Forming a collective: Interview with Dr Viv Stephens, Niche Vehicle Network

Written by: Justin Cunningham | Published:

Automotive is often considered the ultimate high-volume industrial machine. Its business model strives for both standardisation and mass market appeal and – while you can now have colours besides black – choice remains limited.

Taxis, refuse trucks and the more specialist novelty cars will never generate the revenues needed to attract the likes of General Motors or Toyota. Even so, exploitation of these markets can be lucrative.

The UK has become a hub for small and innovative vehicle manufacturers and specialist suppliers in recent years. Here, those companies able to punch above their weight by developing unique technology and vehicles have in some cases been able to conquer global markets. That said, there are still some inhibitive problems related to being a small player in a giant industry.

"There is a lot to be gained from collaboration and a lot to be lost by working in secret," says Dr. Viv Stephens, programme director at the Niche Vehicle Network. "That is the temptation: to work in a bubble and be secretive. But, that actually creates a barrier for many of these smaller manufacturers and specialist suppliers."

In 2005, while contracted to Advantage West Midlands (one of the now defunct Regional Development Agencies), Dr Stephens noticed that, although many of the smaller automotive companies in the area were facing common difficulties, there was actually little collaboration in finding solutions. This, he felt, was ineffective, inefficient and needed to change.

This prompted Dr. Stephens to set up the Niche Vehicle Network in 2005 with the aim of uniting the capabilities of the people and companies in the niche vehicle sector. At the same time the network gave a much-needed voice to the sector and could provide members with a framework to give it direction going forward. "It meant we could help in areas that before were cost- and resource-prohibitive," he says. "Things like developing new markets abroad, dealing with impending legislation and collaborative R&D programmes all benefited."

Simply put, the network gives the opportunity for member companies to talk to one another. Indeed, Dr Stephens describes it as a 'melting pot' of different ideas, technology and strategies. "This has really been the nucleus of what we've done," he says. "We give companies that opportunity to find partners they want to work with. They might find a new technology or capability that ultimately will give them some competitive advantage."

However, the idea of co-operation was not an instant hit with everyone in the niche vehicle sector and some were reluctant. "It was a reasonably difficult nut to crack at the outset," says Dr Stephens. "We were trying to encourage companies to work together and not think of each other as competitors, because actually there is not a lot of overlap."

By 2008 The Niche Vehicle Network was in a position to begin lobbying for funding and partnering with governmental bodies. From there it began to help its members realise their potential with collaborative research and development programmes. To date, the network has been a catalyst for more than 104 different business collaborations and has assisted in the development of 11 prototype vehicles, including work with the Ariel Motor Company and Morgan Motor Company.

The network now has over 200 niche manufacturers, specialist technology companies and suppliers on board and is supported by the Technology Strategy Board, the Office for Low Emission Vehicles and the Department for Business Innovation and Skills.

The philosophy behind the Niche Vehicle Network is to play to its members' strengths. The businesses involved are by their nature small, which also makes them nimble. The ability to change suppliers, exploit new technology, redesign and respond to demands from the market is a massive asset that Dr Stephens and his team are keen to capitalise on.

"The automotive sector has got some incredibly interesting times ahead," he says. "Every class of vehicle has got to drop a dress size by 2020 and then another by 2025. The OEMs alone don't have the technology to do that, so need to trawl more widely for ideas. The niche industry has the ability to try new things much faster. We can help assess the feasibility of many different concepts and technologies, and help identify any potential teething problems."

The Network routinely runs research and development projects driven by the demand of its members and industry at large. The network's current areas of research and development broadly span two areas: powertrain and structures. The first topic (entitled, 'Improved Fuel Efficiency and Carbon Emission Reduction') will consider and develop technologies around the internal combustion engine, alternative fuels and electric propulsion. The second topic, 'Weight Reduction and Recyclability', will assess the associated challenges around lightweighting including the manufacturability and disposal of composite structures.

The network wants to be a catalyst for change and innovation for a wide range of vehicles, systems and manufacturing operations. To help, it periodically runs groups of short projects that typically last three months with a maximum of £50,000 funding each.

In January, the projects included the development of environmentally-friendly, lightweight composites and the feasibility of using bamboo, hemp and bio-resins as sustainable alternatives to carbon fibre and epoxy resin. Other projects were to develop the ultimate aerodynamic shape for a low-drag and low-speed vehicle, a micro-hybrid stop start-system, and the development of a 'class-leading' hybrid battery.

"Our short-term funding programme is playing a vital role supporting UK engineering innovation," says Dr Stephens. "In the global automotive sector, highly creative and dynamic niche businesses are sometimes overlooked, and our three-month funding packages provide important support to research and development projects."

This funding is in addition to the network's more substantial annual research and development competition, which has provided funding to the tune of £150,000 for projects including the production of a lightweight titanium chassis for the Ariel Motor Company.

"There is a lot to be gained from collaboration," says Dr Stephens. "And that has always been the key point about the Niche Vehicle Network. We are there to provide the glue that binds these various elements together, to help them collaborate and be more competitive."

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