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Success story: Magnomatics friction-free gearbox nears production

Innovate UK funding helps Magnomatics attract interest from major vehicle manufacturers in fuel-efficient magnetic power transmission.

A gearbox without gears is about as innovative as it gets, especially when there is no physical contact between the moving parts.

But that is what Magnomatics is offering its customers, along with significant fuel savings.

The company originated as a spin-out from Sheffield University in 2006. Backed by £4.5 million of venture capital investment and with support from Innovate UK through the Low Carbon Vehicles Innovation Platform and funding competitions, it has expanded to 28 staff, including 7 PhDs, with aspirations to further growth.

Cross-sector revenue

Revenue is primarily from customers interested in applying Magnomatics technology to road or rail, oil and gas installations, aerospace, marine and renewable energy. That involves initial studies and then taking the project all the way through to manufacturing and delivering tested prototypes.

So what began as a laboratory-focused venture has evolved into a far more hard-headed commercial business, as product manager David Black explains:

We were originally a group of electrical machine researchers but now we have manufacturing expertise in-house, production and product launch experience.

Innovate UK has taught us a good lesson about asking hard questions of customers. We don’t really have the time or resources to spend on inquiries from people purely interested in the technology, above those with a genuine need to get to market rapidly.

Hybrid drive systems

Vehicle manufacturers are now more willing to embrace the notion of hybrid drive systems for vehicles and especially something as innovative as Magsplit®, Magnomatics’ contactless, frictionless, gearbox.

Magsplit acts as a magnetic coupling within a hybrid powertrain, sitting in exactly the same place as a gearbox. As a continuously variable transmission it offers a very wide range of gear ratios. It means the engine can operate at peak efficiency.

Magnomatics has developed the device through a project with Ford Motor Company in a 2-year collaborative R&D and then further collaboration with Volvo Group. Magnomatics is receiving a further £360,000 grant, together with a £100,000 Smart award, to ensure that Magsplit can be manufactured on a production line.

There is now the very real prospect of Magsplit going into low-rate production in one of its target markets of marine, rail, wind turbines or automotive.

Manufacturing base in the offing

The company is looking to establish production for Magsplit and another promising patented product Pseudo Direct Drive (PDD®) which has also been supported by Innovate UK.

“We are committed to starting up a manufacturing base in the UK, collaborating with The Proving Factory in Coventry on production volumes of up to 20,000 pieces a year initially. That’s where most hybrid volumes would be for trucks or passenger vehicles. Beyond that, we might pass responsibility for manufacture on to tier 1 manufacturers or the larger tier 2 suppliers.

He added: “The market is coming to the product now. When we started out, the system was a very daunting prospect to an OEM thinking about integrating it into a vehicle design. But now they are pre-packaging them on the vehicle. It’s a lot more palatable as an option.”

According to David, the key benefits in gaining support from Innovate UK went beyond subsidising the investment risk:

That did make the difference between Volvo Group trying our technology or not. It wouldn’t have happened without that support. But the opportunity to collaborate at that close technical level with major OEMs like Ford has made us the company we are today. Where the support from Innovate UK was so important was in turning mere interest into ‘Yes, we want to work with you’.

Learn more about about the best of British automotive innovation at CENEX LCV 2015. This year’s show is convening the UK’s next generation of low carbon, intelligent vehicles and the British-based technology bringing them to life.