Celebrating 40 years of WMG – from autonomous vehicle testing to digital healthcare

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An academic department at the University of Warwick is celebrating 40 successful years of driving manufacturing enterprise and entrepreneurship. The Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG) was started by  the late Professor Lord Bhattacharyya.

While Professor Lord Bhattacharyya sadly passed away on the 1st March 2019, the University has paid tribute to his long and accomplished career in engineering and manufacturing.

Margot James with the late Professor Lord BhattacharryaProfessor Lord Bhattacharyya began with his studies in Mechanical Engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology in Kharagpur, before he moved to the UK to further his studies. After working at the University of Birmingham he was persuaded by the then Vice Chancellor at Warwick, Lord Butterworth, to move to the University of Warwick where he started WMG.

Over the years he went on to become a Government adviser to Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat Industry Ministers and Prime Ministers.

More than any other individual in a generation Professor Lord Bhattacharyya fought tooth and nail for British manufacturing, helped arrest its decline from 30 per cent of GDP in the mid 20th century to its current 10 per cent.

 

Margot James with the Late Professor Lord Bhattacharyya in 2016

He was instrumental in many large scale inward investments in the United Kingdom, including the Tata acquisition of Corus and the resurgence of Jaguar Land Rover in 2008, encouraging and succeeding in persuading Tata Motors to buy the business when private equity companies were circling and the total breakup of a once-great business threatened.

Professor Lord Bhattacharyya founded the Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG), insisting that graduates with engineering skills alone were not going to save Britain’s blushes in the field of global manufacturing, what was needed was strong management and associated skills to help the sector regain lost ground. WMG is now the largest single organisation dealing in the multi-disciplinary facets of manufacturing developments has been a beacon of manufacturing, research & development and business education for 40 years.

WMG had two objectives: to bridge the gap (at times more like a chasm) between academia and British industry, and encourage companies to think long, not short term, by investing in skills, research and development.

At the beginning, it seemed a titanic task. Britain in the late 1970s was a miserably dark place: strikes, blackouts, plummeting productivity and the three-day week. The unions held the country in a stranglehold; many of our industries were nationalised (the only way to stop unemployment going through the roof), but Government didn’t have money left to invest. The skills base was dropping as traditional apprenticeships died away and anyway, young people didn’t want to go into industry when they saw their parents’ jobs disappearing, and manufacturing business after business went to the wall.

However bad the perception of British workers came from abroad, however, Lord Bhattacharyya was convinced the capability was here. In an interview with Nicky Godding, now Editor of Business & Innovation Magazine, in 2015, he said: “I had the impression all along that the strikes were due to a few bolshie people, and actually the situation was mostly down to bad management. The gulf between workers and managers was huge. When they became managers they got a company car and forgot about the products the company was making.”

Kumar Bhattacharyya arrived in England from Indiain 1961 with an engineering degree from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharangpur, one of India’s top technological research hubs, having secured a two-year apprenticeship with Lucas Industries, then one of the biggest engineering companies in the UK. The company quickly offered him the opportunity to do a Masters degree, at the time only undertaken by around 5% of graduates, and then a doctorate.

He gained his Professorship at the University of Warwick, but instead of a comfortable career lecturing and writing erudite papers on engineering and manufacturing, he seized the sector by the throat, and has spent his professional career sorting it out.

He could have gone to America, he was head hunted, but luckily for Britain, he loved his job and where he lived. “I was working in the automotive and aerospace sector and the Midlands was a hotbed.”

Very Light Rail chassis at WMGAt that time industry and academia were poles apart but the Midlands, the home of British industry, should have been thriving. “I travelled to Japan and the States many times to understand how they did things and began to implement them here. We introduced an integrated graduate programme. Most universities offer MBAs, but a simple MBA doesn’t give enough detailed knowledge of the manufacturing sector to drive it forward. To make a car you’ve got to design it, understand the technology, how it needs to be made and all the tier one, two and three suppliers. You need symbiotic relationships between industry and the researchers.”

By this time he was advising the Government, pointing out that while British workers were out on strike, Germany and Japan were re–equipping. “Our management expertise wasn’t there. They didn’t understand how technology was progressing and the market was changing. You have to invest long term. When I was in industry and asking for equipment, investors wanted their money back in one or two years. If you want to make world-class products, it takes time. Short termism was a huge problem. It still is.”

The frame of the Coventry Very Light Rail system with:
Cllr Jim O’Boyle, Cabinet Member for Jobs and Regeneration, CCC,
James Kempston, CEO, NP Aerospace,
Rupert Symons, Director, TDI, Dr James Meredith, VLR project manager, WMG

WMG was instrumental in building foundations for the future of the industry, training senior people from the aerospace and automotive companies in management, putting the skills base back into companies and slowly, slowly building British manufacturing back up as the country’s economy began to improve. “I wasn’t a particular fan of Mrs Thatcher but she was a pragmatist and realised that the lack of skills were a big part of the problem.

“Take a car or aero engine. These are enormously complex and you need the intellectual chutzpah to make world-class products. In the 70s, 80s and even 90s every other car was a Japanese car and the contrast between a Japanese and British car was enormous.”

How, after Britain led the world’s industrial revolution in the mid 19th century, had it come to this? “We had forgotten that industry needs discipline and sheer attention to detail. We’d also ignored what was going on outside this country.”

It took him about three decades and much of his working life, but Professor Lord Bhattacharyya could rightly claim that the money invested in WMG was money well spent. “Our intellectual fearlessness is second to none and if you visit some of our universities and see what they are doing, it is amazing.  We have arrested the decline and we now need to progress.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vice Chancellor of the University of Warwick, Professor Stuart Croft said: “I’m sure I speak for the whole Warwick community when I say how fantastic it is to see how Professor Lord Bhattacharyya’s vision for WMG has flourished to become not only an exceptional part of our University but also our whole region, by connecting engineering and manufacturing industries with academia.”

The new Executive Chair for WMG is Margot James, who was appointed in April 2020, comments on the achievements so far and plans for the future of WMG.

“We operate on a huge scale today but our mission and vision is the same it was on that first autumn morning. The challenges we are addressing now are different to those of 40 years ago; the need for a zero carbon industry is at the forefront of so much of our work. Our experience and expertise have never been more relevant and vital.”

“Whether educating the next generation of engineers or developing the technologies that will change our world, the challenges we embrace today will shape the next chapter of the WMG story. We have the creativity, the insight, and most of all, the people to make the next 40 years of WMG even more exciting and impactful as we build a smarter, greener, cleaner and healthier world.”