Going the extra mile: How APC funding helped a consortium led by Penso to develop a new range of lightweight bodies for commercial vehicles

The fleet market is one of the most promising applications for lightweight composite materials.

As Daniel Hurcombe, managing director of Penso Consulting, points out, adopting carbon fibre materials on a high-end sports car might shave a couple of grams per kilometre off its tailpipe emissions, but the same concept applied to a delivery fleet could save millions of tonnes of CO2 over the lifetime of a large delivery fleet.

This was one of the main factors that drove the FLAVA project. Short for Flexible Lightweight Architecture for Volume Applications, it was an APC-supported project launched by Penso and Solvay with support from an OEM. The aim was to develop a modular, multi-material body-in-white structure for light commercial vehicles (LCVs).

The use of composite materials is central to the FLAVA concept. The main structure is produced from carbon fibre using Penso’s proprietary pressing process. Inside, there’s a core made of recycled Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic, which aids the structural properties, as well as providing the required insulation for a refrigerated vehicle. At least 5,000 plastic bottles go into the core material of each vehicle, while the overall structure is around 95 per cent recyclable.

“The key challenge was to get the cycle time down,” comments Hurcombe. “Producing a panel for this application with traditional autoclave methods could take three and a half hours, but with our press forming process the same part takes 10 minutes to produce. That dramatically reduces the cost of the part.”

It’s this innovation in processing coupled with an automated assembly process that has enabled the use of carbon fibre at a price point that’s achievable for fleet operators. The benefits are startling: almost 50 per cent increase in payload capacity, a 30 per cent reduction in average fuel consumption, and a saving of around six tonnes of CO2 per van per year. For a fleet of 3,000 home delivery vans, the fuel saving alone could amount to £7.2 million a year, Hurcombe estimates.

Since launching the product, Penso has received forward orders totalling more than £8 million. It has also led to the creation of 70 new roles within the company. “Without the APC funding that simply wouldn’t have happened,” comments Hurcombe. “We already had a wealth of technical expertise, but as an SME we wouldn’t have been able to raise this level of funding on our own.”

The total project value was £16.3 million, with £8.2 million coming from the APC. This has funded the R&D, the prototype tooling and the production engineering required to see the project from the concept phase through to industrialisation.

“It wasn’t just the funding, but the ongoing assistance that we received from the APC that helped us to deliver everything that we set out to achieve,” comments Hurcombe. “The potential impact on the van sector of this technology is huge. It will genuinely change operating models going forward. And it’s given us a brand new revenue channel in a whole new market sector.”

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