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Supplying to companies that use composite components can be a fast-moving and highly dynamic affair, so it’s crucial for any SME trying to establish itself to forge its own niche. epm:technology is one such company which is providing its own solutions to the highly specialised motorsport sector.
Back in 1996 when Graham Mulholland was just 22 years old, he set-up epm:technology in his bedroom with just a notepad, a pen, a telephone and a directory of motorsport teams. His plan was to make commercial composite applications for buses, lorries and niche vehicles such as designer sports cars and motorsport vehicles. Not having his own equipment or premises, Graham used subcontractors to make parts, delivering them to customers himself.
This cottage industry, which concentrated on the thermo-composite technology Twintex, continued for a while and as business grew, Mulholland eventually took on an industrial unit and invested in machinery. “Like all start-ups, we had to change our plan regularly,” he says, “but even back then I felt that composites were being presented as something of a black art with a price tag to match. That didn’t sit well with me. Most companies wouldn’t have a regular supply of work and were happy to wait for the phone to ring for their next job. I wanted to get away from all that and make sure our engineering work was framed within a strong business model, keeping things simple.”
By 2001, the company had acquired a larger company, Astec, and started to make in-roads into F1. Its simple approach however was at odds with the industry, so it was decided that if the business was going to grow, it needed structured relationships.
Mulholland adds: “Despite there being the potential for enough work, we were living hand to mouth, waiting for teams to get in touch, doing the work, delivering it and waiting for them to get back in touch. That was and to an extent still how it is. We wanted them to sign up with us and guarantee us a certain amount of orders. This would enable us to gear our factory up accordingly, so that we knew enough about our workload to be able to hit a critical mass and maintain a regular supply of work.”
The approach was as much a success with some teams as it left others cold. Ten years on, epm:technology has three teams signed up. Working under its supply agreements, the company now manufactures structural safety components within the cars, such as nose boxes, chassis and rear or side impact panels. It has made boxes in which teams fit the KERS technology and two seasons ago produced the double-deck diffusers for many teams, which rapidly became a crucial element in all the cars’ structures in the race to find additional downfore.
At its base in Draycott, Derbyshire, it handles all elements of production, from the moment a CAD/CAM design arrives to the moment a part is handed to the teams ready to fit onto the car, a process which involves patterns, tooling, part production, bonding jigs and CNC machining.
The way the teams operate and their relationship between themselves and their suppliers has altered because not only is innovation ever more important, the ban on testing during the season means that the evolutionary process is compressed into the period between October and the following March. Thus time is one of the biggest challenges facing an F1 supplier.
“Between December and April, we go from being simply busy to extremely busy and become a 24 hour, seven day a week business,” continues Mulholland. “During testing, a completed component is never the final say. It is only the minority of components which find their way onto the car. Designs change all the time, often at the last moment and we often have to scrap components even before we’ve finished them. McLaren Mercedes has even gone on record saying that it produced a new component every six minutes during the 2010 season and I can well believe it.
“We might make as many as up to 20 different versions of the same component before the teams are happy with the performance it gives them. When you consider that there are on average 250 different critical composite parts on one car and teams have two cars and a complete set of spares at each race, that is a lot to deliver and manufacture. Many will have inserts in them or there will be material upgrades along the way, and bear in mind that for every component we have to make a separate pattern and a mould tool too.”
Mulholland is passionate about squeezing efficiencies into manufacturing processes. “We use lots of rapid prototype jigs for bonding and trimming parts,” he explains. “The speed this technology is developing and how much time it saves us is brilliant. We have also invested in a foundry on-site. We design casting tools and manufacture tools from melt-out mandrels, which are covered in carbon and then cured. We then re-melt the mandrels, leaving a hollow one-piece component. These are often very complicated but I believe we are world class.”
The company is also engaged in a Technology Strategy Board funded project to develop a handheld device to accurately measure the damage to components. “Currently there are three techniques used to assess damage: X-ray, ultrasonic scanning and tapping the material” continues Mulholland. “None of these are particularly appropriate when you’ve got an aircraft that has made an emergency landing following a bird strike and engineers want to assess its airworthiness. Thanks to non-destructive testing, data will be available that will indicate the likely outcome of different types of damage in different types of materials.”
epm:technology is also looking to new industries and is making a concerted push into aerospace, a strategy that began with presence at last year’s Composites Engineering Show, which was very revealing. “Many enquiries were from people who couldn’t make a component they wanted and we got a real sense that people are still approaching composites with a viewpoint that whatever they need, it will be complicated and requires a lot of R&D. That normally just isn’t the case. Some could be spending millions of pounds and taking months to complete jobs that, had we been given them by an F1 customer, would take us a week.”
It is not resting on this capability however and is now approaching a key decision: whether to partner with a tier one aerospace supplier or acquire an existing tier two company in order to scale up its operation. It is also trying to support more F1-style partnerships, which it believes will help to lessen the impact of resource restrictions, so by the time of the next Composites Engineering Show, the company may well have much more to offer.