Nov 8, 2012 0
Devon may not be the home of Britain’s car industry, but it might just be the future.
Over the past four years Exeter based Ashwoods Automotive has become the UK’s leading supplier of Hybrid commercial vehicles, thanks to its hybrid drive technology.
The company’s latest product, Lightfoot, which has been shown to provide up to 22% fuel savings and enables fleet managers to review the efficiency of its drivers, could soon make Britain’s fleet vehicles among the greenest around.
Although Ashwoods Automotive was originally founded in Somerset in 2003, starting as a one-man band selling LPG converted vehicles, it was when the company moved to Devon in 2008, that it really took off.
The firm was looking to expand when it decided to base itself in Devon to move to bigger premises. Its expansion has seen its turnover rise from around £600,000 a year to almost £6 million, and it now employs 30 people.
Mark Roberts, Managing Director of Ashwoods, said: “The reason we moved to Devon was that we needed more space and this was a good central catchment area for the people we needed. We were recruiting heavily at the time and there’s a high calibre of people in this area. We didn’t find it difficult to attract good people by being based in Exeter.
“We are mainly here because we can find the talented people we need. There may have been a concern initially over whether we could find entrepreneurial people in Devon, but it’s actually full of driven, ambitious people.
“The added extra is that it’s a nice place to live, the natural aspects of Devon, the countryside and the way of life, are a huge pull.”
Taking its hybrid technology into production to fit to commercial vehicles was aided in 2009 by a Government contract from the Technology Strategy Board, supplying its hybrid kit to the Environment Agency and Transport for London among others. It was one of four suppliers that had its product assessed over two years – but it was Ashwoods’ product that came out on top in terms of performance and price, so it was then selected as the sole supplier.
Since January 2010 Ashwoods has supplied over 200 Ashwoods Hybrid Transits to the UK’s largest public sector fleets such as Royal Mail and BT. In November 2011 Ashwoods won a contract to deliver a further 500 Ashwoods Hybrid Transits.
“2010 was our real take off year, focusing on our hybrid kit for the Ford Transit,” admits Mark. “The funding from the Technology Strategy Board, has enabled Ashwoods to recruit more people and develop more products. We wouldn’t have been able to develop those other elements without the funding.
“With the first generation of our product, we bought components from Germany and China, but we found that they weren’t as good as we wanted so we decided to develop all of our own components. Our aim was to make a better hybrid system but in the process we helped develop two or three businesses. Our supply chain is based in Tiverton, Torquay and Plymouth and we wanted to be fairly central to that and not move away from them.
“Vehicle manufacturers are developing hybrids from the ground up but we have developed a unit that can be retro fitted to a normal vehicle. We don’t have to make the engine smaller, we just add our bit, and unlike all electric vehicles, which have a limited range and need to be charged, our motor never needs to be charged. It charges itself from the wasted energy from decelerating and braking, and then assists acceleration, which takes the load off the engine.”
The company’s latest product is the Lightfoot, which Mark not only sees as a natural addition to its hybrid kit, but as a standout product in its own right that offers businesses an immediate return on investment.
Mark explains: “There are two ways to make vehicles more energy efficient – change the vehicle to a hybrid and to change driver behaviour. A badly driven hybrid van is not as clean as it can be. Lightfoot is about driver training. The traditional approach to driver training is for a fleet to send its drivers off for training, but performance drops off over time and drivers can return to their bad habits.
“This is in the cab and works with the driver – it really does work and it’s a lovely common sense product and the return on investment is immediate.
“We have always had the ability to have a commercial view on development, driven by market acceptance so that we can supply a product that people want to buy.”
The results speak for themselves. In 2011, Ashwoods won three awards from the Institute of Engineering and Technology, as well as winning a Devon Environmental Business Award for its goods and services.
The company is currently selling its products to the end customer – owners of business fleets. Mark knows that the growth areas of the business could be the exploitation of the components that the company has developed, such as its batteries, electronics and electric motors. This could unlock the potential to supply them to vehicle manufacturers. But a shift in emphasis of the business does not necessarily mean uplifting its roots.
Mark added: “LPG helped us learn about the industry, but we have been able to apply more technology with the hybrid kit, which is the right product for now and the next few years. To take us to the next level we will need to sell a high volume of low price components.
“We spend a lot of time in the Midlands which really is the automotive centre of the country and so our potential customers are elsewhere, but we have proved we don’t need to be there. I believe we attract people because we are in Devon. It’s got everything.”