McLaren Applied Technologies chief Geoff McGrath
Race for the fittest: A small division of McLaren aims to apply the company’s strengths in motorsport to a range of other applications.
Amid the glittering corridors, shining glass and the dazzling array of vintage racing cars at McLaren’s Woking headquarters, there’s one division that has very little to do with cars. Charged with taking McLaren’s edge on the circuit (and, more recently, the road) and using it in other sectors, McLaren Applied Technologies (MAT) aims to make the best use of the philosophy so respected in the pit lane. ’I want to surprise people with where we pop up,’ said managing director Geoff McGrath. ’The specialities we have here have applications in all sorts of areas.’
McGrath has taken a roundabout route into McLaren; motorsport is one of the few areas in which he hasn’t worked, although in some ways he sees his career as coming full circle. ’My PhD was in fluid mechanics, applied to gas-cooled reactors, and in that I used laser-doppler anenometry, which was fascinating because it taught me to work in wind tunnels and use lasers,’ he said. ’And that’s exactly what we use here to develop our cars - but I was working on early prototypes of the same systems in the 1980s.’
McGrath’s expertise has taken him into the process, chemical, aeronautical, nuclear and petroleum sectors, before a period working in the mobile internet field. ’And then I came right back into this place, which is highly skilled engineering technology, and still adapted quite well,’ he said. ’It’s a testament to how portable mechanical engineering can be.’
We have to be the best at whatever people do; we have to take people to a new level of performance
MAT has grown from a small core of people working on special projects within the company. The idea, McGrath said, is to look for ways in which McLaren’s particular strengths, forged on the Grand Prix circuit and in other areas of motorsport, can be applied to other areas. ’But this is McLaren, so everything we do here has to be the equivalent of winning. We have to be the best at whatever we do, we have to take people to a new level of performance and we have to be the first to do so.’
The most important area of expertise for MAT might seem to have little to do with the traditional strengths of a Formula One (F1) team. Rather than mechanics, computational fluid dynamics, composites or systems integration, the company mainly offers its expertise in telemetry and data management. ’We have great expertise on the team in real-time monitoring, which can be applied to any man-machine combination, not just racing cars,’ McGrath said. ’And what’s even more important than that is what you do with that data. Modelling and simulation are very powerful tools for our team, and they can be equally powerful in lots of other areas.’
McGrath is trying to expand the sectors in which MAT operates in a methodical way, starting with extending McLaren’s expertise to other motorsport teams, opening up the use of its simulator suite and human performance experts for both engineering design and driver training. ’We’ve moved cautiously from motorsport to elite and professional sport - primarily to test the technology out - and then into health and wellness,’ he said.
The sports relationship has been developed via a relationship with UK Sport on other events where the performance of an athlete is combined with some use of technology - cycling, rowing, canoeing or sailing - and in winter sports, with bobsleigh and skeleton. ’I couldn’t claim that I can make someone run faster,’ said McGrath, ’but where there’s a combination of man and machine or man and device we can answer the questions that the coach has, such as what’s the right level of power to get the burst from the start line? And how can we optimise the line of the race?’ The team can measure the performance of the athlete and the equipment using sensor technologies adapted from the F1 arena, then use that to build a model of the individual.
’We have done some work with players who don’t use equipment, such as the England rugby union squad,’ McGrath said. McLaren developed a system that could monitor the players’ vital signs in real time while they were training to give a picture of the load on their muscles and nerves.
With this experience, the company is now branching out further into the health and wellness sector, where the demands are similar to those in sport, but the way the systems would be used, and the regulatory demands, are very different. ’Again, we’re looking at monitoring vital signs and then analysing that data in a way that’s useful to the user, but our approach is to cement long-term strategic partnerships with customers who have access to the target market,’ he explained. ’We’re taking a technological approach to their problems, but it’s down to them to apply those solutions and launch them commercially.’
We have done work with player’s who don’t use equipment, such as the rugby union squad
One example is a partnership with GlaxoSmithKline to monitor patients on clinical trials, while another, with a GP practice in Norfolk, could point the way to home-based systems. The practice has its own gym, where patients who are prescribed exercise as part of a weight-loss or rehabilitation programme can be coached. ’We provided remote monitoring for those people so they could see how many calories they were using and what their heart rate was doing,’ McGrath said. ’They found it motivating because they could see their progress and the data went straight to the GPs so they could monitor compliance. It’s an early example of telehealth, but there’s still a long journey to make that a commercial product.’
Other areas where telemetry and simulation could be applied include transport and energy, he added. ’Basically anywhere you have a sensor network and a need to monitor it is a starting point. Then we can see if we can engineer a system around that, and a team to manage it.’ Such systems might involve managing the logistics of airport ground traffic or the workings of an oil and gas facility.
Self-belief isn’t in short supply at McLaren. ’We’re good at technology transfer, both in and out of motorsport, and we don’t need to go to a dinner in a black tie to talk about innovation,’ said McGrath. ’All we have to do is bring people in here. We’re a great example of how engineering can build a business and create jobs. That’s the bang-on message at the moment.’
Managing director, McLaren Applied Technologies
1987 BSC (Eng) in mechanical engineering, Queen Mary College (QMC), University of London
1991 PhD in fluid mechanics, QMC
2001 Diploma in management of technological innovation, Madrid University Polytechnic
1989 Lecturer in mechanical engineering, QMC
1992 Manager for consulting services, BHR Group
1995 Senior consultant, Petróleos de Venezuela
2000 Senior manager for strategic business development, Openwave Systems
2005 UK managing director, July Systems
2008 Vice-president for global market development, Acision
2009 Managing director, McLaren Applied Technologies
Q&A Britain’s got talent
Does MAT also apply McLaren’s engineering know-how?
Anybody who comes to McLaren as an engineer assumes that we pride ourselves on engineering and design. We’ve learned that our design techniques and philosophy are quite novel, and we tend to produce results that are as technically excellent as they are iconic in terms of the finish and finesse.
What sort of projects have you been involved in?
The two engineers who designed the skeleton bob that Amy Williams won a gold medal on in 2010 now work for McLaren and designed a new skeleton for the Junior Winter World Championships on which Lizzy Yarnold won gold in January. It’s great for us: we get two very talented individuals, funded by UK Sport, immerse them in a McLaren environment and watch the sparks fly.
Have there been other collaborations like that?
We started with a challenge from Specialized to reduce weight in its Venge road -bike frame. We’re set up for light weight, especially in carbon fibre, so we exceeded the target and shared manufacturing techniques - we went to the factory where the frame was built and worked with the people there.
So does that work like consultancy?
It’s not quite the same. Our work stops with design and support for manufacture - it’s up to Specialized to move on from that. But we consider it an ongoing relationship and that’s reflected in the revenues. There’s an ongoing stream of sharing in the value of what’s taken to market.
How far do you think motorsport can spread its influence in UK industry?
It depends; if it’s applying only racing technology it’s far more limited. The rate of generation of IP that’s applicable outside the racing world is probably not as fast as you’d think. Racing is a well-defined area and it’s a race of optimisation throughout the season, but that’s not a good arena to develop technology to do with health and other sports. You have to have a conscious eye to apply kernels of IP from racing that couldn’t come from anywhere else and marry that with technologies from outside. I think to position yourself as a purely race-tech company serving other areas is pretty limited.