New centre to help automotive firms commercialise technology

A new venture that could help automotive firms commercialise their technology and manufacture it in Britain was launched this morning.

The Proving Factory, run by Tata Steel and low-carbon vehicle engineering firm Productiv, and supported by almost £13m of government funds, will provide a facility for small companies to turn prototype technologies into commercial products.

Six firms working on novel engine designs have signed up to be the first customers of the centre, which aims to exploit the overlaps between their technologies to cut the cost of developing manufacturing processes – a major barrier for small companies bringing new products to market.

‘The Proving Factory will take new automotive technologies through the industrialisation process from prototype through to series production,’ Productiv’s chief executive Richard Bruges told The Engineer.

‘That means low-volume production, 10,000 to 20,000 units a year per product. We do not expect to take them into high-volume production. There would be a handover process to traditional tier-one manufacturing companies.’

The initiative will work in a similar way to the government’s new Catapult centres, giving small companies access to the resources and facilities needed to develop manufacturing processes without having to secure the large investments necessary to do this individually.

‘In the UK we generate a lot of early-stage companies spinning out of our world-class universities that generate a lot of intellectual property and technology, but it’s very difficult to get it commercialised,’ said Bruges.

‘This is bridging a gap, a market failure where the industry needs to adopt new technologies that have been developed by small companies … who can’t get the funding, the scale-up and the ability to break through what is sometimes known as the “Valley of Death”.’

The Proving Factory’s initial customers include:

  • Flybrid Automotive, which has designed a flywheel energy storage device based on technology from Formula One motorsport;
  • Drive System Design, which has developed an electric motor-compatible gearbox;
  • Libralato, which has produced a rotary engine half the size and weight of conventional technologies;
  • Bladon Jets, which is working on micro gas turbines for plug-in hybrid electric vehicles;
  • Torotrak, which has created a variable transmission system to help make superchargers more efficient.

Flybrid director Jon Hilton said the difficulty for new companies was convincing tier-one manufacturers, which supply components to the big carmakers, to take on and produce new technology, but that demonstrating it in low-volumes would make a big difference.

‘It’s all about risk reduction because the tier-ones want to go to market with something that works perfectly, reliably and meets all of its warranty requirements,’ he said. ‘From where they’re sat, how do they know you’re there until you’ve done it?’

Bruges added that providing a way for new automotive companies to commercialise their technology in the UK at an early stage could help keep more high-volume manufacturing in the country.

‘I’m sure that some of the technologies we develop will end up being manufactured in volume the UK because we will have the knowhow and the supply chain here,’ he said.

The Proving Factory will initially be based at Tata Steel’s Brinsworth site in Rotherham, which will carry out component manufacturing, and will also open an assembly facility in the West Midlands in 18 months’ time, creating around 250 jobs and an estimated 1000 more in the supply chain.

The £21.8m project is funded by £12.8m of government money provided by the business department and the regional growth fund, half of which will come in the form of loans.

Other partners include Jaguar Land Rover, engineering consultancy MIRA, Schaeffler, Unipart and the Midlands Assembly Network.