Battery Industrialisation Centre, the scale up stage of the Faraday Battery Challenge of the national Industrial Strategy.

Legacies
Some of the most obvious legacies of his long and distinguished career include the following: the new £150 million National Automotive Innovation Centre now housed in the largest building on campus, fittingly now named the Prof. Lord Bhattacharyya Building; his work to bring industry and academia together to promote and enhance Coventry as a Smart Motor City was also recently recognised when Coventry City Council’s leadership worked with the University of Warwick to implement the Council’s wish to name the road that passes in front of the Prof. Lord Bhattacharyya Building as Lord Bhattacharyya Way.

In 2010 he made one of the largest ever personal donations (over a million pounds) to a UK University by a serving member of academic staff. His gift to Warwick created a fund “to support the stimulation and facilitation of research of the highest quality”.

However, after his family, his greatest legacy will be in the many other lives he has touched: through every manufacturing and technology based job he has helped preserve or create; every undergraduate, master’s student and researcher who benefited from the teaching and research opportunities he built; every policy maker and industrialist who benefited from his wisdom and guidance; and every colleague across WMG, the wider University of Warwick, and global academia who have marvelled at and built on his succession of accomplishments and the work of WMG.