Commercialising new technology is rarely straightforward. And finding an effective way to help fledgling engineering firms safely cross the so-called commercial “valley of death” is a major obsession for industrial economies all over the world.
The UK is no exception. And while initiatives such as the government’s catapult centres are helping, there are still major concerns over UK firms’ longer-term ability to retain ownership of their technology and become a meaningful part of the supply chain.
It’s a problem that has been particularly acute in the UK’s automotive sector, where a widely reported hollowing out of the supply chain has occurred over the past two decades and where a new initiative to help small firms scale up and industrialise innovative propulsion technologies is hoped to make a difference.
Launched last month by business secretary Vince Cable, The Proving Factory – which is jointly run by engineering consultancy Productiv and Tata Steel – has been set up to help small technology firms establish production processes and demonstrate to potential customers that not only do they have interesting technology, but they’ve also got what it takes to become part of the supply chain.
’To get an OEM to commit to putting my technology into a product and putting it onto a vehicle, I need a big factory. But I can’t raise the money to do the development and build a factory until I’ve got the order. And I can’t get the order until I’ve got the factory.
Richard Bruges, CEO, Proving Factory
The team behind the £22m centre – which has been established with funding from both the private sector and the government’s Advanced Manufacturing Supply Chain Initiative (AMSCI) – hopes it will provide a steady pipeline of new technologies to support the UK’s booming automotive sector, as well as to help reverse the aforementioned ‘hollowing out’ of the supply chain.
Talking to The Engineer at the launch of The Proving Factory’s Coventry assembly facility, chief executive officer Richard Bruges explained that young technology companies looking to get a foothold in the automotive sector frequently face a frustrating catch-22: “To get an OEM to commit to putting my technology into a product and putting it onto a vehicle platform, I need to demonstrate that I’ve got the capacity to deliver that, which means I need a big factory. But I can’t raise the money to do the development and build a factory until I’ve got the order. And I can’t get the order until I’ve got the factory.’
The centre has been set up to get past this stumbling block, and, as Bruges put it, “to help take exciting technologies from 12 blokes in a shed to a high-volume production solution”.
“We’ve created a pipeline into which you can put multiple technologies that will come out of the other end into high-volume production,” he continued. “‘Show me your factory’ is what this is all about.”
Companies working with the organisation will receive help putting their technology into production and then support during the process of setting up their own production facilities.
The facility is structured to be able to take on up to 20 technologies at any one time, and to be able to manufacture a total of around 200,000 units per year.
At the heart of this is a rigorous stage-gate process of the kind that would be found at any major OEM. “At predefined moments, you review an entire set of criteria – in our case a list of 27 deliverable items – and you have to have got them to a certain stage of readiness before you can move to the next stage,” said Bruges.
Dave Latimer, chief executive officer of Magnomatics (one of the companies working with The Proving Factory) confirmed that this is a critically important step for smaller companies looking to engage with large OEMs. “We’re currently supplying prototypes to OEMs for evaluation, but as soon you want to go from advanced engineering projects to something that is closer to market. Effectively they have a gated process and one of the boxes they have to tick is how is this going to get manufactured in high volume? It doesn’t matter how many exciting powerpoints you’ve got; if you haven’t got the factory, you don’t go through the gate.”
So far, nine technologies have gone through the development stages. As well as Magnomatics, The Proving Factory is also working with liquid-nitrogen engine pioneer Dearman Engine Company and Bladon Jets (see box), which has received a large order to supply a gen-set based on its micro gas turbine technology to a mobile-phone mast operator in Africa.
The early signs are promising. Bladon Jets has already received an order for 10,000 units, Magnomatics is confident that it will soon follow and, as this issue of The Engineer went to press, Bruges confirmed that the facility had been awarded a further development programme with a major automotive OEM.
For Bruges, these early signs are a vindication of a lot of hard work, and he’s hugely optimistic about what the future will hold.
“We’re just one of many initiatives that are going on in the UK that are really genuinely rebuilding our high-value manufacturing base. We don’t need to be a high-volume manufacturer anymore, but we really do need to do high-value stuff, because we’re really good at inventing things. We’ve been less good at getting them to market… but we now have the infrastructure in place to do that.”
In the longer term, Bruges hopes the current centre will become one of three or four proving factories. “The problem exists everywhere in many different markets,” he said. “We see an opportunity in several other areas: electronics, battery systems and possibly in composites or advanced materials.”
Magnomatics’ gears may soon be embraced by automotive firms
Sheffield-based magnetic gear developer Magnomatics has high hopes that, thanks to The Proving Factory, its innovative technology – already used by the oil and gas sector – could soon be embraced by the automotive industry.
The firm’s core technology is a magnetic gear that uses permanent magnets to transmit torque between an input and output shaft without mechanical contact. CEO Dave Latimer likens it to an epicyclic gear but with no moving parts and says it has a number of promising applications as a power split device for the automotive sector.
The firm is working with automotive OEMs that are evaluating the technology and looking at putting it into applications.
Latimer hopes the relationship with The Proving Factory will help take the technology to the next level: “The Proving Factory ticks a box. As soon as you start talking to these guys they say ‘where is it going to be made?’. We use The Proving Factory as part of our sales pitch.’
Bladon Jets’ portable gen-set is to be used to supply power to mobile-phone masts in the developing world
Following an order for thousands of units from a customer in Africa, micro-gas turbine developer Bladon Jets looks set to be The Proving Factory’s first success story.
The company first grabbed headlines at the 2010 Paris motor show when its diminutive jet engines appeared as part of a hybrid powertrain on Jaguar’s C-X75 concept car.
But while the company is continuing to explore automotive applications, the current order is for a portable gen-set that will be used to supply power to mobile-phone masts in the developing world.
Bladon Jets director Philip Lelliot said that the technology has a number of distinct advantages for this application, including its compactness and, thanks to its continuous burn cycle, relatively low emissions.
He added that the power units are also able to burn any type of fuel – a key advantage in the developing world where fuel can often be adulterated.
Bladon Jets is currently working with The Proving Factory on the assembly of six devices that will soon go out to field trials. Shortly after that, the company will ramp up to series production, and plans to produce 10,000 units for the customer in the first year.