Even after 200 years in business, Woodall Nicholson, Europe’s leading specialist vehicle manufacturer, continues to innovate and evolve
Known across the industry for its patented brand of trailblazing innovation and design excellence, Woodall Nicholson has, from humble beginnings, propelled itself to a double century of growth and triple digit turnover. Widely recognized as Europe’s leading specialist vehicle manufacturer, Woodall Nicholson comprises of eight individual brands targeting multiple industries, meaning the firm is never reliant on any single sector.
At the heart of Woodall Nicholson, uniting the numerous brands that make up the larger firm, is a culture of continuous improvement and a freedom to invent better ways of doing things. Speaking to Manufacturing Today, CEO Frank Barrett explains more.
“There is an inherited culture at Woodall Nicholson defined by the fact that people are free to explore ideas and opportunities, whilst continually looking for ways to improve our products and applications,” Frank remarks. “The longevity has probably come from a desire to keep things fresh while remaining really, really intimate with our customer base. I think you can attend any amount of university courses nowadays about customer intimacy, but a lot of our strength comes from the history of the group and a commitment to bringing out products that actually satisfy the needs of the marketplace.”
Named as one of the 1000 Companies to Inspire Britain in 2020, Woodall Nicholson operates across nine production facilities, manufacturing everything from accessible transport and front line ambulances to ceremonial vehicles. In 2021, the company is set to add a brand-new facility to house its Technology Division. Based in the Scarborough area, the new division will be spearheaded by Woodall Nicholson’s evolving ProMech Technologies brand, and will draw on core competencies, innovative low-floor chassis design and eMobility solutions. Led by Chief Technology Officer John Randerson, the new site will be considered a Center of Engineering Excellence, and will help to deliver prototypes and facilitate expansion into the blue light sector.
Committed to enhancing its product portfolio across all brands to better suit customer and market needs for cleaner, more efficient vehicles, Woodall Nicholson’s Technology Division will play a key role in eMobility and the move towards a more sustainable future. Though Woodall Nicholson already possesses a host of green credentials, including electric vehicle and lightweight economical chassis design expertise, John and his team will be tasked with building on these and delivering an array of innovative solutions to optimize vehicle electrification across Europe.
“Even with all the difficulties of the pandemic in 2020, we were still able to open up and fully commission a new German facility for the funeral market,” Frank reports. “I think over the course of the next couple of years we will see the smaller businesses bring some more product differentiation onto the market, so we will be continually expanding our operations.”
With additional facilities across the UK, including in Bradford, Rochdale and Bolton, Woodall Nicholson is proud to be a non-corporate entity that celebrates the individual qualities of each of its separate brands. Each brand, from Coleman Milne to BINZ International, runs its own facility and Woodall Nicholson is a proud supporter of this associated approach to production.
“Giving each brand control of its manufacturing is much better than having one super factory, which might ruin our brand identity and negatively impact our relationship with our customers,” Frank declares. “We could potentially make quite large savings by consolidating our facilities but we don’t because we see the benefits of strong customer affiliation and brand recognition. From a cultural perspective, we don’t want the employees of each brand to lose ownership of their work, so we are quite happy to continue investing in and growing our manufacturing capabilities brand by brand.
“From a technology standpoint, electric systems work best, so we are building up our capability in those. We are also excited about lightweight composite structural materials, which we are currently focusing on at our German facility. I think we will cascade some of that through our UK operations in the next couple of months.”
Over the course of the last three years, turnover has doubled at Woodall Nicholson, from £65 million in 2018 to a predicted total of £130 million in 2021. The incredible growth has been fueled primarily by a focus on the application of new technologies, namely, the manufacture of electric vehicles.
“In the bus sector, we are an organization responsible for the world’s first five-ton electric vehicle, developed wholly internally,” Frank says. “We are a market leader in the ambulance sector too, where we apply advanced lightweight technology, and were recently part of the team that delivered the first hydrogen fuel cell vehicles for the London Ambulance Service. Ultimately, our products are really driven by what the customer and the market actually demands in an ever-changing, endlessly accelerating world.”
Woodall Nicholson already has four significant projects in the pipeline for 2021 and will be working closely with its technology partners to deliver the latest, cutting-edge client solutions. The new developments will build on the company’s success in 2020, which among other milestones, saw Woodall Nicholson introduce the UK’s first all-electric ambulance for West Midlands Ambulance Service – the E-DCA.
Designed, developed, and produced in Bradford, the E-DCA will be trialled by West Midlands Ambulance as part of the first step in electrifying the UK’s emergency services. It will be used on the service’s front line in emergency situations and its development reflects emergency service operators’ desire to bring the sector in-line with the global demand for widespread zero-emission transport.
Harnessing the expert capabilities of Woodall Nicholson brand VCS, as well as the wider skillset of the parent company, the E-DCA showcases both firms’ collaborative focus on class-leading engineering excellence and innovation. The VCS product line-up, all manufactured in Bradford, includes a wide range of vehicle marques and the company is recognised as producing the highest quality vehicles within the emergency services industry – a result of its commitment to highly-skilled, British-built design, and engineering expertise.
Benefitting from VCS’s already class-leading lightweight ‘Core Capture’ construction method, the E-DCA employs zero-emissions powertrain technology developed and proven within the wider Woodall Nicholson group. Powered by lithium-ion batteries situated in the underside of the ambulance floor pan, in a specifically designed and compliant enclosure, and boasting a low centre of gravity, the E-DCA has a power output of 129bhp (96kW). It has a top speed of 75 mph and can achieve a range of 105 to 110 miles with a recharge time of 4.25 hours.
“The majority of what we are bringing to the market right now is on the electric side of things,” Frank notes. “We’re not only looking at the drive elements but also on creating light-weight chassis with more robust material that can take weight out of the vehicle, while increasing passenger capacity and fuel economies. As you can imagine, in the ambulance sector, if you take weight out of the carrying capacity, the fuel consumption improves and therefore the operating costs for customers improve as well. We are now at the point where we are looking at hydrogen ranges and extending our applications to other vehicles, like inner-city buses.”
After remaining busy during the Covid-19 pandemic due to its close relationship with the blue light sector, Woodall Nicholson is now looking forward to a bright future of continuing growth. While the 2020 slowdown was an opportunity for the business to accelerate product development and upgrade its engineering and technical capacities, 2021 is expected to be one of Woodall Nicholson’s best years yet.
“This year, we’ve got new products coming to market that are applicable to support frontline services, as well as other sectors,” Frank reveals. “Another upcoming milestone will be the company’s commercial expansion. Our German operation is coming out of its lockdown period and we are excited about its whole European reach.
“We’re very enthusiastic about some of the international pockets of opportunity being presented to us at the moment,” Frank continues. “At present, we are approximately a 10 per cent international business, however, in line with our five-year plan, we believe 50 per cent of our products can be sold internationally. That’s one of our big objectives – to get the international dimension of the business going, along with full electrification for four-wheel customers across all of our product lines and businesses.”
Way ahead of most of its competitors from a technology application point of view, Woodall Nicholson hopes to become a specialist in taking new technologies to market in practical ways over the next three to five years. “I like the word practical,” Frank states. “You can have a product development company that creates a prototype and never actually gets a product to market, but our strength at Woodall Nicholson is that we deliver in actuality. We need to continue striving towards that – taking concepts and transforming them into actual vehicles in a short timescale. Most importantly, our customers will remain a big, big part of what we develop and how we develop it.”
As Woodall Nicholson continues to grow year on year, Frank is confident that the organization will double in size again within the next decade. For now, the CEO is dedicated to staying practical and maintaining the strong culture of the organization.
“We’ve got a fantastic team of engineers and capable people who are always looking to apply technology and differentiation to what we are doing,” Frank asserts. “The trick for me now is to make sure we empower all our brands and optimize our supply of innovation to our products for our customers. We want our people to continually challenge themselves so that they develop and grow. In return, we are all about making sure that our employees feel part of something they can see, touch and feel, rather than just clocking in and clocking out.”
Products: Specialist vehicle manufacturer