Mike Farish reports on a UK initiative to prepare new technologies from small companies for mass production

Tata Steel’s manufacturing site in Rotherham, UK, was the location for the recent announcement of a venture called the Proving Factory, which aims to smooth the way to high volume production for small companies developing products relevant to automotive. It will do so by providing half a dozen such companies with both specialist production-engineering expertise to improve the manufacturability of their products, and by actually manufacturing the products in volumes of up to 10,000 units a year to establish them on the market as commercially viable propositions.

The rationale for the initiative is explained by Richard Bruges, chief executive of small London-based engineering consultancy Productiv, which has played a pivotal role in getting the whole initiative off the ground. He says that one of the major stumbling blocks impeding the introduction of promising new technologies to the automotive sector is precisely that of achieving reliable and mature manufacturing processes that could easily be ramped up to the sort of volumes that might interest a tier one supplier – say around 100,000 units a year or more.

Serious funding

Total funding is some £22m, of which just over half has been provided in a mix of grant and loan by the UK Government’s Advanced Manufacturing Supply Chain Initiative (AMSCI). A substantial proportion of the remainder – some £4.5 million – has come from Tata, which will be cooperating with a local centre of relevant competence, the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre based at the nearby University of Sheffield, to provide production-engineering input – not least in the use of steel materials. Similar input will be provided by Productiv itself, which will be adding up some £2m of its own money, in cooperation with the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC). Other organisations taking an active role include the UK’s Motor Industry Research Association (MIRA), Tier one supplier Schaeffler and OEM Jaguar Land Rover – the last three forming the venture’s steering group along with Tata and Productiv.

Bruges says that as far as he is aware, the initiative is unique. “I haven’t come across anything like it anywhere else,” he states. He confirms that there will be a series of related objectives to industrialise the products through effective production engineering; to manufacture them in quantities sufficient to establish them in the market; and to create a demand for higher volumes on the part of one or more vehicle assemblers such that tier one-level manufacture becomes feasible.

Business model

The business model will be one in which the originators of the technologies involved will shoulder immediate product development costs, while the Proving Factory will be responsible for both subsequent production engineering and actual manufacture. The products themselves have been chosen on the basis of a number of criteria that should, Bruges says, help ensure a degree of commonality across them, not just in terms of their purpose but also in their underlying technologies and material usage. The initial intention is that six technology developers will be involved, though at the time of the launch only five had been selected.

The Proving Factory’s five technology developers

1. Flybrid Automotive

Based at the Silverstone Technology Park, Flybrid Automotive will be bringing to Rotherham a “kinetic energy recovery system" that is entirely mechanical. “There are no batteries, no wiring, no rare earth metals and no magnets,” says managing director Jon Hilton.

The Flybrid device uses a high-speed carbon fibre and steel flywheel, spinning at rates of up to 60,000rpm, that Hilton says provides higher power than an electric counterpart at lower weight and cost. “It is about a third of the cost of an electric device,” he claims.

Moreover the device already exists and has been put to real use; last year it was employed in a Lola car fielded by the Dyson team in the American Le Mans Series. It is also now being used on a demonstrator basis in a number of buses and off-highway vehicles.

Despite practical demonstrations and previous interest from both Jaguar and Volvo it has so far proven impossible to crack the nut of moving into high volume production. Hence the attraction of the Proving Factory. Hilton explains that the ultimate aim is to find a tier one supplier able to manufacture the device in volumes well in excess of 100,000 units a year. “We want to de-risk the prospects for a tier one company by showing its feasibility for both manufacturing and application in thousands first of all,” says Hilton

Moreover, although the ultimate objective is to achieve volume-car levels of production via a tier one manufacturer, versions of the device for other types of vehicle are unlikely ever to reach such levels and will need to achieve commercial viability at much lower volumes. “Ten thousand units a year would be a mature market for buses,” he states, adding that in such instances the Proving Factory might become a longer term rather than interim manufacturing option.

2. Drive System Design

Drive System Design’s managing director, Mark Findlay, explains that the company – primarily an engineering consultancy – began to be frustrated by the fact that the normal rules of client confidentiality meant that the outfit “could not talk about what it does”. So it set out to exploit its expertise to develop a product of its own that would challenge conventional thinking and came up with an idea for an innovative transmission system for electric vehicles. Specifically, says Findlay, the company has developed “a unique power shift system within the transmission that achieves high efficiency”.

3. Bladon Jets

Bladon Jets is developing a micro gas turbine that will act as a range extender for electric vehicles by recharging the batteries, explains operations manager Steve Hickson. The advantage of this technique is weight-saving, with the company stating that overall vehicle mass could be reduced by as much as 15% and use a turbine with a lot fewer moving parts than an internal combustion engine.

Hickson says that the main technical challenge is developing a practical device small enough to fit in a car while ensuring reliability, given the extremely high projected rotation rates for the central shaft of an appropriate device – around 134,000rpm. The schedule for Bladon's development programme, envisages a product launch round about the end of 2015.


Air compression is at the heart of the concept that Torotrak is bringing to the venture. Chief executive Jeremy Deering explains the company has come up with an innovative “variable boosting device” – effectively an air compressor – to get air into the engine with uniform effi ciency across a range of operating conditions. The boosting device is designed to help ensure that engine downsizing does not compromise vehicle performance levels.

The Torotrak device is continuously variable, meaning that boost can be independent of engine speed. In practice, a single Torotrak device can be used to cover all the speed ranges and so will obviate the need to use two turbochargers or a turbocharger-supercharger combination, says Deering.

5. Libralato Engines

Libralato Engines, from Manchester, is bringing to the venture a rotary internal combustion engine claimed by managing director Dan Aris to be “as efficient as a diesel engine but only half the weight”.

The concept is described as quite different from the much better known Wankel approach, and as offering significant comparative advantages through such factors as the large sealing surface areas of the rotors it enables. There are also only four moving parts.

The aim is to get the engine into a final form ready for commercial production by 2016. Aris says that the intention is that it should be used in parallel with an electric motor for a new generation of hybrid vehicles capable of achieving 100mpg.