21 November 2007 | UK | Issue 169
Analysis: ADL accelerates
A 50 per cent increase in capacity, 200 new jobs, a record £160million order book, and a new hybrid double-decker. Colin Robertson, Alexander Dennis Limited’s chief executive, has his foot on the accelerator – and pressed hard to the floor. The spectre of TransBus has been blown away in the slipstream.
Robertson sees an approaching upsurge in demand for buses, and that’s the motivator for the increase in bodybuilding capacity at ADL’s two main plants, in Falkirk and Scarborough. The move replaces some of the capacity taken out when the market was low, and the former TransBus factories in Belfast and Wigan were closed.
But although he might be new to the bus industry – Robertson joined ADL six months ago after a long career at Terex – he’s a shrewd operator and recognises the cyclical nature of the business.
So his aim is to increase capacity without adding to overheads. Expect to see more outsourcing of work.
“We’ve thought this through – all the issues, risks and opportunities,” Robertson says. He sees a new focus on what he describes as ADL’s core competencies – design, assembly and the support of the customer in the field.
Robertson’s arrival has also seen a change in focus on the hybrid project, Ecoturas. When it was unveiled 12 months ago, ADL was working with MST, a company strong on technology but weak on practical bus experience. It was seen by many as a strange choice. Now the key partner in the hybrid programme is BAE Systems, a choice with which bus operators can feel much more relaxed. BAE Systems’ hybrid drive is being used by US manufacturer Orion, part of the global Daimler business, which has orders for some 1,500 buses from operators in North America. Robertson is enthusiastic about the feedback from users.
Neat packaging for hybrid Enviro400.
Here in the UK, bus engineers are bound to be impressed by the packaging of the hybrid drive in the Enviro400 double-decker. The whole package sits neatly in the same space as the normal diesel drive train. The batteries – now new-generation lithium ion in place of heavier lead-acid batteries – will sit below the rear upper deck seats. ADL insists that the added weight of the batteries will not affect the vehicle’s carrying capacity or its ability to pass the tilt test. Expect to see ten ADL hybrids in service in London next year – five double-deck and five single-deck – with series production from late 2008 or early 2009.
“London is the most significant market,” says Robertson. “We can’t get this wrong.”
The ADL hybrid uses a four-cylinder Cummins ISBe engine rather than a smaller car engine as used in some other makers’ hybrid buses. ADL argues this gives durability and an engine that workshop staff know. “All operators are familiar with the engine,” Robertson points out. “It’s not undersized or oversized for the application.” A five-year battery life is anticipated, and the system adds about 500kg to the Enviro400’s unladen weight.
And Robertson stresses that the ADL hybrid does not need to be plugged in to the mains electricity supply to have its batteries topped up, thanks to an on-board battery equalisation process.
A hybrid Enviro500 double-decker for the North American market is also on the cards, based on a new 12.8m version of the model. The USA has been an important market for ADL with the Enviro500, with two orders totalling 131 buses for Las Vegas, and interest being shown in other cities. The 12.8m, with diesel power, can carry 99 seated passengers. A twin-staircase model, with a 90-passenger capacity, is being developed.
Where the UK hybrids use a series drive in which the diesel engine does not directly drive the bus, for North America ADL will use an Allison system with parallel drive in which both power sources – diesel engine and electric motor – are linked to the gearbox.
ADL won’t be drawn on the cost penalty attached to its hybrid models. “Given the right volume of sales, we can expect a steady move towards more affordable pricing,” is all Robertson will say on the subject. But he argues that there will be whole-life benefits adding: “Nobody can say when you get to break-even point over a conventional diesel.” That will, of course, be influenced by the rate at which fuel prices rise.
As well as the ADL integrated option, the Enviro300 is available on Volvo B7RLE or MAN A69 chassis.
The company’s full-size single-decker, the Enviro300, has been upgraded and restyled to match the rest of the Enviro range. The Enviro300 is a 14.4-tonne model, and you can sense some frustration at ADL that operators have been reluctant to embrace the concept of a big bus which is not an 18-tonner – particularly when it uses heavy-duty components and only the adoption of 19.5in wheels, to optimise the interior layout, dictates its relatively low GVW.
It is our belief that the integrated option incorporating both ADL chassis and body provides an unbeatable combination of lightweight construction and six-cylinder engine power, providing reliability, durability, maximum fuel economy and operating benefits,” says Robertson. But he accepts the reality of the market place, and the Enviro300 body is now being offered on both the MAN A69 and Volvo B7RLE chassis.
Working with MAN gives ADL the ability to offer an EGR alternative to the SCR-equipped Cummins engines used in its own chassis. To broaden the appeal of the Enviro200 midibus, it will also be available on MAN chassis as well as on ADL’s own.
This overall approach suits both operators and ADL,” Robertson explains. “They are keen to work with us on a full range of products, from small to large, and, on occasion, they want an option to SCR engine technology. Our strategy gives them that option.”
The drive to increase capacity has seen production of the Enviro200 moving to Scarborough, with the first completed vehicles being delivered this month to Town Lynx in North Wales. New facilities have been created at the Plaxton factory, and from January it will be building Enviro200s at the rate of eight a week.
“The transfer of Enviro200 production from Falkirk to Scarborough is well advanced and by January we will have ramped this up still further, giving us the capability to double output at Plaxton from 350 units per year to nearer 700,” says Robertson. “In parallel with this, we have commenced the out-sourcing of various sub-assembly operations at Falkirk, freeing up much-needed space and enabling us to introduce a further double-deck production line. This will give us the ability to build another 250 double-decks per year and, coupled with other initiatives across the group, we are now well positioned to increase capacity by around 50 per cent during 2008.”
Next year sees the 50th anniversary of ADL’s Falkirk plant, which Robertson describes as “a tired old lady”.
The move of the Enviro200 to Scarborough does not affect the Centro range which was launched by Plaxton while it was still an independent business. However in the longer term it is hard to envisage ADL continuing to offer two similar products. The Primo, too, continues, but might be in line for an Enviro-style facelift.
The move of Enviro200 production does, of course, bring a change in emphasis at Scarborough, with bus manufacturing once again outstripping coach production. One new model joins the coach range for 2009 – the Volvo B9R. The first vehicle, to National Express specification, is nearly complete.
Enviro200 switch means that bus production now outweighs coach production at Scarborough.
There has been a remarkable transformation at ADL. Having purchased the Plaxton business barely six months ago, it has seized the potential to expand it. It has produced what promises to be a viable hybrid with remarkable rapidity. It has improved the Enviro300.
And it has a chief executive with a vision. Addressing the company’s progress thus far, Robertson asserts: “Doing more of the same and hoping for the best isn’t in my operating mode right now.”
Which sounds like just what Britain’s biggest bus maker needs.