Click on the cover to view the latest issue
Hit hard when the A1GP motorsport series collapsed in 2009, URT Group has seen a dramatic turnaround in fortunes after being selected as the lead laminator of Ocelot, the world’s first truly composite armoured vehicle, which is now entering production. Simon Lott reports.
Officially opening its brand new 50,000ft2 manufacturing facility in Bognor Regis last July, URT’s (Universal Race Technology’s) founders and co-directors Paul Walters and Matt Cox have ushered in a new era for the company - and a dramatic expansion plan to match. The new building and machinery more than triples its previous manufacturing capacity from 18,000ft2 to 68,000ft2 and will ensure the capacity to take on new projects alongside existing programmes, bringing it into increasingly diverse fields.
Two years ago however, it was a very different story. URT was originally set-up in 2001 to work on GM’s Cadillac Northstar Le Mans project and soon expanded to serve other motorsport programmes with solid success. When the self-proclaimed ‘World Cup of Motorsport’ A1GP switched to new cars based on Ferrari’s F2004 F1 racer in 2008, URT was producing every single composite component in the design, even renting factory space to the series. At this point motorsport still counted for 90% of business and A1GP was a substantial chunk of this, so when the series fell into financial trouble and collapsed the following season, the company needed a new strategy.
From the track to Iraq
Fortunately, the demise of A1GP coincided with an increasing interest from the defence sector, catalysed by the urgent need within the MoD to improve blast protection for troops stationed in Afghanistan and Iraq who were dealing with the omnipresent threat of improvised explosive devices. In particular, the Snatch Land Rovers in service were proving insufficient and a blank slate design for a light protected patrol vehicle (LPPV) was required. The defence sector itself has traditionally been fairly resistant to composite technologies, but with the industry developing rapidly and the potential for taking a lot of weight out of otherwise heavy, cumbersome vehicles while incorporating specific protective characteristics meant that the time was right. That vehicle soon emerged as Ocelot, or Foxhound as it has been named by the British MoD.
Commercial manager Darren Weston explains: “Luckily for us the composite industry was going through a purple patch and there were many new companies and applications looking to take weight out of components. Our position two years ago required a lot of inward thinking and a different way of looking at the company. We had been nurturing a few specific potential customers outside motorsport specifically on military applications and through their support we were able to continue and pay off our debts quickly.”
URT is now responsible for producing the monocoque and ancillary parts for the vehicle, including the bulkheads, centre tunnel and stiffener panels. David Hind, managing director of Force Protection Europe, who has designed and produces the Ocelot vehicle in partnership with Ricardo, explains that as far as his company was concerned, there was a lot to learn. “As a defence contractor we didn’t have huge experience in composites. It’s a new technology for our sector, particularly in land systems where I come from so we had to build our expertise very rapidly. URT was one of the companies we were immediately directed to for their particular expertise. This includes its range of tooling, some of which we have specifically developed for the programme and its investment in state-of-the-art equipment.”
So while the company had taken a hit from the motorsport sector, it was ultimately the expertise learned from the production of racing components that led to its current success. At its lowest point in 2009, URT had just 31 employees, but in the last 18 months and with new contracts coming from the defence sector that figure has now risen to 80 with the company still looking to add another 30, ultimately bringing the amount of people working on Foxhound alone to around 60.
Speed and strength
The requirement from Force Protection Europe’s customers can be simply summed up as: the survivability of its large vehicles but with the size and versatility of the Snatch Land Rovers. To achieve this there were several key design features established early on, such as the V-shaped hull which houses all of the automotive subassemblies including the gearbox, power pack and fuel tank, and its modular concept, leaving the door open for a potential family of vehicles. Such a relatively small, lightweight vehicle also offers a significant speed and manoeuvrability advantage in tight or dangerous situations as well as a substantial saving on fuel costs.
Hind adds: “It also means that you can reconfigure and redesign the structure very quickly. The composite pod effectively sits on a flatbed load carrier and can be taken on and off at will. That allows users to reconfigure the vehicle quickly for varying missions and also means that when things fail, you can simply remove a pod and get the vehicle back into action very quickly.” Thus the Ocelot can be used for patrol, troop transport, fire support or even as an ambulance, with other logistic variants possible.
The difference made by the materials and the way they are processed means that Ocelot is not only weight for weight, the best protected and most agile vehicle of its kind by a long way, but it is also the first vehicle with this level of protection that can be carried by helicopter. There are other benefits of course. In the euphemistic language of its customers, the composite materials used are subject to ‘graceful degradation’, i.e. that they have more controlled deformation characteristics as opposed to the spalling effect that metal structures are prone to. Highly specific composite structures also offer opportunities for embedding components and with kits being developed by URT, repairing damage caused in the field will be easier.
While the companies involved are understandably careful of giving away too much detail for security reasons, what is known is that the materials used for the monocoque structure are only half the story. Just as important is the highly specific weave structure, lay-up and combination of these materials that confer such a high level of protection. In fact, so good has been the progress made, explains Hind, that: “When the project began, we never imagined we would get to the level of blast resistance we have achieved. Our targets actually increased during the trials based on the results we were getting.”
The Ocelot has been undergoing testing since 2009 and already Force Protection has carried out over 50 separate ballistic blast tests at its facility in South Carolina, USA. The training fleet of vehicles will be delivered by the end of the year with the full batch of 200 vehicles for the MoD are still on target for delivery by the end of Q1 next year, with further orders from several forces anticipated over the coming months.
Growth through expertise
Weston credits URT’s success with Ocelot to the company’s dynamism, marrying ‘speed of thought and conversion of ideas with good, strong engineering skills’. Giving one example of this: “In 2009 we were approached by Force Protection Europe and Ricardo, who were then at the concept stage to provide a model of the vehicle for the DSEi exhibition with a four week leadtime, but we were able to produce a real vehicle in that timescale. This meant that Ocelot could drive into the show where all the rival concepts only had a scale model. It also meant they could develop the vehicle so when they were then asked to demonstrate it to the MoD they had already put 3,000km on it.”
The Ocelot programme has certainly been one of the key enablers of URT’s growth, but the company’s directors also stress that there is still plenty more to come. Included in its current investment are: a larger 3m by 7m autoclave, 6m conveyorised cutting facilities, a 4m by 7m paint spray booth and oven, various CNC machining centres for patternmaking and final machining of components with further plans for 5-axis capabilities and NDT scanning equipment. The rest of the money will go into new dedicated R&D and training facilities and further expansion plans are expected to be announced this year and through 2012, including bringing in additional services that are currently outsourced.
Meanwhile, the new R&D facility will tackle several key areas such as biomaterials and developing RTM as a sustainable manufacturing process. Continuing in the spirit of diversification, the company is also interested in developing new architectural applications for composite materials and in taking its motorsport expertise to the wider automotive community.
As an example of one of the more novel products that the company has recently produced includes a carbon fibre table up to 4m long, just 2mm thick. They are designed to take a 150kg load with a maximum 2mm deflection in the centre but reports from one F1 team confirm one of the tables has successfully taken the 650kg weight of one of its cars.
Finally, it’s important to remember that URTs reversal of fortunes also means growth for the whole area. Speaking at the launch, Cox explained: “The composite sector is expanding greatly and with more sectors using suppliers’ resources it’s become extremely hard to find employees with the relevant skills and the mentality we require. With the introduction of our in-house training facility and investment in people we are now able to train local people with new skills for job specific roles within our larger programmes.
“Continued development will help to integrate them into the group and gain experience we feel is severely lacking in the composite industry on the whole. To date we have successfully trained 30 people with outstanding results. We will be employing a further 30 over the next few months. This has been achieved in an area highlighted as having one of the highest unemployment rates in West Sussex. We’re very proud to be playing a small part in the regeneration of the area.”