Have idea, will travel

5 min read

The five finalists in Fiat’s £50,000 competition for the best fun mode of transport combined their personal hobby-horses with innovative design, says Stuart Nathan who was one of the judges

It is not every day that you get the chance to give an engineer £50,000. So when Fiat offered this award to the designer of a ’fun mode of transport’, and invited The Engineer to take part in the judging, we jumped at the chance.

The prize money — which, to put it into perspective, is twice the amount that Boris Johnson is putting up for the competition to design a new London bus — is enough to provide seed capital to set up a business and a spur for further investment.

In these days of credit crisis, it’s even more valuable. So, with the UK’s reputation as a nation of innovators on the line, what could we come up with?

The finalists, most of whom had a background in industrial design, spanned an impressive array of engineering with their entries.

Stephen Spong, a 23-year-old product designer with a degree in 3D design, developed his long-standing enthusiasm for skateboarding into a device called the Longbow — an upward-curving, flexible board whose front wheels are connected by a cable to a spring-powered rack-and-pinion gear. When the rider bounces down on the board the spring is compressed and as its energy is released, the board glides forward.

Starting off as a student project, the Longbow progressed through eight prototypes — all hand-built and tested by Spong — before arriving at the final prototype. ’I need to reduce the weight and height of the gearing system, and find some way to make the spring internal, rather than having it sticking out the back,’ he said.

Spong also has a business plan for his design, involving experimentation with wheel sizes and gear ratios, then developing polymer, rather than metal, components for the mechanical parts to reduce weight. He also appreciates the cost of tooling, and is investigating possible production sites in Asia; like all the finalists, he is sceptical about the prospects of manufacturing in the UK.

Simon Tarrant, head of design and technology at Winchester College and a civil engineering graduate, also used his interests in designing the road-going rowing machine he called Streetrower. A competitive rower at the time, he was training on static rowing machines and cycling, and he thought it would be more effective to combine the two, with the freedom of the bike and the full-body workout of rowing.

Developed over seven years, the Streetrower uses mostly bicycle technology. The frame, a stretched hexagon of aluminium with two wheels at the front and one at the back, has the rider facing forward on a fixed seat with his or her feet clipped on to a bar that can move backwards and forwards. This is linked, via a long bicycle chain, to one side of a ’flip-flop’ hub from a BMX bike. The other side of the hub is linked, via another chain, to a sprocket, which is turned by the action of the pull-bar. The rear wheel runs through three-speed hub gears, again from a bicycle. When rowing, both the rider’s hands and feet move backwards and forwards.

’It’s a very efficient way to transfer your energy into propulsion,’ said Tarrant. ’Because both movements are powering you, you don’t slow down during the recovery phase of the rowing; you just glide forwards smoothly.’

Tarrant claims the Streetrower will move at up to 25mph, although the low seating position caused we judges some concern; an element of daring would be needed to ride it on a busy road, we thought.

The machine is steered by wire, using an electronic system that pivots the front wheels at a slow or a fast rate. Part of Tarrant’s future plans includes patenting a mechanical alternative for this, which he believes consumers would be more likely to accept. He has already had commercial interest in the design from, among others, the MoD, which is assessing the Streetrower for Army fitness training.

Going from body power to electric power, Harley Zblewski put a great deal of ingenuity into his folding three-wheeled ’suitcase car’. With a degree in transport and product design, he has been inventing from a young age. He devised the tilt-steering system for the suitcase car — which is ridden in a recumbent position and steered by leaning towards the direction you want to turn, with the movement transmitted to the two front wheels via footpegs — when he was in his teens.

The vehicle folds up into a portable suitcase size — more like an upended travelling trunk — and can double up as a seat. ’I brought it to the judging session on the train,’ said Zblewski, ’and there weren’t any seats, so I did end up having to sit on it. So it really does work.’

Zblewski’s prototype was built from cannibalised bicycle parts for most of its mechanics, but the body shape follows the elegant curves of bones and trees. ’I was thinking about the urban jungle and organic influences, which led me to think about the overall shape and look. but the basic concept of a trike is from designs I made much earlier,’ he said.

The youngest entrant, who has just graduated from a product design course at Cardiff University, was Natalie Daghestani, whose Hylo ’commuter shoe’ aims to solve women’s style choices by using a shape-memory alloy to convert it from a high heel to a flat sole. The design, only in development for a few months, compared with the better part of a decade for some of the other finalists, was hampered by the lack of a working prototype, which Daghestani says she is anxious to correct.

But the winner, by the narrowest of margins, was Nick Rawcliffe, whose invention, a set of BMX-style handlebars that attaches to a snowboard, at first seems to have little engineering in it. A mechanical engineer by training and with a Master’s in design from the Royal College of Art, Rawcliffe is a keen winter sportsman and is also a freestyle motocross rider. His Snowbone design allows snowboarders to do a range of previously-impossible tricks and stunts, because their feet are not attached to the board.

Combinations of skis and BMX bikes already exist, but they are bulky and difficult to transport, said Rawcliffe. ’What’s different about this is that it attaches directly to a standard snowboard — you take the footbindings off and it attaches to the same fixing holes.’ The handlebars and fixing bar also fold flat, allowing the Snowbone to be tucked into a bag with the snowboard. ’It’s potentially a whole new winter sport, and because it makes the board easy to step on and off while you hold on with your hands, it can also be used to teach snowboarding techniques,’ he said.

The Snowbone is made from aluminium tubing and a standard set of BMX handlebars. ’I’ve stripped the design down to the basic essential elements that can withstand the forces it experiences during riding,’ said Rawcliffe, ’and the other components and fixings are standard. That means it should be easy to make pretty much anywhere, without any need for specialist tooling.’

Snowbone has had a rough ride with funding — Rawcliffe pitched it to the first series of the BBC’s Dragon’s Den and won funding from one of the judges, whose own business subsequently collapsed, taking Snowbone’s funding with it. Shocked by his £50,000 cheque, Rawcliffe said he plans to launch Snowbone for next year’s winter sports season, and aims to have it included in the 2018 winter extreme sports event, the X-Games.

So, innovation was not lacking. But the other necessary ingredient for this type of technology is entrepreneurship, and fellow judge Andrew Humberstone, Fiat UK managing director, said some competition entries had been worryingly short of this. ’Some of [the entrants] seemed to have never heard of a business plan and didn’t know anything about market share,’ he said.

Pledging advice for all the finalists, whose innovation and creativity he praised, Humberstone stressed the need for engineers to have a firm idea of the commercial aspects of their designs. ’I really believe that the spirit of British innovation lives on,’ he said, but added that it has to be tempered by realism.