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The carbon fibre conundrum: how we made it affordable for commercial vehicles

Three years ago at Van Experience Live, we got involved in a conversation around payload capacity on 3.5-tonne ‘supermarket-spec’ home delivery vehicles, and quickly realised there was a huge opportunity to make these vehicles lighter, enabling them to carry more shopping to more doorsteps.

After all, we’d got plenty of experience under our belt in lightweighting techniques – from airline seats, to London Underground train doors, to sports car chassis. Why not turn out expertise to something new, and apply our knowledge to LCVs?

So we put our best minds on it and set about developing an affordable, ultra-lightweight range of vehicle bodies for 3.5 tonners that could significantly increase payload, reduce emissions and improve fuel efficiency – all while saving fleets money.

From the outset, we knew carbon fibre was going to be the solution, with its very strong and lightweight properties. But we also knew others had tried this approach previously, and because it was eye-wateringly expensive – partly due to the lengthy and complex production process to manufacture each part – the costs simply hadn’t stacked up.

So therein lay the conundrum: how do we make it affordable for high volume road transport?

Never let it be said that us engineers don’t like a challenge; in fact, I’d say we love one!

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So we focused our efforts on constructing the bodies using the same sandwich panel technology we’d used to create a press formed composite rail door for London Underground. By moving away from manufacturing parts in an autoclave, and press forming the panels instead, we could cut the time it takes to construct each part from more than three hours, to just minutes.

And on top of that, we built from scratch a robotic assembly line that can build a finished body every 42 minutes – significantly quicker than the two-weeks a typical manual build takes with carbon fibre.

Uniquely, our van bodies have a 10-year lifespan (and structural warranty), as they can be moved to a new chassis after 5 years – which is also a key factor in their price competitiveness. And we’ve future-proofed them by making them compatible with electric and hybrid vehicles, as well as diesel.

All in all, it’s been a phenomenal team effort – using materials and production techniques which we’ve been developing for more than 10 years. What’s more, we strongly believe our ‘Blue Ocean Home Delivery Pods’ (so-called because of the sizeable amount of recycled plastic in their build) will bring a huge range of benefits to last-mile delivery fleets: for everything from groceries and parcels, to electronics and white goods.

Payload is boosted by almost 50% compared to competitor vehicles, because of the weight savings made, meaning significantly more goods can be carried per vehicle, per journey. And we’ve achieved significant improvements in fuel economy too, thanks to the aerodynamic technologies we’ve applied to the design.

All of which offers substantial savings in fuel, labour and operating costs, plus emissions reductions. Our extensive testing shows a typical supermarket fleet could save up to £6,700 per van, per year!

Watching the first of our Blue Ocean Home Delivery Pods rolling off the production line has been a very proud moment for us all – but the even greater satisfaction will be seeing them on the road with a major supermarket very soon.

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