Quickstep’s efforts to crack the automotive market received a couple of significant boosts last month. Brent Balinski spoke to the company’s CEO Philippe Odouard about the potential of the Quickstep’s RST technology and opening a new auto headquarters in Geelong.
Though they’re well-known in the industry as an aerospace supplier, composites company Quickstep has had its eye on the automotive world for some time.
In an increasingly carbon dioxide-constrained world, lighter materials will only become more attractive to car makers looking to make lighter, more fuel-efficient vehicles.
“Europe and the US and a number of other countries as well where they are taxing very heavily vehicles that are producing more than 130 grams of C02 per kilometre,” Quickstep managing director and CEO Philippe Odouard told Manufacturers’ Monthly.
“And that 130 grams is down to 95 in 2020 and lower beyond that.”
Compare that to a Holden Barina, not known as a particularly chunky vehicle, which puts out about 150 grams of C02 per kilometre, and the future need for lighter vehicles in those markets becomes obvious.
The firm’s goal of serving the composites needs of the auto industry – also the subject of a joint Quickstep/German government/Audi trial, running since 2011 – received two significant boosts last month: a $1.76 million Geelong Region Innovation and Investment Fund (GRIIF) grant the signing of a Letter of Intent from Thales.
The grant – funded by the federal and Victorian governments and Ford Australia – will be used to set up a factory and automotive division, headquartered in Waurn Ponds and co-located with Deakin University. Establishing the new site is budgeted at $5.6 million up to June 2017, and is predicted to create 30 jobs.
Under the agreement with Thales, Quickstep will be used as a supplier if Thales wins its bid to make Hawkei vehicles for the Defence Force. Final approval is expected next year. As many as 1,300 Hawkeis would be produced at Bendigo.
Quickstep would exclusively supply composite bonnets, mud guards and side skirts for the Hawkeis, creating these components using the company’s unique Resin Spray Transfer (RST) technology.
To make a part with RST, resin is sprayed onto a mould, topped with dry fibre, then curing takes place using the company’s eponymous, out-of-autoclave Quickstep process. The RST method is “robotised”, was refined in trials with car companies including Audi and Lamborghini, and takes only a few minutes to create a part.
A small-scale RST facility was inaugurated in August last year at Quickstep’s Bankstown headquarters.
According to the company, RST addresses the three challenges for composites in auto component manufacture, a different set of challenges to what’s the case in aerospace.
Cycle times must be mere minutes in length, surface finish for an external panel must be of a high quality (Quickstep can produce Class A finishes) and costs must be competitive.
Odouard says that RST is unique in ticking all three boxes, with others usually managing only two.
Interest in RST, which is a technology Odouard’s company also plans to license out to clients (a robot cell would sell for between $1 million and $2 million) has exploded lately, he said.
“A few months back we were talking mainly to luxury car makers like Audi, but now we talk to – well, basically every single car manufacturer has an interest,” Odouard explained.
A plant would require perhaps a dozen RST cells – which will be designed and made at Geelong – to produce 20,000 cars a year.
The Geelong location will put Quickstep near some of the country’s best brains in composites, being close to the recently-opened Deakin University Carbon Nexus research facility, headed by Associate Professor Bronwyn Fox.
It will also see the composites technology company continuing its relationship with Deakin, which goes back well over a decade. The university currently has two PhD students, working on Quickstep-related projects.
“The fact [is advantageous] that now you have really this cluster of companies in terms of carbon on one side, the university on the other, and a very strong department in composites, you have companies that are more and more in there, you have people with a very good background in the car industry,” said Odouard.
“You have a lot of knowledge in terms of automation in the automotive industry, so you can actually get all this at your fingertips.”
Also in the neighbourhood will be promising carbon fibre wheel manufacturer Carbon Revolution.
As many have noted, carbon fibre is expected to play a major role in Geelong’s industrial sector as it transitions to a post-Ford environment in 2016. It’s no coincidence that the first beneficiary of the GRIIF grant scheme was Carbon Revolution.
Quickstep obviously wants to play a major role in Geelong’s composites future, but its core business remains in contract manufacturing in aerospace, where it is a supplier to four of the biggest five manufacturers.
Its main source of revenue is the $US 300 billion Joint Strike Fighter F-35A Lightning II project, for which it delivered its first shipment in February 2013.
“Without the JSF program we'd probably still be an R&D outfit in Perth with about eight employees,” executive chairman Tony Quick candidly told the ABC in June last year.
Quickstep recently signed a $US 139 million deal to deliver 700 vertical tail sets in April, and revenues have increased over the last three years as work on the JSF (and the Super Hercules C-130J) has climbed.
It's a long way from Quickstep's beginnings, which go back to an inventor named Neil Graham, in whose head a metaphorical lightbulb went off while he was taking a bath a long time ago. His idea: using fluids instead of the slow, energy-hungry autoclave process to heat and cure composites.
The journey from concept, to development (including with the CSIRO in the 1990s), to incorporation to commercialise the Quickstep process in 2001, to here has been a long one. And another milestone is expected shortly as the firm targets being cash flow positive in FY2015.
Does Odouard (who joined the company in 2008) have any advice for manufacturers who – like Quickstep – might have a game-changing innovation on their side but who are daunted by the many challenges in front of them?
“Don’t be impatient is my advice,” he said with a chuckle.
“Because it takes time and you need to be able to establish yourself and demonstrate that your technology is working; then you need to meet people, to be facing customers and discussing with them and travelling.
Being in Australia, there’s the trouble of isolation, so you also shouldn’t be afraid to travel wherever and whenever it’s needed.
“Talk to the customer and understand what their problem is,” he offered.
“If you don’t understand their problems, you just pitch the technology, nine times out of 10 you’re just wasting your time: because you’re not answering their questions, their problems.
“And the big problem is getting them to express their problems. And design a solution with them to suit their needs. All of that’s just marketing 101, I suppose. [laughs]”
Slider image: YouTube/Victoria Bowen-Miller