Designing Bloodhound’s steering wheel

Cambridge Design Partnership’s Jez Clements, part of the team behind Bloodhound’s steering wheel, reflects on the luxury of designing for one. 

It weighs 7.5 tonnes and is powered by a jet engine and a rocket, which together will produce over 135,000 bhp – more than six times the power of all the Formula 1 cars on a starting grid put together. It has temperatures inside the rocket that reach 3,000°C – twice as hot as the inside of a volcano.

And when it’s screaming through the South African desert – in pursuit of 1,000 mph – Bloodhound SSC will be controlled from just one component – our steering wheel – designed for just one brave driver, Andy Green.

steering wheel

It’s an interesting contrast with our more typical product development projects, where we’re usually designing products to be used by millions of people in multiple markets. Although users differ hugely in age, physical size, strength and cognitive ability, they must all receive a safe, consistent and excellent experience to meet their specific needs.

To understand these diverse customer groups, we employ techniques like ethnographic research, human factors studies and statistical analysis. We then test design features, through prototyping, with representative user groups to validate our vision.

With the Bloodhound steering wheel, on the other hand, when a feature needed to be confirmed or adjusted, we simply had to print a model and ask Andy to hold it. Luckily for us, Andy has an extraordinary clarity when it comes to what he likes and dislikes – and this process quickly led to an optimised design, with adjustments to the button locations, the handle geometry and the clearance for his legs until everything was right.

What I have really taken from the experience is the value of having a team with such a clear and inspiring vision of success for the project

Usually, when we create new products for our clients, we must also consider how to mechanise manufacture to make millions of replicas at high quality and low cost. As engineers, we need to maintain the function of a new device despite the natural variation of materials and manufacturing processes, and the degradation of the product during its life. We identify critical design and manufacturing features – and check that they can be easily reproduced by the materials processes we are using to ensure a high production yield and high product reliability, all within acceptable costs. Because we never see the product before it is shipped to the customer, we have to rely on statistical analysis to prove that every copy of our design will work as intended until it comes to the end of its service life.

The Bloodhound steering wheel, in contrast, was manufactured in a very low quantity (just a handful – the actual wheel and a few back-ups).

steering wheel
The steering wheel was 3D printed in Titanium by Renishaw

This allowed a very slow (days/hours rather than seconds) and very high-performance manufacturing process to engineer a large margin of safety to make sure nothing would go wrong. So the wheel is 3D printed in titanium and costs around £15,000 to make – a manufacturing cost per part that would make our regular clients faint!

In most product developments, the environment of use can also be hard to predict. During transportation, a product can be taken from extremes of cold to hot or wet to dry – consider a medical device trucked across a desert in the Middle East that then has to perform a critical diagnostic test.

We engineer products for these extremes, which often leads to significant design challenges. The difference with the Bloodhound project is that the environment is relatively well known. We know where in the world the steering wheel will be used, and that it will be used under the strict supervision of many project engineers.

So do I really think that designing for the ‘one-off’ Bloodhound was a ‘luxury’ project? As a potentially iconic design for such a high-visibility engineering project, then it truly is an honour to be involved. Certainly, with the steering wheel, many of the complications involved in design for high-volume manufacture just went away.

steering wheel

But, at the end of the day, what I have really taken from the experience is the value of having a team with such a clear and inspiring vision of success for the project – to travel at 1,000 mph and inspire a generation of new engineers. This vision meant all the people we worked with were totally focused on finding ways to succeed.

Perhaps this is because we can all visualise the 1,000 mph run in our mind’s eye – whereas a million different customers using a product, each in a slightly different way, in their daily lives is much more divergent.

What I will take back to our ‘designing for the many’ projects is that when you can build a ‘clarity of vision’ across the team as to what success looks like, then this will pay dividends many times over in the outcome of the innovation.