Interview - Paul McNamara, Technical Director, Williams Advanced Engineering

Motor racing fans will be familiar with the Williams name, but the firm is reaching out to markets beyond Formula One with its technology transfer development arm, Williams Advanced Engineering. Technical director Paul McNamara explains.

If you Ask your average person what associations the word ‘Williams’ brings with it in the context of engineering, you will almost certainly hear “Formula One”. Yet there is more to the British flagship motor racing brand than its association with legendary F1 drivers such as Damon Hill, Nigel Mansell and Jenson Button. The company has interests outside of F1 with Williams Advanced Engineering (WAE), its technology transfer development arm.“Over the years, we have done many projects outside F1,” says Paul McNamara, technical director of WAE. “They’ve usually been involved in motor racing in some way,” he says, citing the association with the British Touring Car franchise where the company worked with Renault. “But what really catalysed the division for me was when we started to move outside of motor sport.”

Referring to the company’s base on the Williams F1 Grove campus in Oxfordshire, McNamara says that what launched WAE’s separate identity was “when we worked on a car that we engineered here with Jaguar called the CX-75”.

There was at the time no separate corporate division, but as Williams gained momentum on that venture, it became clear that marking boundaries between side-projects and F1 had become a good idea. “The CX-75 was consuming a lot of engineering time and effort,” says McNamara, while from a group management perspective “if you really want the F1 guys to focus”, anything that comes out of that stable requiring a different focus, requires a different team. By making the corporate split, “we were able to manage projects that came out of our F1 expertise, giving us the best of both worlds”.

WAE was founded in 2010, with recent revenue generation figures showing a healthy increase over the past few years, from £15.5m in 2012 to £21.3m in 2015. However, the sleek new facility “didn’t come along until 2013”, with the UK’s then Prime Minister David Cameron performing the opening ceremony in July 2014. Today, WAE is mostly featured in the publicity limelight as designer of the battery that powers the electric racing cars in the Formula E Championship series.

McNamara is keen to point out that while the heart of WAE occupies a separate facility from the rest of the Williams group, “a number of my engineers sit inside the F1 group and we make a lot of use of - and work together with - the factory”. The spin-out company now has 180 employees, “but that doesn’t do justice to the overlap with F1 employees who are making components that go on to the sort of cars you see in our workshops, or other components for medical or military projects we’re working on”.

To demonstrate how this relationship works, McNamara explains how Williams has recently extended its F1 simulation capabilities. Yet because the overall company has an ethos of not using outside contractors when it can be avoided, the new simulation technology was executed by WAE staff. Another example of the symbiosis between divisions can be seen regarding the two on-site wind tunnels. Current regulations in F1 mean that “we can’t be in the wind tunnels the whole time with our own F1 team. So there is spare wind tunnel capacity that can be used by Advanced Engineering.”

Although many of the current projects undertaken appear to be outside of the automotive sector, their origins are a direct result of technology developed in F1. This is at the heart of the company’s philosophy: “We’re not a general consultancy outfit attempting to compete with other general consultancies. That’s not our ambition. Our ambition is to do projects that have some sort of technical knowledge or capability link to F1.” McNamara says that one of the benchmarks for whether the company will take on a project is “that we are actually leveraging something that we already have here. All of the 42 projects we are working on here today will pass that test in some way.”

McNamara’s first example, which he sees as a ‘core strength’ of WAE, is that of batteries. “They can go into military projects, one-off demonstrator cars, Formula E or bespoke projects such as medical equipment.” Yet the key here is that the proficiency in battery design came out of F1 “because we made our own kinetic energy recovery system (KERS). We put together a battery team, built facilities for test and development. So that heritage came to us out of F1 and now we’ve supplied batteries to Formula E seasons one, two and three.” WAE will also supply to the fourth season, with discussions taking place about the fifth in 2018.

Yet the transfer extends beyond this single step. “Because we did the batteries for Formula E, we are now developing them for hybrid car and full-electric car applications.” Probably the best example of this is the Aston Martin full-electric Rapide, which at the time of my visit to Grove was resplendent in the company’s reception area. “We’re now working with Aston Martin to convert that into a full production version that will go into the market in a few years’ time.”

McNamara concedes that there are two ways of looking at the concept of repurposing F1 technology. When asked whether the automotive batteries came as a result of not wanting a great engineering idea to go fallow once the KERS system had been applied in F1, or whether it was a business decision to find applications outside F1 to assist with the commercial development of WAE, he admits it was probably “a bit of both. In the early days, we thought about where it could be reapplied. But almost by accident” the technology was pulled through on projects such as the hybrid CX-75.

“But then, when we sat down to build up Advanced Engineering, we talked about our strategy, what were we selling and what we were telling people we could do. Then it was a case of saying that we had the facilities and people who could deliver a complete battery capability. We can design the safety cell, make modules, build it at the production facility, we can make the controllers ourselves and interface it with your car. We have everything on site to deliver that.”

If one of the core technologies is in batteries, then one of the key engineering skills at WAE is its prowess in low-volume manufacturing. “If you look at Williams F1, you can see that it is very vertically integrated. Pretty much everything on the car, with the exception of the engine, can be made here on this site.” He goes on to say that most engineering organisations have now come to rely on “more suppliers than Williams does, but we have the capability on site to do pretty much everything we have to”. What that means for McNamara is that “when we want to make two-a-week of something, we actually have the people here with the skills to do it”, which means that the WAE setup has become adept at “building demonstrators very efficiently and effectively in small batches”.

Imperial beginnings

McNamara, who is 53, is a mechanical engineering graduate from London’s Imperial College, and has spent almost his entire career in the automotive industry. There was an early encounter with nuclear energy, but that was in the mid-1980s at a time when the UK government decided that it was going to pull the plug on the industry. “I ended up in cars and I’ve spent most of that time particularly in powertrain and gearboxes.”

His first main job was at engineering consultant Ricardo, where he was to spend two decades. After a stint at the sharp end involving “a lot of time overseas as well as working on diverse things from ship engines to motorbike engines”, he spent 10 years in general management, rising to managing director of the company’s UK divisions. “That took me out of engineering for a while. Ricardo is an engineering company, yet as an MD you spend most of your time thinking about other things.”

McNamara’s next step was a move to Shanghai Automotive (SAIC Motor), spending much of his time in China, where he was principally involved with getting the MG brand into production in the territory, which, with annual sales of up to 300,000 units, “is quite a significant operation”.

In March 2015, McNamara joined Williams Advanced Engineering as technical director. “The reason I moved to Williams was principally because I could see that innovation in batteries and light weight in the F1 area were aspects of the car industry that I’d been working in for so long that were going to become important.” McNamara saw a match between “what Williams had here” and the requirements of the industry that he’d seen emerging over the decades, and the move was made.

So what of the future? How does he see the industry panning out? “We are in a period of rapid development right now. In the past five years we have seen more change in the automotive industry than we saw in the previous 25.” One typical aspect of his job in the past would be “worrying about the next batch of emissions regulations. Carbon dioxide was a bit off the agenda because it was pollutant legislation that was driving our focus.” Back in the day, manufacturers were routinely churning out cars where the main requirement was to trump “the previous lot in terms of emissions. It was a sort of iterative five-year cycle, where we could say, ‘done that. When’s the next set of regs coming in?’.” It was basically about making petrol or diesel engines better, such as having an improved transmission and keeping the car as light as you can.

“What we’re now seeing is the carbon dioxide regulations getting dramatically harder”, meaning that to meet the challenge, the market has to move with more commitment towards electric and hybrid cars. “It’s no longer good enough to turn out internal combustion engines. You’ve got to have electric and hybrid. This is what is producing a fundamental change in the way we do things.”

Yet it won’t be plain sailing as McNamara believes there isn’t the volume of engineers ‘out there’ with sufficient familiarity with battery technology to make a seamless switch. Concurrently he contends that there isn’t the depth of supply, or a decent enough supply of market data about customer take-up behaviour, to guarantee a smoothly integrated future.

“I think that this propulsion powertrain issue is a big one that’s hitting us now and we will need different engineering skills.” Further to which, the power issue “sucks in everything else we’ve been talking about, such as light weight. That’s before we’ve even touched on the ‘connected vehicle’ aspect. At the moment, Williams is doing some work on that and the direction we’ve approached it from is simulation and we call that ‘driver in the loop’. That’s quite a big conceptual change, as the purpose of the simulator is not just to train the driver, but also to design the machine so that it works with the driver.” In other words, it examines the interaction between the human and the autonomous car.
McNamara reiterates that the aim of Williams Advanced Engineering is technology transfer, where “everything comes out of F1 and spreads out to other industries”. He says there are three reasons for this. First, as a side division of the F1, it is an opportunity to provide an additional revenue stream. Second, it means that Williams can offer more depth-of-service to its key sponsors than simply putting stickers on the side of F1 cars: “For example, we can talk to Unilever about how they can get better synergy by working with us.”

Finally, “we are trying to do good things with our engineering to further the Williams brand”. He’s talking about modern concepts such as sustainability, environment, social responsibility and education - not a set of principles you often associate with the cut and thrust of F1, but ideas that seem to come naturally enough to describe the future as McNamara sees it. *

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