Passengers stepping on to one of London’s new hybrid buses as they come into regular service will be embarking on the latest stage of a journey of success for a Ballymena company and Queen’s University.
The collaboration between Wrightbus Ltd and the research team led by Professor Roy Douglas from the School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering that helped to secure the ‘New Bus for London’ contract has brought international recognition for innovation and enterprise to the company, to the University and to Northern Ireland. But as Roy explains, it didn’t happen overnight.
‘In my research I’d been doing quite a lot of work on catalytic after-treatment, catalytic converters, and at the end of the ‘90s I was having a chat with William Wright whom I’d known for a long time and he was telling me about his new hybrid bus project.
‘He mentioned some of the issues they were having and I suggested they should have gone for a diesel engine instead of a gas turbine. After that, I said, they should study the system and model it and try to understand it fully.
‘Nothing happened until we met again three years later. He said he wasn’t a fan of this modelling malarkey – his exact words – but they were still struggling and any help I could give would be invaluable.’
That was the beginning of the relationship. ‘I did a little bit of consulting with a few simple models, but they decided they needed something more sophisticated so we started a PhD programme, with funding from Wrightbus and Invest NI, which was very successful and became a Knowledge Transfer Partnership to take the software we were developing and embed it in the company.’ The original PhD student,"Wrightbus won’t go into development without modelling first. They’re totally convinced." Andrew Simpson, is now an engineering analyst with Wrightbus, developing the model further.
When the ‘New Bus for London’ project came along there was general agreement that it was the ideal application for the model. ‘In the tender process, more than 70 per cent of the points’ allocation was on technical specification. Wrights decided to go for a very high spec which gave us a lot of pressure because it was based on our modelling and so it was essential to get it right. In the end we got it almost bang on, so that was very pleasing.’
The modelling approach had allowed Wrightbus to optimise the system performance and to specify the individual components in detail. And they were ‘best in class’ for fuel economy and exhaust emissions. It led to a contract worth more than £230m.
Roy says, ‘William Wright is very forward- looking when it comes to technology. Now they won’t go into any development without doing modelling first, which is the way the whole auto industry has gone. They’re totally convinced.’
Roy himself is sure of the benefits of researchers working closely with companies to see how they operate. He went on a year’s sabbatical with General Motors in Detroit, and out of that came a new project and a Queen’s spin-out company called Catagen, focused on catalyst ageing technology.
All of this experience has provided benefits for students. ‘When I’m lecturing I can quote real-life examples. I can talk about Wrightbus, the aircon system, for instance, how in London in summer the fuel economy is about half what it is in the winter. It’s about enthusing the students and getting them interested in real-life engineering.’
William Wright comments, ‘We’re very happy to continue this fruitful relationship with Queen’s. There’s a lot of knowledge there. Roy has the benefit of great experience but, just as important, he’s a great communicator.’
Roy adds, ‘The marvellous thing about this University is that it lets you do what you like and enjoy. I’m a great believer that if you’re allowed to do that, then you’ll do things better.’