Taking racing expertise to the skies

Everyone knows Lola as one of the big names in international motorsport, but some might be surprised to know that though its expertise in composite manufacture learned on the track

, the company now does the majority of its business in the aerospace and defence sectors and has rapidly increased sales as a result.
For the last 53 years, Lola Cars have been competing at or very near the top of all kinds of motorsport series, including F1 (under a variety of partnerships and guises), all manner of sports cars, Champ Car and A1GP. Now, the company's flagship products are its Le Mans LMP cars, which took overall victory in the Le Mans Series in 2009 with Aston Martin Racing and again this year at the penultimate round at Silverstone with Toyota Motorsport GmbH. Furthermore, no less than five customer entries using its cars competed at the most recent 24 hour race last June.

Underneath this success in motorsport however, lies a very different story. After a disastrous attempt at re-entry into F1 in 1997, the company was bought out by Martin Birrane and started along a path of diversification that would prove not only to add stability to the business, but accelerate its development in other areas, aided by a wealth of experience producing composite products in a racing environment.

So much so in fact, that motorsport aficionados might be surprised to learn that only around 25% of its business is now in the motorsport sector. Even more surprising is the rate at which its customers in aerospace and defence are helping to expand its enterprise. Its motorsport portfolio remains at much the same level but, it says, over half a century of having to work at the highest level of racing car design and manufacture have been well received by the aerospace sector both in terms of product quality and low leadtimes. The value of this expertise means that the company is now predicted to double its turnover to £25 million by the end of 2011. Its current three to five year plan expects this figure to double again to £50.

Flying racing cars

You could even go as far as to say that Lola now considers itself a bit of an aerospace specialist. It produces all of the tooling and the fuselage for the UK MoD's largest UAV programme, the Watchkeeper WK450 ISTAR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance) drone. It has also become a composites partner to BAE Systems, producing structures for the Mantis technology demonstrator, which with its 24m wingspan is described as a ‘long range deep and persistent' unmanned aircraft for high endurance and large payloads. Tight scheduling within the programme required that some parts, including tooling, have had to be produced in a matter of weeks and success in this area has led to further work with BAE on Taranis, a full UCAV (unmanned combat air vehicle) technology demonstrator. It has also produced complete structures for Meggitt Defence's smaller Banshee and Voodoo UAVs and is now involved in the X-48B blended wing project run by NASA, Boeing and Cranfield University.

It's interesting to note that where Lola Composites used to run as a separate subsidiary of Lola Cars, as both businesses developed, their activities have naturally merged together to the point that the former no longer has a separate managing director and resources across the Group are now fully shared.

In fact, Lola Composites' commercial director Paul Jackson describes the UAVs it now helps produce as ‘flying racing cars', but is it really that simple? “We see ourselves as an aerospace specialist because we can offer and end to end capability,” he explains. “Clients like the fact that when they come in with a concept, we can do all the FEA and programming and can tell them what structures can be made and what characteristics they will give. We've also got CFD capability and our own wind tunnel – and that's certainly not just used for developing cars. We have now got 35 Catia V5 stations here and some of our programmers have now come from experience in the aerospace industry.

“All the core competencies are here, including a number of the latest 5-axis milling machines and laser tracking equipment for accurate production and inspection. Our largest autoclave is 8m long and up to 3m diameter, so we've got the kit we need to support these programmes.”

Thinking big

Gaining such experience is has been vital for growth as the whole industry gets to grips with UAVs and their potential, but that isn't the whole story. Aided by work producing tooling for Bombardier's Challenger, Gulfstream and Global Express business jets, it has set its sights on larger aircraft programmes, winning work to produce tooling for CSeries wings being produced in Belfast, in particular the CS300 variant.

Other, more unusual aerospace products being worked on include hulls for Hybrid Air Vehicles' LEMV (Long Endurance Surveillance Vehicle), which is best described at part airship, part aeroplane. Jackson continues: “They came up with the shape and then we went through the complete design for manufacture, including all the structural and analysis work. These are big structures so we've embedded people into their design house at the supplier. We're working on design onto tool manufacture and components at the moment and hopefully that will fly soon.”

Ready for anything

Within these sectors, the company's diversification has taken it into several other interesting projects. Following the unmanned theme is its involvement in the construction of BAE's Talisman miniature submarine and it has also added the defence company's Artisan 3D naval radar system and SAMPSON radomes (as used on the Royal Navy's Type 45 destroyer) to its portfolio.

“Innovation is really just a buzzword but the philosophy is central to what we do,” continues Jackson. “Typically on some ship borne products we'll be replacing metallic parts with carbon structures. We've also upgraded the wind tunnels for BAE at Warton and Filton. They had been using 8ft tall mahogany blades and we redesigned them in carbon fibre. The lighter blades meant that they could get up to speed and slow down quicker for shorter turnaround times. Whatever the product, we must be flexible because very often things will change. Despite this customers are still always looking for a cost-effective approach so we are often involved at the design stage to make sure that what they want to make is practical to manufacture as well.”

It's not just in specific programmes that Lola wants to take the lead either. Having used RTM (resin transfer moulding) for many years, it believes that the process can be much improved, especially regarding scrappage and is currently conducting its own research into preforming and processing techniques, taking novel approaches in order to realise opportunities in component structure and move towards more automated methods. If successful, an efficient out of autoclave process such as this would be a valuable selling point, allowing cycle times to be greatly reduced and enabling larger volumes of work to be carried out.

So, Lola's sales targets may be ambitious but as it has demonstrated, each new project brings valuable experience that positions it strongly as manufacturers turn towards composite structures to achieve the performance they require, and as its motorsport business continues to get results on the track, its future is looking ever more towards the skies.


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