Complete vehicle focus at Wrights

Complete vehicle focus at Wrights Complete vehicle focus at Wrights
The Wright Group has always been more than a mere bodybuilder. From its pioneering work on low-floor buses to its continued experimentation with alternative fuels and its determination to put  Northern Ireland on the global manufacturing map, the company has sought to punch above its weight and been happy to compete against some of the world’s leading automotive players.

The business remains unashamedly a family concern. The senior management team may not all be related to the Wright family, but they share the values that have underpinned the company for nearly 70 years.

As the industry enters the new era of Euro 6, Wrights continues to show its ability to create innovative solutions, harnessing the latest technology with a determined focus on economy and ecology.

An entirely new double-deck product, the StreetDeck, is being launched with a new engine partner, Daimler/Mercedes-Benz. And the co-operation with Daimler stretches well beyond the European sphere of Euro 6 buses, with the announcement earlier this year for a partnership targeting the Indian market. Wrightbus will build high-floor buses for that market based on Daimler chassis at a soon-to-be-established plant in Chennai, and is also working with Guantong Automobile Company in Zhuhai, China for the assembly of double-deck kits for Hong Kong. And ahead of this year’s Kortrijk show it announced a partnership with VDL to sell the StreetLite as a Citea MLE into the continental European market.

The new StreetDeck is a clear sign of the transformation of the company from body-on-chassis into complete vehicle supplier. Group MD Mark Nodder points to the onset of the recession as a real filip for the strong focus on supplying complete vehicles. “Back in 2009 we had 950 employees and with the recession we thought we may lose up to 350 people,” says Nodder, “but we were able to keep them by bringing more bus building in-house. What began as a temporary measure is now a permanent feature for us.”

He says that the company realised very quickly that it could not afford to be dependent on a relatively small number of customers in its domestic markets. “If ever we needed a wake-up call the recession gave it to us.”

Nodder says that Wrights now has a real appetite to build a bus in every market, and is targeting that in five years time, 50 per cent of its business will be outside its traditional markets.

The StreetDeck doesn’t mean that Wrightbus is abandoning body-on-chassis products of course and the body for the StreetDeck is interchangeable with the new Volvo 5-litre B5TL chassis. The move to smaller engines for the Euro 6 double-decks is not just parsimony however, according to Wright Group engineering director Brian Maybin, who points to the need for what he terms “active thermal management” of the SCR and the need to have plenty of heat to keep the obligatory DPF clearer. “We concluded that it is better to have a smaller engine working harder,” says Maybin. He understands that some bus engineers might instinctively want a larger engine, but says this is not the best solution at Euro 6 where engine temperatures should ideally be around 240 degrees C, and not below 200 degrees C.

The new Gemini 3 body on Volvo’s B5TL and B5LH hybrid demonstrates the value of pursuing a ruthless weight-reduction strategy. Between them, Volvo and Wrightbus have reduced the unladen weight by around one tonne, with the double-deck in full TfL-specification coming in under 11 tonnes. A provincial, single-door version will be even lighter of course. Some of the weight reduction is down to reducing the area and thickness of glass on the upper deck with shallower windows, a move that also helps to reduce the ‘solar gain’ and consequently puts less demand on the cooling systems. Seats are also a factor with the latest Ster units being 2.5kg lighter.

The pursuit of light weight buses has a direct relationship on operational costs, according to Maybin, who estimates that a tonne of vehicle weight removed accounts for an 8 per cent improvement in fuel economy.

On the single-deck front, Wright is continuing to offer bodies on Volvo and VDL chassis, but is clearly targeting growth in its integral StreetLite product which ranges from 8.5 to 11.8m lengths.

A blurring of the distinction is evident between midis and ‘full-size’ single-decks, according to Nodder. “Customers increasingly talk to us about single-deck, without defining it as lightweight, midi or full-length,” he says. It may have been some time coming, but the era of lightweight single-deck vehicles has definitely arrived, and the heavier traditional single-decks are now being seriously challenged as the fuel economy of lighter weight vehicles, including StreetLite, tempt operators faced by ever-rising fuel costs.

Wrightbus is adamant that it is still working closely with chassis suppliers for those customers who want heavier buses, but it is equally convinced that the numbers of those vehicles will continue to decline.

And of course, who can forget the New Bus for London? The winning of the contract for the first prototypes and the subsequent order for 600 buses has been an enormous boost for Wrightbus. “I cannot emphasise how important this product has been to this company in the last few years,” says Nodder.

Whilst the vehicle appears unlikely to win new orders for Wrightbus beyond London’s mayor, the development on the NBfL has undoubtedly already fed into the development of the StreetDeck and the latest Gemini body.

The production order for NBfL and the StreetLite’s success have been behind the opening of a dedicated chassis building plant in Antrim. The En-Drive plant is one of a number of businesses established in the past few years within the Wright Group, alongside Composites, which produces specialist fibreglass components, and Metallix, which fabricates metal components. Both these operations feed into the new complete vehicle portfolio, as well as offering additional opportunities for external contracts. The Composites division produces more than £8million worth of parts a year and is projected to grow further in 2014. Metallix currently employs more than 100 people and is also planning for growth.

The technical team at Wrights is now more than 100 people as the company has developed beyond its traditional bodybuilding core, with almost 40 engineers dedicated to chassis development at EN-Drive.

Some of the outputs of the technical team including two exciting developments that take the hybrid concept further than simply running a bus partly on electric power. As the leader of a consortium that includes Arriva and Voith, Wrightbus is working with specialist manufacturer Flybrid, based at Silverstone, to develop a ‘mechanical hybrid’ that harnesses braking energy to supply additional power that could result in increased fuel economy of up to 15 per cent, at a much lower cost than the now-commonplace hybrid electric drive system. The first Flybrid units are now undergoing testing and Arriva will trial a bus fitted with one early in 2014. Wrights say that they plan to produce 25 units later in 2014.

Alongside the Flybrid is another example of harnessing braking energy, the Micro Hybrid that has already been demonstrated in Euro 5 StreetLites. The Micro Hybrid can complement Flybrid since it uses the braking energy to power electrical ancilliary equipment, rather than the driveline. Fuel economy improvements of more than 9 per cent have been achieved in early trials, according to Maybin. He points out that the system has now also gained Low Carbon Emission Bus certification which entitles operators to enhanced rates of BSOG, in addition to the fuel savings. The system is an optional extra, but at around £6-9,000 is likely to be a tempting offer given the potential payback.

Indeed, if they deliver what they promise, it will be interesting to see what impact these less-costly ‘hybrid variants’ have on the popularity of a full-blown hybrid drive system given the striking cost differentials.

The next chapters in the Wright Group story will undoubtedly have an increasingly international focus and, if the partnership with Daimler bears fruit in Asia, a quantum leap in global influence and reach. North America is also a clear target, according to Nodder, and indeed the company is no stranger to doing business there with iconic vehicles such as the Las Vegas StreetCars.

There is of course always the chance that the group could be swallowed up by a larger conglomerate, or tempted away to lower-cost manufacturing centres, but the company is so firmly rooted in the Northern Ireland economy, that this seems an unlikely prospect for the medium term.


See our special e-dition with additional information on the Euro 6 models.