Investing in people and products
London’s Covent Garden was the venue for Wrightbus’ annual press conference held last week. The theme of the presentations at the CPT’s Head Office in Drury Lane was ‘A Journey Shared’, focussing on the company’s move ‘from body builder to complete builder to solutions people.’
Representatives from Wrightbus included Wrightbus’ founder, Dr William Wright CBE; Mark Nodder, CEO; Ian Downie, MD Sales and Customcare; and Claire Taggart, Marketing Manager. Mark started proceedings with an overview of the company’s successes over the last year, of which there have been several notable ones.
Review of the year
Wrights Group currently has more than 13,000 vehicles in service throughout the UK and Ireland, including 1,640 integrals, 811 StreetLites, 523 New Routemasters and 40 StreetDecks.
Prior to this year, Wrightbus’ financial year began on 1 October, but this has been changed to bring them in line with the 31 December reporting cycle. This makes a year on year comparison of profitability difficult because 2014 is now a 15 month period, but, suffice to say, the company is on target for its projected target of £275m turnover for the year (compared with £297m for 2014) 1168 completed vehicles and 346 kits (1377 and 347 kits in 2014). Research and Development spend will be around £7.5m (last year c£7m). It is projected that 1,200 vehicles will actually leave the Ballymena plant, 300 of them New Routemasters for London routes.
Since the beginning of 2015, Wrightbus has had Euro6 vehicles in operation. In January, Tower Transit, who bought out part of First Bus’ London operations, took eleven Euro6 StreetLites, making them the first in the country to operate them.
Development of its international business has continued, with a presence in Singapore, Hong Kong, India and most recently in Abu Dhabi, in the Middle East. In May, in conjunction with Daimler (India Commercial Vehicles), the Wrightbus International Division opened a bus assembly plant in Chennai, India, building vehicles on a Daimler truck chassis. This partnership is expected to be a five to seven year project. Testing and homologation is ongoing and the first bus is anticipated at the end of the year. Mark explained that the company was aiming for a 10% share in the 40,000 units a year currently sold to India.
Despite its move to integral vehicles, Wrights Group also continues its long term partnership with Volvo and this year saw the newly styled Gemini 3 bodied B5TL and the combined bodying of the B8RLE chassis. In June, Lothian Buses took delivery of twelve glass roofed versions of the Gemini 3 specified for its Airlink service between the airport and the city centre.
June also saw Wrights’ re-enter the rental market through its partnership with the Bus Rental Division of Close Brothers Commercial Vehicle Solutions. They have purchased 50 StreetLites to date, from the complete range, reaching operators that were previously not accessible to Wrightbus.
Most recently, last month Dublin Bus upgraded much of its fleet with an order for 90 StreetDecks. There was previously some concern over windscreen reflection and these latest vehicles have been altered to remove this problem. The StreetLite features a ‘raked’ windscreen, thereby combating any potential reflection issues.
Other highlights included Wrights Group leading a UK consortium that won support for research partners to develop modular architecture for ultra low emission (ULE) buses and also in March, 33 apprentices completed a four-year Apprenticeship in Engineering from their own training centre.
Wrightbus continues to invest in people as well as products and have a ‘grow your own’ philosophy with operations remaining in the UK. 1,950 people are employed and a multi million pound investment has been made in a Research and Development Centre of Excellence in Northern Ireland, in conjunction with Queens University, Belfast, which has permanent Wrights Group staff based there. In addition, there is a growing collaboration in composite technology with Northern Ireland Advanced Composite and Engineering Centre (NIACE). To put this in to perspective, companies such as Bombardier and Caterpillar have academics at the site.
In Customcare, Chris Wise joined the company as National Parts Manager and an additional regional service manager was appointed. The mobile service engineer network has doubled and the central office support team has also increased in size.
This year also saw the opening of a Customcare centre in Orpington, following customer’s requests for the company to have a stronger presence in London. Its purpose is to deal with accident and repair work that can’t be carried out on the operator’s site. It has six bays, housing two pits and a rolling road, along with £500,000 worth of New Routemaster stock. Training courses for operator’s engineers have been set up at the premises and the centre has received City and Guilds accreditation. More than 150 people signed up for courses within its first month of opening.
Mark commented, ’we have been working hard to secure sustainable growth through continued investment and innovation which is at the heart of everything that we do here at the Wrights Group. A good deal of that investment has been made in our people – by strengthening our team and bringing in new talent to our organisation, we are very well placed to continue to focus on the customer and be at the forefront of new technologies and vehicle development.’
Ian Downie said that Wrightbus offer ‘a complete range of fuel efficient products to meet all operators needs.’ To date, the company has received 900 orders this year; 140 StreetDecks, 415 StreetLites (Euro5 and 6) and 345 on Volvo chassis (25 of which are single deck Eclipse 3s).
Wrights Group continues to invest in its Micro Hybrid Technology and March also saw trials with Arriva on one of their vehicles of the first version of the Flybrid Kinetic Energy Recovery System. This is a joint project with a number of companies, including Arriva and uses a high speed carbon flywheel to capture Kinetic energy while the vehicle is decelerating. This stored energy is then transferred back to the wheels to assist in acceleration. In trials, Arriva has reported a 10% fuel saving. Wrights Group will perform further fuel tests in September on a different vehicle so that they can be sure that the fuel performance figures quoted are accurate. Tests permitting, it is expected to be available from Q3 2016.
The latest generation of the Micro Hybrid system is the Micro Hybrid 3, which is currently in testing. It has reported fuel savings results following tests at Millbrook, of 18%, compared with 7% with version one and 11% with version two. The system has been further enhanced with a third alternator, electric air compressor and Daimler automated stop/start facility. The comparisons appear slightly unfair as Micro Hybrids one and two used a Cummins Euro5 engine and this has a Daimler Euro6. I asked Ian why this was and he replied that the comparison was between the ‘best in class’, the best Euro5 against the best Euro6. He made further comment that the company had over eight months ‘in service’ experience of its Euro6 engine in both the StreetLites and the StreetDecks, where it is fitted as standard. He claimed that one Euro6 engine is the equivalent to operating eight Euro5 engines in terms of environmental performance. The Micro Hybrid 3 should be in production by the second quarter of next year for delivery in Q3. Ian commented, ‘This will provide even better fuel savings for operators looking to save on costs and help protect the environment, without the need for a full hybrid solution.’
Both the StreetLite and StreetDeck took part in First Group’s independent fuel efficiency test at Millbrook, where like for like vehicles are compared. The company were very pleased with the results, showing a 10% improvement on the StreetLite, year on year. Ian showed some results tables and also explained that they were also testing a Daimler G90 six-speed AMT gearbox that wasn’t yet in production. In terms of value for money, he said that the StreetLite could carry 19 more passengers than the competition (comparing a 14 tonne bus with a 12 tonne competitor.) Heavier weight vehicles were not compared. The StreetDeck showed a 7% improvement on last year and Ian intimated that this could be higher as the test was on a brand new engine that hadn’t been ‘run in’.
Ian went on to explain that both vehicles would be suitable for operators applying for Low Emission Bus Scheme Grants, in terms of value for money as the payback in terms of months is considerably lower than other ‘green’ options. Applications for the grant must be submitted by the end of next month.
Ian handed over to Dr William Wright who spoke on the subject of electric drivelines and in particular, finding the right battery for the job. William is a big advocate for electric vehicles, being the owner of a Nissan Leaf car himself. He admitted that they had encountered some charging problems with the New Routemaster but were initially unable to determine why. Thorough investigation has shown that the batteries that they were using had an unsuitable number of charges for a vehicle that was constantly being regenerated while idling in London. A new type of battery has been tested and appears to solve the problem. This is due for release early next year. The research has highlighted a number of different batteries that suit different applications that are currently being tested.
The company also realises from trials on plug in vehicles in Milton Keynes that software failures are more prevalent in these types of vehicle and more software engineers have been employed for this purpose.
William reiterated that in his opinion, plug-in double decks were ‘a nonsense’ as the weight of the vehicle would be increased by the batteries required and a single deck can carry as many passengers, so there would be no cost saving at all.
He commented recently, ‘Wrightbus has been delivering a wide range of low emission solutions for the best part of a decade. This hard earned knowledge gives us an unparalleled level of experience and capability in the design, development and deployment of electric buses in a number of types of operation.’
Coach and Bus Live
Wrightbus will be on stand A1 at Coach and Bus Live, held at the NEC Birmingham from 30 September – 1 October 2015.
There will be a number of exhibits on the stand, including a two door 10.6m Wrightbus Gemini 3 Volvo hybrid double deck for Metrobus. To TfL specification, it is the first of its kind in London with the new body styling.
A Close Brothers Commercial Vehicle Solutions’ StreetLite will demonstrate Wrightbus’ partnership with this Manchester based company, which has allowed Wrights Group to tap in to more retail markets. Finally, to highlight the company’s investment in its Customcare brand, a Customcare support van will also be exhibited.