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14th October 2019, Milton Keynes

Interview with Matt Bradney, Director of Business Development for Prodrive Composites

Matt Bradney. © ProdriveInside Composites talks to Matt Bradney, Director of Business Development for Prodrive Composites.

Could you briefly introduce yourself and the key focus areas of Prodrive Composites?

Matt Bradney: I’m Matt Bradney, Director of Business Development for Prodrive Composites, based in Milton Keynes, UK. I have been with the company since October 2007 and developed the business from being a relatively unknown composites fabricator to a primary pillar of the Prodrive Group, which is headquartered in Banbury, UK, and is now established in both the motorsport and advanced engineering industries. Among other things, for the past 15 years Prodrive has run the Aston Martin Racing team in world sportscar championships and has built more than 200 Aston Martin racing cars for customers in every corner of the world.

The core focus of Prodrive Composites is to increase the volume of automotive composites for structural, body-in-white and trim panels and supply them directly to the OEMs and Tier 1s. We also work in defence, where our design and engineering service compliments the manufacturing capabilities we offer. There are a handful of additional niche markets we are working in, but these are highly confidential.

How much of your composites business in 2019 is with motor sports customers?

MB: We are vastly experienced in motorsport composite production, supplying our in-house motorsport programmes with their composite requirements, including, for example, all the components on the latest Aston Martin Vantage GTE. Our major clients include nearly every leading UK vehicle manufacturer – Bentley, Jaguar Land Rover, Lotus, McLaren and Overfinch, as well as Aston Martin – for whom we create beautiful interior and exterior visual carbon trim, as well as lightweight composite bodywork.

We are working on some significant structural components for a design and manufacture programme. In the past we have produced full monocoque composite chassis. In aerospace we have created first class cabins for the Boeing Dreamliner, as well as components for helicopters, drones and satellites. In the marine sector, we are currently supplying the Royal Navy with structural composites and have created composite pressure vessels for racing yachts.

In terms of the percentage mix of our business, motorsport represents approximately 20% of our overall work, split between the internal motorsport customer and an external motorsport company. The vast majority of the remaining 80% is from our mainstream automotive OEM and Tier 1 customers.

What general trends do you see in advanced composites manufacturing?

MB: We see an increase in demand for the use of composites both in use and volumes. Some of this will be in the area of designing and manufacturing structural composites, as well as the use of visual carbon fibre for trim and finished parts.

There are a number of trends we are seeing in composites, automation being one and sustainability another, whether that is in the raw materials being sustainable or the supply chain de local to the user.

If we look at automation first, this is being driven by automotive volumes and cost reduction meaning that the handmade, autoclave process route can be uncompetitive. As a result, we are working on a number of ‘out of autoclave’ processes. Suffice to say that the cost of process, labour and time in tool are all key targets for reducing the overall cost for manufacture.

Prodrive supplies all the components on the latest Aston Martin Vantage GTE. © Aston Martin

Prodrive supplies all the components on the latest Aston Martin Vantage GTE. © Aston Martin

The sustainable aspect covers the raw materials, with natural or recycled fibres being used within composite structures, as well as OEMs working with sustainable supply chain partners. Moving lightweight carbon fibre parts around the world is both costly in monetary terms and to the environment. Having your supplier manufacture locally to the assembly plant is one way to reduce the environmental impact. Co-locating is one option we are looking at, especially with the new technologies we are working on which are less operator dependant.

You are the first UK composites business certified to IATF 16949. What is this standard and what is its significance?

MB: IATF16949 is the internationally recognised standard as agreed by the International Automotive Taskforce (IATF). It replaces the ISO TS:16949 which was applicable in the UK and parts of the EU.

As a global standard, achieving and maintaining it are key to the growth of our automotive business, in parallel with our customers both in the UK and globally. It is recognised as the minimum standard of accreditation for suppliers and opens the doors to working with them, as it gives them the confidence that we have a controlled and measured process, which has robust gateways to deliver conforming parts on a consistent basis.

This covers everything from the point of an enquiry been received or generated, through to the contract award and into the development phase of the product’s life and continuing through the tooling stage and into production. Once in production it requires us to measure our performance, understanding where issues arise and analysing them for corrective actions to be taken to prevent future occurrence. It drives us to analyse our business activities for continuous improvement.

Prodrive has developed a process for manufacturing recyclable composite components called P2T. Can you explain what it entails?

MB: P2T is a material and process combination which was developed to enable three lifecycles of a carbon fibre component – primary, secondary and tertiary, hence P2T.

The primary aspect is to take a conventional carbon fibre, mould it into a component. This stage aims to make the best use of the properties of carbon fibre such as in a thermosetting prepreg. At the end of its lifecycle (or from production waste), the fibres are recovered and create a recycled carbon fibre matting. We can take this material and combine it with a reactive liquid thermoplastic resin, using a number of different low-pressure processes to create the second life of the fibre. This stage unlocks the true potential of P2T with regards to manufacturing flexibility, component and tooling cost, while maintaining extremely good mechanical properties.

Once the component reaches the end of its lifecycle (or again, from waste materials during production) both the resin and the fibres can be recycled and used in different manufacturing streams. The fibres can be recycled yet again and used in complex, structural, injection moulding applications due to their reduced length. The resin can be reused to produce another component using the recycled carbon fibre or virgin fibres. Therefore, we can achieve three lifecycles from a single carbon fibre material.

All of the bodywork for the McLaren P1 – which included some of the largest and most complex panels found on any road car – was supplied by Prodrive. © Axion23

All of the bodywork for the McLaren P1 – which included some of the largest and most complex panels found on any road car – was supplied by Prodrive. © Axion23

These processes can be done in high volume, still using low pressure techniques. We are working with the AMRC (Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre) in Sheffield on this step change in technology and have already seen significant strides forward in quality, process times and costs.

And what advantages does your patented component fixing process bring to the automotive sector?

MB: I presume you are taking about our TPP process we developed a few years ago? This is now starting to gather pace and volume. Again, this is a materials and process technology using closed moulding techniques to thoroughly bond a complex moulded plastic feature onto a carbon fibre substrate. Here we mould the carbon fibre component in the conventional way. For the development we used compression moulding using self-heated mould tools and a press tool to mould the carbon fibre parts in approximately 20 minute cycles.

This has now been productionised to support a particular programme which has a high part count per car and sees weekly demands into the hundreds of car sets per week. This has given a significant benefit to the particular customer as they have seen their volumes increased four-fold in a matter of a few months.

Following the cure of the carbon fibre composite substrate we then utilise this fixing process to combine it with a polyurethane (PU) material in a closed mould. The mould is a relatively low-cost material because the process does not involve any significant heat or pressure. We can create very complex features and geometry, including undercuts, datum points, captive nuts and upstands. This stage of the process is very quick, around 20 minutes, followed by a few days to allow for full polymerisation.

The unique and patented process enables a lower cost component with a similar lowered cost for investment, which gives the customer access to design increasingly complex parts which can be fitted onto vehicles on the moving build lines. This brings with it the same levels of confidence and fit times that match those of conventional plastic or metal parts, We have produced some extremely thin section parts over the years that without this process would have never made it onto production vehicles – there was simply insufficient space on the parts to bond fixings onto the back of the carbon parts. Prodrive’s TPP process made these parts possible for the styling and design teams of the OEMs.

As mentioned, you are also now working with natural fibres. Where are these finding applications within the markets you serve, what are they and what advantages do they provide?

MB: The natural fibres market is growing. The main application at the moment is in motorsport. This is being driven by regulation from the governing bodies, mainly in GT racing, where any aerodynamic parts which are not present on the original OEM produced car, must be made from natural fibres. We have done some aerodynamic parts for our internal motorsport customer for a low volume production run. We are also receiving interest from new motorsport customers based in Europe. It’s still very early days with this, but as the demand increases it should translate into the automotive sector. It’s a lower cost alternative to carbon fibre, it’s sustainable, and it has good mechanical properties.

Carbon fibre components are supplied to Overfinch, the creator of bespoke Land Rover vehicles, as part of an integrated supply chain. © Overfinch

Carbon fibre components are supplied to Overfinch, the creator of bespoke Land Rover vehicles, as part of an integrated supply chain. © Overfinch

Natural fibres offer very good damping properties which will be a significant benefit in areas where cabin noise is an issue. The natural fibres have a tendency to damp the vibration better than carbon gibre, which can actually amplify them. Our preference is to work closer with the OEMs on this as it is very much an engineering application, where the component supply needs to be integral with the design of mating parts and systems. The fibres we use are generally flax or jute. Flax has been used for hundreds of years in clothing, ropes, and more recently in shopping bags. The plastics industry is getting some unfair press at the moment, but it’s not really at fault – it’s the users who are being irresponsible and not disposing or recycling their products – but flax is 100% biodegradable, especially if you use it with a 100% bio-resin as we do. At the end of the product’s life, it can effectively be composted and put into the earth to start the journey to plants once more.

One reason for your recently announced capacity expansions has been securing new contracts, due to a number of your customers onshoring. Many other UK companies have put their expansion plans on hold due to the uncertainty surrounding Brexit – does Prodrive expect to be comparatively unaffected, or maybe even make gains?

MB: We have been successful on a particular programme where the customer had previously selected a longer supply chain, sourcing from mainland Europe on lower programme costs. However, the customer has seen both cost escalation an unreliable supply of conforming product. Throughout this period, we have continued to supply consistently high-quality product for different vehicles to the demand signal with zero defects. This has put us in a strong position for any future opportunities, as you would imagine.

Other customers have opened up new markets, previously inaccessible to them. This has created increased demand. Sadly, some customers are seeing a slow-down in their volumes, or their model years are changing, resulting in reduced demand for the current products from us – this also creates capacity. We are hopeful that these customers return to us with new programmes.

The current situation with the UK’s departure from the EU has had an effect on exchange rates which makes the UK more attractive to source manufactured parts from. Combine this with demand in new territories and poorly performing supply chains and you have an opportunity. We are seeing more interest from the EU for our design and manufacturing than we have for a number of years. Exchange rates may the reason, but it’s more likely to be a growing demand and awareness of our offering combined with a reducing pool of supply.

In terms of our expansion, although we are looking at expanding the current facilities, we have created both space and capacity through improved use of existing space within our current properties, adding around 50% more laminating room for additional laminators and to accommodate larger moulds, as well as additional rate tools for example.

Most of the gains have been through automation and efficiency improvements. An example, we recognised that the number of available trimmers in our assembly shop – technicians who trim the cured part to the end of part lines – was diminishing, and those we had trained up in the past were being attracted to the F1 Teams. So we have moved the majority of our production parts onto CNC machine trimming. This has helped increase output and efficiency significantly, the assembly shop technicians now add greater value through integration of assemblies, with bespoke fixings, brackets and wiring looms etc., ready for line fit on to vehicles at the customer. They are adding increasing value to the process and the customers are seeing the benefits too.

With the combination of this, and the increased space available, we have opened-up capacity to offer to existing and new customers.

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