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Changing directions: physicist spots a mechanical advantage

03 June 2010

In an occasional series that takes a closer look at the achievements of young entrepreneurs, Les Hunt meets a young man with a mission to steer the materials handling – and, eventually, automotive - market away from an outdated technology

Thomas Edison once quipped that genius is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration. He was extolling the virtue of hard work, of course, but today’s budding entrepreneur might put a different spin on that aphorism, as he or she treads the treacherous IP minefield to transform an idea into a commercial reality.

Innovation is, arguably, a far more complex process today than it was back in Edison’s time and taking a concept from the proverbial paper napkin sketch to proof-of-concept prototype is indeed fraught with difficulty.


Fortunately, however, there are budding young entrepreneurs willing to take the risks and put in the time and effort, as I discovered recently when I caught up with a very enterprising young theoretical physicist who, turning his talents to mechanical engineering, has come up with a bright idea for an innovative vehicle steering system.

James Martin is presently studying for an engineering doctorate at University College London (UCL), where he is researching tumour targeting techniques using CT imaging. But it was back in 2004, in the second year of his physics degree course and with sponsorship from the Institute of Physics, that he won an RAE Engineering Leadership Award, which was to prove inspirational. This not only offered opportunities for fact-finding missions to centres of technology in China and Japan, but also a once-in-a-lifetime chance to join an expedition to Antarctica under the guidance of explorer and conservationist, Robert Swan.

Later, with a physics degree under his belt and following a brief flirtation with management consultancy, he took a period of leave during which he was able to reflect on his Engineering Leadership Award experiences. Whether or not Swan’s environmental tutelage had made its mark, James’ eureka moment came when the idea of an environmentally beneficial vehicle steering system just “popped” into his head one sleepless night.

Virtually unchanged in principle since the first car took to the road, modern steering arrangements still pivot about a single axis, which means that the edges of the tyre surfaces in contact with the road move in opposite directions, limiting manoeuvrability and accelerating tyre wear (a consequence of which is particulate pollution). Still absorbed by his EngD research at UCL, James used his spare time to develop an alternative to this system – his ‘Annularly Arranged Articulating Segments’ (AAAS) steering mechanism concept without the benefit of any formal mechanical engineering training.

With a patent still pending on his invention, he is (not surprisingly) vague when describing the mechanical configuration of AAAS. But basically, the steered wheel is divided into a series of equal segments, each of which is capable of moving about two axes. Each segment is connected to a mechanism, which determines the steering direction, articulating independently of the others and in two directions (fore and aft, and sideways), which eliminates the ‘scrubbing’ reaction of a conventionally steered tyre. The result is remarkably improved manoeuvrability and a significant reduction in tyre wear.

James concedes that similar attempts have been made to achieve the objective of improved manoeuvrability, including the American ‘Sidewinder’ system for articulated trucks and Honda’s U3-X personal mobility device. He says AAAS steering does have similar advantages to Sidewinder (which is also similar to the Honda concept), but it achieves the motion in a different way. In particular, AAAS doesn't need a large number of smaller electric motor-driven wheels (the Sidewinder system) and can be completely mechanically based, meaning less cost and reduced complexity. He adds that it is also much easier to fit pneumatic tyres to the AAAS system.

Prototypes and markets
With very little in terms of resources, James constructed his first proof-of-concept prototype using medium density fibreboard - and it works! The next stage will be rather more challenging in terms of finance and fabrication, as he will need to present a second proof-of-concept prototype constructed from viable materials.

However, he received a considerable boost to his project recently on winning the 2010 Shell LiveWIRE ‘Grand Ideas’ Award – the newest innovation from Shell LiveWIRE, which gives free support to would-be entrepreneurs - adding £1,000 to his development war chest. In addition, he has obtained funding from Camden Borough Council and a loan under UCL’s Advances scheme.

“In such a tough economic climate, it’s easy to be put off starting a business but I urge any young entrepreneurs with a good idea to have a go,” says James. There’s a lot of support available from programmes like Shell LiveWIRE, which can help you turn your business idea into a reality.

“The financial boost of winning a Grand Ideas Award will help me to develop a high quality, second generation prototype with which to approach potential business partners. But it’s the recognition of winning an award like this that really makes a difference and has given me more confidence to promote the technology.”

However, the challenges remain. He is now keen to locate suppliers of materials and fabrication facilities; even trying to locate a welder has proved difficult, he says, and he has had to learn to weld himself using manuals and online guides. In a similar ‘make-and-mend’ vein, his aunt’s aging Micra, which will be retrofitted with the AAAS system following successful second-generation prototype trials, is to be the first test vehicle. But where the vehicle trials are to take place has yet to be decided.

Although the automotive sector sparked the idea in the first place, James is not planning an initial approach to this market, which has huge invested interests in existing technologies and a highly structured OEM supply chain. It is simply too complex and James is astute enough to recognise that these factors may present significant barriers. Instead, he plans to target the materials handling sector – in particular, component suppliers to the forklift truck industry, for which premature tyre wear and the pursuit of super-manoeuvrability are major issues.

In some respects, this young inventor is at a crossroads. He has a bit of a trek ahead of him in terms of maintaining project funding, prototype fabrication and eventual marketing. The options are either to push ahead with the project himself or to licence the IP to a tier-1 supplier. Having met him, I think James is probably more likely to pursue the former.

If you think you can offer James any help or assistance, he can be reached via email at aaas.steering@googlemail.com

Readers wishing to find out more about Shell’s LiveWIRE scheme, which awards four Grand Ideas Awards of £1,000 every month to small start-up businesses, should log on to www.shell-livewire.org


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