In recent years UK manufacturer Swift has been blazing a trail of innovation in both construction methods and connectivity. Aboutcamp caught up with Paul Cunningham, Head of Engineering at Swift, to find out more.
Words Terry Owen
Aboutcamp BtoB: The introduction of ‘SMART’ construction for 2014 was a significant milestone for Swift. What benefits is this new technology now bringing to the company and its end users?
Paul Cunningham: We wanted to move away from the use of traditional materials such as timber and ply, which are prone to failure if exposed to excessive levels of moisture. The SMART system uses engineered materials such as GRP skins, polyurethane framing and cellular core materials that deliver consistent and predictable levels of performance. This means we can save weight whilst also giving customers a solution they can count on. This is reflected in our 10-year body-shell warranty which we put in place following extensive safety and durability testing at the Millbrook proving ground in the UK, as well as cold chamber testing. Our schedules put prototypes through conditions most products will never experience in a lifetime. Also, whilst SMART construction was developed to make our body-shell constructions even more robust, it was also linked to improvements in aerodynamic performance. Both of these factors contribute to a lower cost of ownership for our customers. Since 2014 we have continually improved our SMART construction system. Our most recent improvements include fully timber-less floor structures with recyclable PET core.
Aboutcamp BtoB: What can you tell us about the production technology supporting SMART construction?
Paul Cunningham: We have recently invested heavily in automated panel press lines and additional large flatbed CNC capability. We’ve also expanded our assembly capacity with an additional £8m state of the art factory complex on our 100-acre site in East Yorkshire. Digitisation of our factories and workflows is a big focus for us at present as we adopt an industry 4.0 approach and move towards fully paperless systems. Our ‘SMART factory’ programme has seen the introduction of RFID tagging for vehicles. This enables information specific to that manufacturing cell to be communicated to our operatives who can now report problems directly. They also have access to bills of materials, work instructions and 3D CAD drawings – all at the touch of a button. Significant investments have also happened at the front end of the design process where we have introduced virtual reality workflows which allow designs to be reviewed and production workflows to be planned from the very beginning of the design process.
Aboutcamp BtoB: What about future investments in production technology?
Paul Cunningham: Future investments in manufacturing and plant equipment will be closely tied to the integration of new technologies that we are currently working on through our various R&D programmes.
Aboutcamp BtoB: All Swift’s products now have a GRP outer skin. Do you think aluminium is dead?
Paul Cunningham: Aluminium still has many uses within caravan construction. However, GRP offers many compelling benefits for use in exterior body panel applications. These include durability, impact resistance and good repairability. GRP also offers the opportunity to tailor the performance of skins for particular applications dependant on the resin to glass content and configuration. We can therefore strike the perfect balance between performance, weight and cost. We’ve worked closely with our strategic partner Lamilux to develop solutions for our interior wall panels, where we have integral paper finishes to achieve various different aesthetics. As we use GRP for both the external and internal skins, we can more easily achieve a ‘balanced’ panel. This enables tighter manufacturing tolerances and improved build quality.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Aside from SMART what other steps are you taking to reduce weight in your RV’s?
Paul Cunningham: We are working on various R&D programmes to this end. Also, I’m part of a PhD programme at Warwick University developing light-weighting methodologies for our next generation of products. This work is focussed on achieving weight savings through material development, geometry refinements and the integration of components and functions. Engineering simulation is also an area of interest for us and we are working towards full vehicle simulation to create truly optimised vehicle structures for the future. As well as pursuing these larger step changes we are continuously reducing the weight of our current product through smaller, more focussed, initiatives. An example of this is recent work to move more of our high-volume metallic bracketry over to fibre reinforced polymers using injection moulding as the manufacturing route.
Aboutcamp BtoB: How important do you think slide-out technology is to the future of RV’s?
Paul Cunningham: We are always looking to optimise the usable space in our vehicles and slide-out technology offers a practical solution to increasing the interior space of vehicles both large and small. Our customer’s desire for more space is highlighted by the significant uptake of the new wide layouts in our caravan range. However, we are seeing a trend towards smaller vehicles, such as our Basecamp, which still deliver big on usable and practical space for customers. Nevertheless, I’m sure slide out technology is here to stay, in one form or another. However, whilst we support the general concept of slide-outs we have a lot more testing and validation work to do before we will be introducing this kind technology into our SMART construction system. We need to be sure that any integration meets with the standards for robustness which we have set for our body-shell constructions and also that the cost and weight targets can be balanced such that we can offer a compelling solution to our customer base.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Swift’s Command system broke new ground when it was launched for 2016. How are dealerships and end users coping with this new technology?
Paul Cunningham: The acceptance levels for a step change of this magnitude far exceeded our expectations and I am pleased to say that we are currently running at 90%+ registration rate for new vehicle owners. I believe the key to its success is that we have continued to focus on ease-of-use and features which add value. We took the decision early on to deliver this across our full range of vehicles and also include a pre-installed Thatcham Category 7 approved pro-active tracker. As with any new technology there has been a learning curve for both our dealers and customers but the benefits are clear and we feel that the transition has been managed well. We have recently further improved ease-of-use by introducing a touch screen TFT and making improvements to the panel and app interface.
Aboutcamp BtoB: How useful is the information gathered by the Command system in monitoring the performance of the RV and assessing warranty claims?
Paul Cunningham: Swift Command has powerful diagnostic tools within it which allows our dealers and technical support teams to assist customers remotely. In many situations this can be the difference between a problem being sorted remotely and the customer continuing to enjoy their holiday, or them having to terminate it to seek a repair.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Are OEM component suppliers able to give you the connectivity you need for centralised control?
Paul Cunningham: We work closely with our Tier 1 appliance manufacturers to ensure maximum integration with our Command system. They have been very supportive of our new system and have worked closely with us to achieve maximum connectivity across a range of appliances. We currently offer full control of all the major vehicle systems such as power, lighting, heating and air conditioning units. This allows us to provide a seamless experience to our customers.
Aboutcamp BtoB: What technology do you use – CAN bus, LIN bus or bespoke?
Paul Cunningham: Swift Command uses CAN bus to communicate between the central PSU, the touch screen control panel, and the communications unit. We work within the guidelines of The Caravan Industry Bus (CI BUS) which is based on a LIN standard as its main framework, with additional structure used to tailor it and define the CI Bus standard.
Aboutcamp BtoB: How do you see the future of connectivity and the ‘internet of things’?
Paul Cunningham: Connectivity is now a ubiquitous concept, which offers convenience to customers in many forms. We will continue to undertake significant development of our Swift Command system in the future and to expand its connectivity where we see value in doing so. Obvious next steps would be voice control and further technologies which are now considered mainstream in other consumer goods. However, any development must add value to the customer as opposed to rampant technology for its own sake. In the future we would like to move towards more automated workflows for the customers so they don’t have to constantly interface with the technology, unless they choose to, allowing them to enjoy their holidays to the fullest. Car manufacturers do this kind of automation very well in their latest vehicle ranges and new IOT solutions for smart houses also have some interesting functionality, which we could look to learn from.
Aboutcamp BtoB: There is a lot of talk at present concerning all-electric motorhomes. Is this an area of development you are looking at?
Paul Cunningham: We are watching this space with interest and developing ideas in the background through our in-house R&D programmes. Some form of electric drive vehicles in our sector is inevitable in the longer term as PHEV and BEV powertrain options become a more compelling option for customers. However, current battery technologies simply do not support the driving range which our customers demand from their vehicles and their weight significantly erodes user payload. I believe that PHEV systems such as AL-KO’s Hybrid Power Chassis offer the best solution in the short term for customers who need emission-free all-electric driving for urban environments.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Swift is perhaps unique in that it operates a training academy for its employees. Does this help to develop staff with the right engineering skills for your products?
Paul Cunningham: Recruiting, engaging and retaining top engineering talent is crucial to the on-going success our business. Our academy was founded to ensure that we are giving our people the tools and opportunities to excel within our business and we support engineers on academic programmes from apprenticeships to doctorate level study. Growing our own talent through these tailor-made programmes ensures we will have a capable and motivated workforce for generations to come. Our academy also extends beyond the company to our dealerships. We aim to give them thorough and consistent technical training so they can deliver the best possible service to our customers. We are incredibly passionate about developing all the stakeholders across our entire value chain and our academy programme ensures that we remain focussed on achieving this.
Aboutcamp BtoB: What do you love most about your job?
Paul Cunningham: The opportunity to lead the engineering teams at a top tier manufacturer is a dream come true for me. However, the exciting part is having the opportunity to delight our customers by delivering innovative new designs and technologies which add value to their holiday experience rather than overshadowing it. The RV industry as a whole has come a long way from its cottage industry roots and the technology integration and current rate of change is hugely exciting. I look forward to developing our next generation of products and the engineering talent which will continue to drive our industry forward.