Advanced Materials & Manufacturing
When it was announced that the new Aston Martin DBX would be built at St Athan, South Wales, nobody was more delighted than Tim Williams – chief executive of the Welsh Automotive Forum (WAF).
“It’s a real sign that Wales has grown up as an automotive manufacturing country,” he says. “The sector was already worth £3.2billion, with Ford and Toyota engine plants and a wealth of smaller, specialist companies. But the DBX is the first complete vehicle to be made in Wales. That’s a real seal of approval.”
Some of the credit for Aston Martin’s move to Wales must go to WAF. Both a lobby group and a membership organisation, it provides a ready-made network that companies can plug in to, even before they set up in Wales. “We’re the collective voice of the automotive industry here, representing its views and needs to government,” says Williams.
James Stephens, Aston Martin Lagonda’s director of global government and external affairs, says: “WAF was instrumental in helping us find our location in Wales. It does a great job of representing the automotive sector in Wales and it’s one of the most comprehensive bodies of its kind in the UK.
“Its links to the industry in Wales and to Welsh and UK government are brilliant, and it’s very well placed to promote the industry locally, nationally and internationally.”
WAF has more than 160 members, accounting for as many as 95% of firms in the Welsh automotive industry. “They’re not just manufacturers,” says Williams. “We’ve got lawyers, accountants, recruitment firms, plus automotive companies from outside Wales. I don’t think we’ve ever turned anybody down.”
EBS Automation, based at Llanelli in South West Wales, is a long-standing member of the Forum. Founded in 1993, it designs and manufactures special-purpose machines, and robot and automation systems used by the automotive industry. In recent years, it has expanded into other sectors, including pharmaceutical, medical and healthcare, white goods, food, and fuel cells.
“We joined WAF more than 20 years ago, because we’re part of the Welsh automotive industry and want to be seen as such,” says managing director Mike Evans. “We like its links with government and the contact with other companies when required. You can always pick up the phone and they always try to respond proactively. WAF makes us feel part of the wider automotive family in Wales.”
Publicising the benefits of locating an automotive business in Wales is a core mission of the Forum – as in 2018, when the Welsh Government announced a 10-year, £100million Tech Valleys programme aimed at attracting inward investment to the area around Ebbw Vale and Blaenau Gwent. “We’re the ‘broadcasters’ of initiatives like these,” says Williams. “It’s our job to answer the question ‘why Wales?’”
Another key WAF activity is imparting and sharing knowledge. In one of its initiatives, the Forum helped members access Toyota’s government-funded “lean management” programme, sharing the company’s successful methodology with its smaller brethren. “We actively encourage our members to improve their competitiveness, productivity, technology and skills,” he says.
Close links with universities in Wales enable WAF to help its members engage with academia, form partnerships and access university or government funding – such as the Astute programme, which unlocks substantial grants for new technology development.
WAF also has a strong role in promoting networking, whether it’s enabling plant managers from manufacturers to meet and discuss common issues, or running “meet the buyer” events to introduce SMEs to potential customers. “That’s why a lot of our members join, to open doors to people who’d be difficult to meet on their own,” says Williams. “Supply-chain development is very strong for us.”
James Stephens of Aston Martin Lagonda agrees. “WAF is a great opportunity for us to better understand what’s on our doorstep,” he says. “We don’t have the time or resources to dig deep into the supply chain in Wales, so joining WAF has given us a much better understanding of what the country has to offer.”
WAF is not the only industry forum doing great work in Wales. Aerospace Wales and the Electronic and Software Technologies Network perform a similar function for their respective industries. Together with WAF, they form the umbrella organisation Industry Wales, in which they often co-operate on matters of common interest.
To borrow a phrase from another Welsh success story – the resurgent national football team – it’s a case of “together, stronger”.