Advanced Electric Machines Group (AEMG) is focused on delivering the world’s most sustainable electric drivetrain products. The business offers both design and manufacturing capacity to six market sectors including Automotive, Aerospace, Commercial Vehicle, Off-Highway and Industrial.
Electrification can only help achieve net-zero ambitions if the technologies developed are more sustainable to manufacture, use and recycle than those they replace.
AEM – already an internationally recognised designer and manufacturer of electric motors and powertrain systems, with customers all over the world – is committed to utilising its partnerships and expertise in materials, manufacturing and design to ensure that all its products represent a more cost-effective, higher-performing and greener solution for all its target sectors. Its current prime focus is on commercial vehicles, automotive and trains.
AEM’s core technology, a radical evolution of the long-established switched reluctance motor, contains no rare-earth magnets or copper windings and offers all the performance and efficiency benefits of permanent magnet motors without their environmental drawbacks.
The company’s HDSRM family, designed for commercial vehicles, is the culmination of six years of research to deliver a magnet-free traction motor based on a switched reluctance design. With integrated power electronics, AEM’s SSRD motor for passenger vehicles is designed to deliver market-leading performance in a cost-effective, lightweight and robust design.
The beginnings of AEM lie in Newcastle University where its CEO, Prof. James Widmer, studied for a PhD in Electrical Machines. He became director of the Electric Machines unit of the university’s Centre for Advanced Electric Drives, where he worked with a number of UK companies taking their first electric vehicles to market. Newcastle University is noted for its excellence in translational research and in establishing collaborations with industry, and AEM makes use of a number of patents developed there by James Widmer and other experts. His colleagues at the University included AEM’s CTO, Dr. Andy Steven. The company’s CCO, Mike Woodcock brings experience from both the steel industry (Tata) and the Advanced Propulsion Centre UK (APCUK) in Warwick, a joint venture between UK Government and the automotive industry. APCUK was born out of the Automotive Council (founded in 2009), which has done much to lower the risk for established companies of considering new technology at early stages of development. Facilitating funding, providing expertise and enabling collaboration, APCUK aims to create technologies for a cleaner automotive future
Nissan, manufacturer of Nissan Leaf electric cars, is the North East’s largest company by turnover and its electric vehicle manufacturing plant in Sunderland is one of the largest in the world. In late June 2021 Nissan announced a major expansion of battery production in Sunderland, which will create thousands of new jobs.
The presence of this giant has helped to make the North East the UK’s hub of expertise in automotive electrification, with related SMEs clustering around it.
“We are a big collaborator as a business,” says James Widmer, “working with universities, suppliers and customers around the UK, and with partners to enhance different aspects of what we are doing. The North East has a culture of manufacturing, innovation and export, and there are so many experts in automotive electrification within 25 miles of our HQ. Working from home is fine some of the time, but nothing beats having five engineers around a whiteboard when you’re trying to put something together. Our location in the region is also an asset when it comes to recruitment of the right skills.”
AEM has already attracted more than £25m in government grants and equity investment. Its prime sources of funding have been through EIS (Enterprise Investment Scheme) and grants (for instance from Innovate UK), but its other investors include regional funders such as Newcastle-based VC Northstar Ventures.
“We’ve used grant funding strategically to engage global OEMs [original equipment manufacturers],” explains Mike Woodcock. “They are usually much bigger than us – normally an early-stage business like AEM is just too small to be interesting to them – but we are experienced and we understand our way around the UK government grant programmes, so we become a very easy partner for them. We are seen as low-risk, with a low investment threshold, and we can support the manufacturers in looking at innovation technologies that they might not otherwise have considered. With them we can build a programme that gives them confidence we can trace the route from proof of concept to production – cost-effectively too.”
AEM established this kind of relationship with Bentley Motors at a very early stage. Bentley’s investment came in the form of practical support for the programme rather than as finance, since AEM was able to achieve proof of concept with the help of government money. That initial programme, worth c.£1.4m, has evolved into a £5m programme that could lead to commercial production of a car powered by AEM’s innovative motor technology over the coming years.
“UK universities and companies originate world-class technologies – such as the lithium ion battery – but they often end up being developed elsewhere because you need to go elsewhere to raise money,” says James Widmer. “This country is missing the opportunity to create UK-originated businesses on a global scale, because, by comparison with the US, there is nervousness when it comes to ambition and valuation. The UK wants proof of incremental progress at every stage. The US believes that if you invest big in a company and help it grow, it will become world class. I would say this to major UK investors: please be more ambitious, more bold, and then we can achieve massive multiple returns for people in the UK rather than overseas.”
“You could almost say there’s a quantum difference in investment between the UK and the US,” adds Mike Woodcock. “For British firms like us to compete globally, we really need the City to believe a bit more. We didn’t do a seed, pre-revenue or Series A round, but we have invested over £25m in our technology. In the UK, while there’s a powerful engine at the front of greentech in the form of innovation grants and collaborative research funding, what that achieves doesn’t necessarily get recognised at the next step. In 10 years our technology could be in every car on the road. We want that technology to be based in the UK.”
“Recently, we’ve recently seen two other North East companies that have been bought by a US company,” continues James Widmer. “It’s great to see that inward investment, but the companies are at risk of being lost to the UK ecosystem.”
Mike Woodcock explains that: “Experience and expertise in the North East is enabling our growth and will support us through the next stage. We’re having Zoom meetings every day with people all over the world – the US, Germany, New Zealand … but here in the North East we have direct access to the people and skillsets we need, and there is a strong collaborative spirit in the automotive community here … It’s core to our business model to remain a manufacturing business, not a licensing business. At the moment, relationships in Europe, Australia, Mexico, Africa and South-East Asia are likely to come on stream. We will have to internationalise so that we can manufacture close to our customers. At heart we’re an engineering company, so detail is everything, and our heartbeat will remain in the North East.”