Charging past the competition

Charging past the competition

In some sectors where technology is developing rapidly, manufacturing innovation is vital as Peter Jackson discovers talking to Matt Boyle

Electric vehicle component maker Sevcon has made a name for itself in the automotive sector on the strength of its key role in the development of Renault’s eye-catching Twizy.
The range of controllers developed and manufactured by Gateshead-based Sevcon are key components in the Twizy – for which Sevcon was chosen aftera lengthy and
exacting selection process - and a range of electric vehicles.


Sevcon's other customers include manufacturers of on and off-road vehicles including cars, trucks, buses, motorcycles, fork lift trucks, aerial lifts, mining vehicles, airport tractors, sweepers and other electrically powered vehicles.


It has designed and manufactured controls for companies such as Renault, Toyota, Ford, Nissan and Hyundai for a range of on and off road, zero-emission vehicles.
This has put the company in a strong position. For the year ending September 2012 it
reported revenues of £22m, 10% up on the previous year, while profits rose by two-thirds to £740,000


Although managed from Team Valley where it employs more than half of its 100-plus workforce, it is listed on the Nasdaq stock market. It is a global player with factories in China, Mexico and Poland.
Sevcon has only achieved this by working hard on innovation.


Matt Boyle, president and chief executive says: “Innovation is essential. It’s a fast moving market place, the technology is developing all the time and the people who win are the people who stay ahead of the curve.


“It’s a combination of a lot of things. It’s market intelligence, understanding where the technology is going, it’s having a very well staffed engineering department that’s very clearly goaled and it’s following through on all of the work that that all generates.’’
Thousands of Twizys have been sold since its launch in the spring of 2012, with Germany being the most eager consumer and there is speculation Renault could ramp up production further.

Sevcon ArticleThe Twizy is a two-seater vehicle designed for urban driving. It's a quadricycle rather than a car, with a top speed of 50mph. It is exempt from road tax and has a range of 62 miles.
Sevcon’s Gen4 controller is used to vary the speed and movement of vehicles. It integrates specialised functions, and helps optimise the battery’s energy consumption.
Also an eco-friendly tuk-tuk featuring key parts from Sevcon is to go into production in Asia with sales projected to reach 100,000 a year. Sevcon has partnered with Swedish manufacturer Clean Motion to develop the Zbee, a three-wheel city passenger vehicle. It is being built and launched in Indonesia where it is being touted as a zero-emission alternative to the popular, high-emission Bajaj – Indonesia’s version of the tuk-tuk automotive rickshaw.


The Zbee will be rolled out in the Indonesian capital Jakarta and plans are afoot to make it the low carbon passenger vehicle of choice across Asia.


Sevcon’s Gen4 controller acts as the brains of the vehicle controlling the speed and movement, and as well as integrating these functions, it also helps optimise the battery’s energy consumption.


The company has been careful about the way in which it structures its R&D effort.
Boyle explains: “We have an R and we have a D and we also have an engineering applications department. The Research look at stuff likely to get to product in the next three years, the D is product development with time scales ranging from about nine months to about 18 months. They are constantly working on things the R department may or may not have had a solution for or we may have to develop a solution from what we already know. Applications are the people who take the product out of design and apply it to the customer’s vehicle.

“The R is in Cambridge, the D is in Gateshead. The R has a very tight relationship with Gateshead. All the development of all the IP is done in Gateshead. The application groups are scattered around the world. There’s one in Tokyo, there’s one in Korea, there’s one
in China, there’s one in the US, France and the UK.’’

About 35 people work in the D department in Gateshead.

The company is an SME and its size has an influence on its ability to innovate.
Boyle says: “Being an SME adds to your ability to respond quickly but that does bring with it its own challenges. Being an SME you typically don’t have the sort of departments doing some of the ground work that you would in large companies. While it’s a blessing in one way it’s a curse in another.’’

He adds: “We’ve got to work hard to keep ahead. Being a small company it’s easily goaled but unless you’ve got the resources, it’s difficult to do. We’ve got aspirations but we’ve got to work very hard to achieve them.’’

Sevcon may be a small company but it has a presence around the world which gives Boyle an insight into other cultures’ approach to innovation.

“It’s partly down to culture and it’s partly down to problems. The Chinese are becoming very innovative because they’ve got lots of problems. An economy that’s growing like theirs generates a lot of problems. One of the biggest ones they’ve got is pollution. You’ll
see more electric vehicles on the streets of Shanghai or Beijing than you will in the
entire UK.’’


The developing world is also training many more engineers to do the innovation than we are in the West.


It’s as hard in the US as in the UK to get engineers,’’ says Boyle. “It’s actually very difficult everywhere apart from the Far East. The West has not been producing engineers of the sort of quality in electronics and design over the last few decades that we need. Since there’s a dearth of talent in the UK we have to look to other places around the world. We’ve had people from Columbia, Iran, China and India in the last several years because we just don’t produce them ourselves.


“It’ll take a decade or two to rectify the situation because if you don’t get people to want to become engineers at the 10-year-old level then you’re not going to do it. That’s
why we’ve been working with schools and colleges and universities trying to encourage kids into engineering as a career. We need to mould people as they go through the education process.


“People forget that because we haven’t been doing it for 20 years, it’s not a little blip, it’s for two decades easily that we’re going to have a problem. National Grid have said something like 55,000 of its engineers they are going to have to replace in the next five years because
of retirement.’’


To help fill this gap in engineering skills, Sevcon has handed a £25,000 tuition fee lifeline to a Northumbria University student – along with a guaranteed job on graduation.
It has recruited second year Northumbria University computing student Danielle Walsh to its student bursary scheme and will pay her annual £8,500 tuition fees and on completion she will take up a software engineering post at the company. She is the first Northumbria University student to win a place on the Sevcon scheme after Newcastle University student Ehsan Dehghan-Azad’s recruitment last autumn. Sevcon says it is preparing to fund another six students at the two institutions over the coming years - representing an outlay of over £200,000 - due to the chronic shortage of skilled engineers in the region.


Boyle is not optimistic that this problem for UK manufacturing is going to be solved without years of work.


He jokes: “If there’s light at the end of the tunnel it’s somebody else’s rear lights.’’