6 May 2019

Swiss technology - small but beautifully formed

I was in Switzerland last week, on a fascinating visit designed to showcase Swiss expertise in motorsports and excellence in innovation. Entitled Swiss performance engineering, the Ambassador of Switzerland to the UK, Alexandre Fasel, accompanied myself and a small group of journalists and industry experts from the UK and he proved to be extraordinarily well-informed on motorsport technology and its related businesses in Switzerland, the UK and indeed the whole world. Fasel led a symposium which included some leading lights from the UK’s motorsport region, in the Midlands of the country, and some influential figures in Swiss motorsport technology.

Several things struck me about the visit, which included excellent presentations by university technology departments, motorsport and general automotive suppliers and, the icing on the cake, an exclusive and in-depth tour of Sauber Group’s Formula 1 factory where I saw more usually secret racing technology than at any other visit to a race team’s headquarters.

Switzerland truly does punch above its weight in many areas; its educational system is an impressive model that many countries could do well to emulate. Almost no children leave school without taking up further education or an apprenticeship and a university education costs the pupil just $1,200 to $3,000 per year. Switzerland has an overwhelmingly private sector economy and low tax rates by Western World standards; overall taxation is one of the smallest of developed countries and unemployment runs at about 2%, all of which might make one wonder: how they do it?

The insight we gained on the visit explained this in some ways; an extraordinarily independent outlook to innovation and technology was one of the themes that emerged at every stop in our tour. Swiss engineering and technology students appeared to show great determination in solving seemingly insurmountable challenges; at the Hyperloop project, the young engineers in the École Polytechnic Fédérale de Lausanne showed me the proprietary electric motor they used in their SpaceX competition entry in 2018 and said that while it was powerful enough to win them third place ahead of Stanford, Georgia Tech and Tsinghua universities, they were making their own motor for this year’s entry.

Switzerland may not be the cheapest place to design, innovate and manufacture automotive mainstream products and the executives and technical experts I talked to were very clear that the country’s prowess was best employed in more specialised fields than mainstream vehicle component making. With the ever-increasing speed of EV and new material development, Switzerland has an enormous wealth of knowledge and expertise to offer tomorrow’s mobility challenges.

Simon Duval Smith

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