In many respects, YASA is one of British manufacturing’s biggest success stories: in under 10 years, the company has gone from a standing start to a new, world-class factory, and can boast clients including some of the world’s leading manufacturers in the automotive and industrial sectors.
The brainchild of Tim Woolmer, who developed the product from which the company was born while doing a PhD at Oxford University, YASA is at the cutting edge of electric motor technology. In February the company opened a brand new factory on the outskirts of Oxford, which will bring 150 new jobs to the area and has the capacity to manufacture 100,000 units per year – 80% of which are destined for export abroad.
The company’s success is down to a number of factors, says chief executive, Chris Harris. “The original concept for our motors is so original,” he says. “Also, we’re not just a team of research engineers – we have a blend of all the skills needed to be successful. Finally, there’s the maturation of the markets. When I first joined the company, we weren’t focused on automotive – even seven years ago the electric vehicle (EV) market was very immature. We decided early on that we needed to look at a range of markets to de-risk the business.”
Harris says that a large part of YASA’s success has also been thanks to being “in the right place at the right time as the EV market took off”; however, this isn’t to say that luck outweighed judgement. “We had already reached the critical level of maturity to be able to work with the premium end of the automotive sector,” he explains. “By the time we signed our first
contract in that area, in 2016, we were well-established in the market.”
“Going abroad would be a massive shame”
Harris warns, however, that the current political uncertainty may ultimately hinder the firm’s domestic ambitions. “It’s vital to have a strong manufacturing industry in the UK,” he says. “What we’re looking to do at YASA is create a major global brand with products made in Britain. It would be a massive shame if, because of Brexit, we had to move manufacturing abroad. There is definitely a risk of that. I’ve spoken personally to [Business Secretary] Greg Clark about it, and he’s aware of the challenges.
“From a YASA perspective – and I’m sure this is true for most other manufacturers – we need frictionless, tariff-free trade, and the ability to recruit the best talent from all over the world. I’m hoping all that can be delivered in a post-Brexit world, but if it can’t, we’ll still survive; we would just have to build a factory in Eastern Europe. I can’t stop the economics, so if that’s what has to happen, then so be it, but I’m hopeful that we’ll reach a point where we can remain strongly manufacturing in the UK.”
Support has been vital
Losing a company like YASA to overseas would be a disappointing outcome, especially considering that the company has been supported by investment from government and Oxford University since its inception. The university, in particular, has bought shares in YASA at every opportunity. “Added to that, Innovate UK has helped us reach the point where we have actually become a net contributor to the economy,” he says. “Having had all that investment from government and other organisations, to lose all that – not to mention all the jobs – would be such a waste.”
The backing from institutions, says Harris, has been invaluable to YASA’s success. Government support, in particular, has helped the company grow. “Under all the different governments of the past decade, we’ve found that there has been the support available when we have needed it,” he says, encouraging other companies to apply for funding where needed. “It’s vital for highly technical, advanced companies like YASA to see that support, as it gives them the best possible chance of success.
“Often it can be difficult for companies to commit the time needed to apply for the support that’s out there,” he continues. “It’s not without its challenges, of course, but I do think the government, at least, make their support quite transparent and easy to understand. There can be a lot of demand on some of the schemes, so companies don’t necessarily always get exactly what they want, but in YASA’s case, at least, they have been materially helpful to our success.”
A changing landscape
For a cutting-edge company like YASA, research and development is extremely important. As the EV market continues to evolve, says Harris, it is vital that the company stays on top of the latest technologies. He says that there is one factor stopping electric vehicles from going fully mainstream: cost. “Battery cost is the primary thing holding EVs back,” says Harris. “In order to get mass adoption, that’s going to have to come down. Tier One companies and OEMs have a better grasp of the market than ever before, which means suppliers like us are looking to keep ahead of the rest and invest heavily in our own R&D.”
A lot of this progress comes direct from customers, says Harris, who encourages other manufacturers to follow suit. “Continuing to invest in R&D is critical to help maintain your relationship with your customers – both current and future,” he explains.
Harris is confident that, whatever the outcome of the Brexit negotiations, the UK can be a leader in EV technology. “Hybrid power is very expensive,” he explains. “The vehicles have both an electric motor and an internal combustion engine. That will, I think, encourage manufacturers to move towards pure electric power in due course. Its adoption will come down to cost, however: it has to be acceptable for mass-market appeal. A lot of what is going to control that is out of YASA’s control, but we all have to be aware of what the market is doing and make sure we are positioned correctly to take advantage of the opportunities as and when they arise.”
For YASA itself, the coming years will see the firm continue to grow into their new site. The target of 100,000 units per annum should see them through to a bright future – and one that Harris says some at the company can hardly believe.
“The biggest challenge for us is moving past the mind-set of being a start-up,” he says. “We have to see ourselves as what we really are: a totally reliable, high-quality, high-volume automotive supplier. We’re making good progress, but it’s still a challenge. It’s not so much about the technology or if the market wants it; it’s more about the execution.”
However, the real determiner of YASA’s long-term future, in the UK at least, will be the results of the Brexit negotiations. The company has made a significant investment in a new plant, a skilled workforce and the wider Oxford economy, and to see it wasted would be a tragedy for UK manufacturing.