E&T visits a model racing-car manufacturer, and discovers that many of the tools, materials, challenges and demands involved in designing and building cars are the same, whatever scale you build them to.
The UK's predominance as a centre for the design and development of Formula 1 racing cars is well known - many of the teams involved are based in a corridor stretching west from London along the M4 motorway. But if you instead head north along the M1 and then turn off into an industrial estate on the outskirts of Northampton, you will find yourself in the world of another motor racing success story.
This world, however, exists at just one-tenth the scale of its more glamorous counterpart. This is the base of Schumacher Racing Products, which designs and builds radio-controlled model cars that are used both by professional drivers in national and international competitions and by enthusiastic amateurs.
Models or not, the vehicles it produces do share some common traits with full-size F1 cars - and indeed mass-produced vehicles. These include: the need for compressed development timescales; the incorporation - at least at the top end of the range - of advanced materials such as carbon fibre; a world-wide supply chain; and the use in their design of sophisticated computer-aided design (CAD).
In fact, the roots of the company also lie in the F1 world. In the early 1980s, Cecil Schumacher worked as a high-performance transmission designer for engine maker Cosworth, and he set up the company as a spin-off from his pastime of designing parts for his model car enthusiast son, Robin. Appropriately, Robin Schumacher is now in his tenth year as managing director of the company.
The company originally built and won championships with 1/12-scale models, before moving to the then-new 1/10 scale in 1996 and winning yet more European and US championships. It also distributes cars and accessories from other manufacturers, as well as developing its own.
Robin Schumacher says that the company, which remains entirely privately-owned, employs 22 people and produces 'several thousand' model cars each year, which are usually supplied in kit form. Most purchasers, he explains, actually want the satisfaction of assembling their own vehicles.
The cars fall into two broad categories: those for the professional competitive racing circuit, and those used by hobbyists - though each category is further sub-divided into on-road and rather more rugged off-road models. In volume terms, the two sectors are roughly equal, though the professional models tend towards the top of the price range - generally around £200-700, though a very high-spec racing car can top £1,000.
In both instances design and development is carried out entirely in-house and is primarily the responsibility of a three-strong team headed up by engineering manager Vic Ababurko. He explains that the company has a number of basis chassis types in each category - there are currently three for the racing cars and four for the leisure vehicles - and that the bodies put on top of them are generic in form, inspired by - but not copied from - existing full-size vehicles.
But Ababurko also says that the racing and leisure vehicles are designed 'from different cost bases' with one of the major differentiators being the materials used in the chassis. For the leisure vehicles, modified nylon reinforced with anything from zero to 30 per cent glass fibre will be used. But for racing vehicles, where stiffness is of paramount importance, the glass fibre content may increase to 50 per cent and may even be replaced by as much as 40 per cent aerospace-quality carbon fibre.
In contrast, the vehicle bodies are consistently made from moulded polycarbonate materials. Nevertheless, as Schumacher notes, they still have to be highly resilient. The professional racing vehicles are driven at top speeds of 50mph in competition, and if they do suffer an impact it is roughly equivalent to a full-size vehicle suffering a crash at ten times the speed.
3D CAD models
Both types of vehicle are designed and developed in the same way. The primary design tool is the Wildfire 5 3D CAD modelling system from Parametric Technology Corporation - the company has a single seat supplied by reseller Root Solutions. Ababurko confirms that design involves the use of both surface and solid modelling, plus kinematics to simulate suspension systems.
'We build the whole car on-screen,' he says. The 3D CAD model is then used as the source for all downstream operations including in-house manufacturing and the communication of product information to external contractors. In the latter case, the company transmits 3D information using the IGES data transfer protocol and as 2D drawings generated in the Cadkey software system, which is in turn fed with information from the primary 3D database using the DXF file transfer format.
The use of state-of-the art design technology is crucial to the company's competitiveness, according to Ababurko. 'We always have at least one new car in development,' he says. 'Without this technology there would just be too many iterations in the process.' Interestingly, he adds that the company is considering adding finite element analysis to its software capabilities. 'It would help us reduce weight further,' he explains.
At present the manufacture of mould tools and all metal parts has been outsourced on cost grounds and is carried out in China and Taiwan. In fact, says Schumacher, any of the company's cars will typically contain parts from as many as 20 or 30 different sources, most of them external to the UK.
But plastic moulding and CNC machining of carbon fibre components has been retained in-house. Cost was not the overriding factor in this decision: Ababurko says that keeping direct control of those operations supports physical prototyping, and hence helps compress overall product development time-scales. At the moment, he says, a complete new product development project might typically take from 12 to 18 months to make the journey from initial go-ahead to market launch.
Moreover, the technology within the cars is certainly not static. One area that has developed significantly over recent years, for example, has been battery technology. The latest model from the company is the Cougar off-roader, which uses lithium polymer batteries with 5.5Ah of capacity at 7.4V. But given that races generally last just five minutes the machine can, says Ababurko, 'push 50A'. Interestingly the Cougar also embodies an innovation in its general layout - its engine is positioned in a central, mid-body location instead of in the outboard position that a car of this type would previously have utilised. Schumacher explains that the change provides for better weight distribution and hence stability.
The company has a number of market research and feedback mechanisms to ensure that its design and development operations are aimed at satisfying real market requirements. One is that most professional race events in the UK and some races abroad are attended by a member of Schumacher Racing's engineering staff, who can observe the performance of the cars involved and record their drivers' comments. Another is that the company has its own racing team through which it provides sponsorship for drivers, which in turn E F forms the basis for continuing contact and expert commentary on vehicle performance.
In the case of Schumacher Racing, two drivers are particularly well-supported. For touring cars it is Chris Grainger, who was the 2009 British Champion in the class, and for off-road buggies Simon Moss. But in addition, says Schumacher, the company has several other similar if less extensive tie-ups, though ultimately the feedback always comes down to the basic fact that drivers want cars to be 'lighter and stronger'.
Small yet very fast
As far as the leisure market is concerned garnering feedback from the market is one of the primary tasks for the company's sale team. 'We are always looking for gaps in the market that we can fill,' says Schumacher.
The company has certainly introduced some striking new products for this sector recently. Within recent months it has introduced the Fusion 28, for instance, which Ababurko describes as 'our Italian thoroughbred.' This is a touring car model with a three-speed gearbox powered by a two-stroke 4.5cc engine capable of 33,000rpm. The vehicle can therefore go from 0-60mph in just two seconds and achieve an astonishing top speed of 80mph, running on nitromethane fuel. As Ababurko laconically notes: 'Petrol would not be powerful enough'.
Meanwhile the same fuel is also used for the four-wheel drive Manic Monster Truck that was launched late last year. In contrast to most of the company's other products this is at one-eighth scale. It also uses a twin-cylinder engine that necessitates the use of an aluminium chassis to help dissipate the heat generated during the extended run-times made possible by the 125cc capacity fuel tank. But despite its relative bulk the Manic can top 40mph and stopping it requires the use of disk brakes with steel pads.
The company's customers, concedes Schumacher, are mostly male and concentrated for the most part in the 16-40 years age group. But the company provides that limited demographic with what they want and in consequence is successful. Schumacher says that though the business had to go over to a four-day week for a short spell at the beginning of the recession, it got through without laying anyone off and in fact recorded some growth last year - so much so that it actually had to recruit more people. In any case the company is not dependent on the UK domestic market. Schumacher says that around two-thirds of its output is exported.
For the future, he also sees 'plenty of scope to grow the business'. One option is making further advances into the one-eighth scale off-road world which he says is the most popular format world-wide. What will remain the same, though, is the fact that the company's approach to product design, development and manufacture is entirely analogous to that employed by manufacturers of full-size vehicles. Schumacher Racing Products may build small, but it thinks big.