Co-founder and past vice president of the North East Automotive Alliance, (NEAA) Mike Matthews MBE, has been appointed as the chair of the new NEAA Digitalisation Working Group.

The Group has been established to drive a collaborative approach to achieving the highest possible standards of digitisation and business sustainability in the North East automotive sector.

Members of the Group – Adient, Kasai, Marelli, NBT Group, Nissan and Unipres – have undergone the industry-leading Digital Maturity Assessment (DMA) from Hitachi Vantara to assess their digital status and have a clear understanding of their digital transformation path towards a factory of the future.

Formerly the managing director at Nifco UK, Mike has written a paper for Sunderland University on Advanced Manufacturing and subsequently engaged with Hitachi Vantara, one of the world’s leading digital solutions providers. Over the past three years he has supported and lead a series of major digitization and productivity improvement programmes to assist in the digitisation of manufacturing in the North East.

Mike said: “I was delighted to be asked to Chair the NEAA Digitisation Working Group – something which I am very passionate about. They say you are never too old to learn and three years ago I became involved and lead a series of programmes focussed on a foundation to achieve Industry 4.0 capable status.

“Having travelled locally, nationally and globally, I recognised the massive difference in results in digitally capable businesses compared with those who were not. It was obvious that companies embracing digital had moved on to next level standards of excellence in productivity. Those that hadn’t were getting left behind and eventually, in my view, would struggle to compete. China, India, the US and certain sectors in Europe, were all embracing digital, and the results were becoming obvious to see.

“Digital really does achieve its greatest results when it sits on a foundation of great manufacturing practices, great maintenance, great equipment, great skills, great engineering and great attitudes, something we have in abundance here in the North East and I am keen to explore this with NEAA member companies.”

To develop a baseline, members of the NEAA Digitalisation Group took part in the assessment, which comprised a comprehensive review of 29 digital dimensions. Each company received an individual report outlining their current readiness to adopt digital technologies, followed by a 1-2-1 session with Hitachi to further help them understand their next steps and key priorities.

The benchmark reports will be used by the NEAA to identify best practice and knowledge sharing, identify themes for workshops to address gaps in knowledge, prioritise shared efficiency improvement opportunities and identify common use-cases to support and evidence funding bids.

From the findings, four common areas of opportunity were identified from across the group, logistics and material handling, predictive maintenance, energy and performance and planning.

Given the increasing energy prices, the group agreed energy was the immediate priority. Marelli agreed to test the follow-on Hitachi Manufacturing Insights methodology, to understand current and future data sources, sensor requirements and an assessment of company IT infrastructure to ensure it will meet the future demands of a more connected factory.

Trevor Metcalfe, plant manager from Marelli, said: “The ability to fully understand energy usage at the asset level has the potential to generate clear focus areas related to energy usage reduction. The digitisation of our data capture combined with connectivity through our process stakeholders, will enhance our waste identification and contribute to our continuous improvement ethos.”

Paul Butler, CEO of the North East Automotive Alliance, said: “The North East automotive sector is a beacon of productivity, we have one of the most effective workforces, where pre-covid we were producing more than double the European average of finished vehicles per employee and we are also highly automated. These factors, combined with our focus on continuous improvement and operational excellence, puts us in a prime position to benefit from digital technologies.

“This activity is part of a wider NEAA goal to support member companies in the area of industrial digitisation. The NEAA has been actively engaged with the national Made Smarter initiative and, in partnership with Sunderland City Council, will deliver the Next Generation Advanced Manufacturing Accelerator (N-GAMA) programme, a European Regional Development Funded (ERDF) project, to support advanced manufacturing businesses within the North East Local Enterprise Partnership area in their adoption of digital technologies.

“Our aim is to drive longer term ambitions of a factory of the future, where plants are connected, and factories are data-rich with fully integrated, transparent supply chains and highly automated, smart machinery, which can self-diagnose and quickly adapt to change.”