Business Technology

How driverless innovation is providing opportunities for UK high-tech SMEs

7 min read

22 November 2014

We spoke to David Keene, chairman of RDM Group, about the huge opportunity automotive developments like driverless technology offer the UK’s high-tech SMEs, utilising the Made in Britain brand and the trend in on-shoring manufacturing.

When was RDM Group launched and what inspired its founders?

RDM Group was established in 1993, after I took voluntary redundancy from my role as special projects manager at MG Rover. 

I identified a niche in the marketplace to offer bespoke wiring harnesses to the automotive sector. A chance order with an Italian manufacturer – completed in my bedroom at home – went really well and this gave me the confidence to make more serious plans for growth. 

Today, the company employs 43 people and is on course to turnover £8m in 2014. It operates from an advanced manufacturing centre in the heart of Coventry and is involved in the development of new technology for the automotive, medical and telematics sectors. 

What do the path finding pods do and when could we see technology like this commercialised?

The LUTZ Pathfinder project, which is government funded and project managed by Transport Systems Catapult, will create driverless electric pods that will be used on the pavements of Milton Keynes. 

RDM Group is developing and manufacturing the pods and part of the electronics, with Oxford University’s Mobile Robotics Group supplying the autonomous technology that will map out the driving routes.

We are building three test vehicles that will carry up to two passengers and will travel at approximately 7mph. Each pod is fitted with industry-leading sensors so will be able to travel on a number of pre-agreed routes in and around the town centre. The idea is for the trial to take place next summer and, if successful, full roll-out we take place by the beginning of 2016.

What lead to you winning the bid for the project in Milton Keynes?

We are continually looking at how we can push automotive technology to new levels and have been actively involved in a number of low-carbon vehicle projects, including the all-terrain Electric Defender and EV Blue – a passenger vehicle that is controlled by an iPad and enjoys weight savings approaching 40 per cent.

RDM also has a telematics division, which has considerable experience in monitoring data and looking at technologies that can support autonomous vehicles.

What’s Britain’s role in the intelligent mobility industry?

The government has identified the intelligent mobility area as a key area for growth. Current projections suggest that the UK alone may expand to an industry employing 20,000 people and turning over £5bn within a decade.

What kind of opportunity does the driverless technology offer the UK’s high-tech SMEs?

In a nutshell, massive. SME manufacturers in England have re-positioned themselves so that they have the capacity to deliver high value, innovative components and services to sectors like driverless technology.

The fact our huge legion of universities are already engaged and leading on many areas in this marketplace is hugely encouraged and more opportunities should start to cascade down the chain.

However, we have to play our part. Work isn’t just going to be dropped into our lap; we need to be pro-active in showcasing our expertise, formulating strategic relationships and knocking on doors that may previously have been out of our reach. And importantly, when we get the chance, deliver.

Are you able to leverage the Made in Britain brand when working on these kinds of projects?

RDM Group is hugely proud to be a UK manufacturer and, whenever possible, we build it into our sales pitches and use it in our marketing material. 

It is an exciting time to operate under the “Made in Britain” brand. It is currently in vogue to build British and our engineering expertise and innovation is much sought after across the world, helped in no small part by Jaguar Land Rover’s global growth.

Read more on Made in Britain:

How did you fund the recent investment in the Advanced Engineering Centre and what’s it going to offer the company?

The funding came from internal company investment and a £123,000 grant from Coventry and Warwickshire LEP’s [Local Enterprise Partnership] Growing Places fund. This was a massive boost and probably speeded up our decision and completion of the project by 12 months. 

The Advanced Engineering Centre is a game-changer for us. It gives us an additional 20,000 sq ft facility that we have fitted out with two state of the art CNC machines, three injection moulding machines, a three-axis router, laser engraver, a vehicle trim shop, carbon fibre parts production, the latest CAD/CAM software and a dedicated area for vehicle conversions and builds. 

What this means is that we can bring in house a number of sub-contract manufacturing operations, giving it greater control over price, quality and delivery times.

It is a decision that is already paying dividends, with RDM on-shoring its Jaguar Land Rover “rechargeable” torch. This was previously completed in China, but all the work is now being undertaken in Coventry, creating a number of local jobs in the process.

What’s next for the RDM and how do you expect the company to grow over the next three-four years?

Our vision is to get to £25m turnover by 2017; ambitious yes, but certainly achievable. 

We’ve got the platform and capacity now in place to reach this level and the pipeline of opportunities certainly points to a sustained period of growth. Autonomous vehicles is certainly one area where we believe we can create a niche for ourselves and, if LUTZ is rolled out successfully, then we should be in the driving seat for future contracts.