Formula One guns for hire: Williams Advanced Engineering offers F1 tech to the masses
What do you do when you've got a crack team of F1 engineering experts with time on their hands, as well as dream-level facilities for aerodynamics, carbon composites, electrification and low-volume manufacturing? All sorts of things, as it turns out. We spoke to WAE Technical Director Paul McNamara.
The Formula One season lasts around eight months, and requires Williams to build and develop some 4 to 5 cars a year. It's a high-stakes engineering contest as much as it is a head-to-head driving competition, drawing in some of the brightest minds in engineering to work with the very latest in materials, equipment and technology on big-budget, high-profile projects on the ragged edge of automotive design.
In 40 years competing in the Formula One circus, Williams has had remarkable results against the biggest and best race teams in the world. Sixteen titles, nine for constructors and 7 for drivers, is a remarkable result for a company that's not connected to the budget of a major auto manufacturer, and Williams' record as a constructor is second only to Scuderia Ferrari.
But even the lightning-paced world of F1 doesn't require all the team's brainpower and resources all of the time. There's times when the wind tunnels are empty, the carbon composites experts lie fallow and the battery geniuses stand around twiddling their thumbs. The company spun off Williams Advanced Engineering (WAE) as a way to redeploy their vaunted resources onto other projects that could use a dose of F1 knowledge and facilities, and it now employs over 250 people.
It's not only a money-making exercise – although WAE does support the race team. It's also a way to get Williams personnel involved in high-level projects where they can learn about new techniques, ideas and materials they might be able to bring back into the racing fold, as well as an opportunity to give sponsors some elite engineering assistance in addition to a logo on the side of the race car.
"The best example of that is Unilever," WAE Technical Director Paul McNamara tells us over Skype from his office in Oxfordshire. "They make Rexona, and we have that logo on the side of our car. We've worked with them on a number of projects, one of which was their soap powder production facility. Essentially, a slurry enters the top of a hot funnel and the slurry gradually turns into soap powder when it hits the bottom. It's quite an energy intensive process, and we did a lot of analysis working with them, and knocked 15 percent out of the energy bill for doing that at their facilities.
"We've also gone away and designed a solar powered fridge that sits on the front of a tricycle, that's used to ride around and sell ice creams in third world markets."
One of the team's key offerings is in aerodynamics, where F1 expertise is second to none and Williams has an advanced wind tunnel facility. But aerodynamics can have some unexpected payoffs outside the automotive world. "We did another project with fridge aerofoils," says McNamara, "using the aerodynamics of the Formula One, inspired by the rear wing. We took a fridge, put an aerofoil on the front of each shelf, and managed the airflow coming out of the shelves and down the air curtain to give a 30 percent saving in energy from those open-fronted fridges you see in supermarkets.
"Certainly here in the UK, that's a big energy draw. Estimates vary, but probably somewhere between one half and one percent of national energy consumption is going into those fridges. We can knock 30 percent out, that's a big slug of energy saved. And we've been successful in getting Sainsbury's here in the UK and Asda to sign up for a national rollout – that's going on month by month. We're going to take that global as a concept."
Keeping weight to a minimum, and placed exactly where it's needed, is paramount in the top echelons of racing, but very handy in a wide range of other applications. WAE's lightweight composites team can design and manufacture parts at breakneck speeds and in low volumes, leading to some interesting projects in this area too.
One example is a lightweight, aerodynamic hand-cycle for paralympic athletes. Another is the BabyPod, a project the team undertook to keep sick infants safe in ambulances. "it's a lightweight structure, made of carbon fiber," says McNamara, "with easy access at the top. We manufacture that here right next to the Formula One car."
Williams' electric efforts began with the KERS system in 2009, where the team began creating its own motors, inverters and battery packs. When KERS became a control system, manufactured by Mercedes, Williams began redeploying – first with a hybrid project working on batteries and controllers for Jaguar's C-X75 gas turbine hybrid supercar.
And then Formula E came along. "The timing for that was brilliant, says McNamara. "Us supplying the battery for the first four seasons, designing and developing that very quickly, it gave us a tremendous halo, but also a ton of expertise in how you make, develop and control a high performance battery – at exactly the same time as the automotive industry was thinking 'goodness, we've got to get batteries into cars, and we've got to learn quickly.' We were positioned fantastically.
"So that then led to a number of programs working for major car companies: VW, Jaguar Land Rover, Aston Martin … To design, develop and make batteries, usually in their advanced engineering, high performance space. And that journey has gone on to us announcing that we'll be opening a factory called HyperBat, in Coventry in the UK, where we become a tier one supplier for batteries, principally in the Aston Martins, Maseratis, Lamborghinis of this world, effectively a high performance, low volume market. We don't expect to compete with the mass market of electrification, that's not our heritage or background, but we can add experience, knowledge and input at the top end of the market."
When the HyperBat factory opens, job #1 on the docket will be manufacturing the electric powertrain for Aston Martin's Rapide E, the brand's first all-electric car and a bit of an animal. WAE has designed a 65 kWh battery pack with advanced cooling systems that ensure the car can be run flat out, with no power throttling, getting the same 600-odd horsepower throughout the entire charge cycle of the battery. This kind of extreme performance focus dovetails nicely with the team's Formula E experience, says McNamara: "with Formula E, the spectacle requires them to deliver the whole power of that battery for the whole race. So that's what we bring to it."
The convergence of the spheres
McNamara says that electric performance cars effectively pull in all three of WAE's major areas of competence: "going forward, we see electrification as a key thing, but that will drag in aerodynamics and lightweighting as a part of it.
"Certainly the challenge that automakers now face is that the fuel tank has got a whole lot heavier than it used to be. That's essentially where we are. Your gasoline fuel tank of 60 or 70 liters is now a 100 kilowatt hour battery weighing at least 3 or 4 times as much. So if you want to deliver cars that deliver the same range and the same experience, then the rest of the car has to get lighter to accommodate that bigger fuel tank, and lightweight technologies will be a part of that.
"Today, the cells generally make up something around 60-70 percent of the total mass of a battery. So you've got 30-40 percent of other stuff, and we work to make that other stuff –the casing, the controllers, the buzz bars, the copper things that conduct the current – we work to make those as lightweight as possible.
"Similarly, to deliver the real world range, improved aerodynamics will be a part of that. So we can connect the three things that we are strong at around this electrification idea."
Source: Williams Advanced Engineering