Friday, January 27, 2023

The British Motor Industry and Semiconductors

Exploring the story of the motor industry since WW2, its forthcoming demise was never far from the conversation. Equally, digging into the history of semiconductor manufacturers, the possibility of the UK not being relatively self sufficient is an ever present agony.

In the sixties, the Ryder report had this to say: '‘vehicle production is the kind of industry which ought to remain an essential part of the UK's economic base. We believe, therefore, that BL should remain a major vehicle producer, although this means that urgent action must be taken to remedy the weaknesses which at present prevent it from competing effectively in world markets.’ The subsequent story is a catalogue of errors. 

In the seventies, the British government backed the formation of Inmos to manufacture semiconductors. It had already tried but failed to encourage collaboration amongst British manufacturers. Inmos failed but was bailed out by Thorn EMI which was in effect destroyed by the liabilities which Inmos brought with it. Semiconductors are now everywhere. The image is of sim cards being sold at the refugee camp on Lesvos where we volunteered in early 2016. There is a helpful review of the British semiconductor industry in Electronics Weekly from 2010.

The British motor industry is currently successful and a major employer. Concerns over semiconductor supply and the absence of a battery manufacturer could spell its end. So, what is the answer?

The motor industry is based here but owned elsewhere. Semiconductor manufacture could follow suit. Companies like ARM do the intellectual work that goes inside the chip, but the mechanics of placing that on a chip of silicone is done in Taiwan. This is right viewed as too risky a supply chain. Britain has not the financial resource to go it alone. The USA is politically too risky to be a partner. The answer surely is European collaboration. 

But have we burnt that boat?



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