Established in 1992 and owned by Chairman, Denis Meagher, who began his career at Salt Engineering as a tool-making Apprentice, Premier Group grew out of practical skills and know-how in specialised sheet-metal working.
As a privately-owned, Coventry-based business, Premier Group is on track to deliver £15m turnover in 2014, up from £12m in 2013 and employing over 160 people. It has become a respected global market leader in manufacturing low volume bespoke production panels, together with prototype production, primarily for automotive – accounting for 80% of turnover; with 10% output sold into rail, 5% into aerospace and 5% into one-off projects such as photo voltaics and ultra-thin materials. Services include engineering – tool designing, component and press feasibility with CNC programming, as well as tool manufacture, sheet metal work, project management, press shop and 2D and 3D laser welding.
Full turnkey solutions are provided to automotive companies including Jaguar, Land Rover, Aston Martin, SAIC, Bentley and Ford. Aerospace companies, like GKN, have recently been supplied with components in short lead times as part of prototype propositions and the business also supplied exhaust nacelles for the A400M Airbus. Innovations include ongoing developments in pressing AC300 and AC600 new high strength alloys for next gen automotive.
Notably they produced the prototypes for the Morgan 3 Wheeler in 2010, engineering and updating it with 21st century technology and working up prototype builds for bonnet, boot and cockpit using CAD design, CAE virtual development and CAM production techniques. Taking inspiration from the original car, but with high spec and tech content, the initial plan was to build 400 Morgan 3 Wheelers, but due to their great success they have produced over 1000. This contract meant working with Morgan through the initial design stage to ensure all the body panels were manufactured to the highest standards expected by Morgan’s customer base.
Premier Group have also worked with JLR for more than ten years. They have an established partnership with them in prototyping and fast response problem resolution. The new XJ is an example of the special relationship between the two businesses, with Premier Group manufacturing every panel, including closures, closure assemblies, superstructure and underbody.
In light of current policy focus on transforming transmission and propulsion technologies to low or zero emissions, Premier Group have been working in collaboration with leading OEMs on developments for hybrid and electric car prototypes, which are currently underway. All this activity has led to substantial plans for further investment by company chairman, Denis Meagher to launch a new business, focussing on a press shop and assembly hall.
New Business – New Site
Managing Director, Wayne Woolford, explaining their growth plans, says, “Right now (August 2015)we are working on a deal to find a suitable place to locate our new business. We are looking to invest £12m and create 150-200 new jobs in a press shop and assembly hall. The investment will be made in part by Premier Group and in part, we hope, either as a loan or a grant. We aim to open this time next year by August 2015, so time is of the essence.
“If our main business was about R&D we could get a grant; Sainsburys, for example, is doing EPOS and till research at Antsy Business Park, and they have received grant funding support. But we are advanced manufacturers within the auto supply chain working for tiers 1, 2, and 3,, supposedly at the heart of government’s Industrial Strategy, and we don’t seem to be able to get support. The whole approach doesn’t seem to be joined up in any meaningful way.” (2015: the company have shelved plans to locate new site progressing developments as far as possible at their current site)
“We don’t really see evidence of any change on the ground following the publication of government’s Industrial Strategy. It might be different for OEMs and tier 1 which are highly visible and perhaps closer to government. But what we’re seeing is a lot of money going into R&D, or the ‘techie’ and clean bits of manufacturing. We’re seeing quite a lot of expansion support for businesses developing CAD and 2D solutions (like M-TEC) on Antsy Park, but that business park only allows ‘clean’ businesses – more uni-type workshops. So, despite the theory, policies on the ground and boundaries can be an issue when you get down to trying to do things.
Low Carbon and Zero Emissions innovations
“When we speak of these technology innovations we are speaking of zero emission at ‘point of use’ rather than in life cycle terms. We are involved in developing some exciting programmes with OEMs. There are lots of issues that, to-date, have not been resolved. What happens, for example, when you break down on the motorway in your electric car, who comes with the charging kit? Of course inner London should be packed with these cars as they are clearly more practical on predictable shorter range runs. They are a fantastic evolution but we also need to think about what source is creating the energy that is going to power these next gen cars.
STEM and Creativity
“The whole education approach for engineering has lost its way…Maybe one key reason is because the companies responsible for sponsoring the apprenticeships – Triumph, Massey Ferguson, Matrix, Vickers, Peugeot, have all gone now. They wanted rounded individuals and provided young people with on-site training, concluding this in educational institutions. Today there is very little application in the formal engineering qualifications which can be far too generic, with much on-site training too narrow and specific.
“We have 22 apprentices and we are pushing to get these through all our departments, but we are just a small business. If we were a JLR then they would get to see all the disciplines and begin to put together the whole picture in terms of what we make, and why, and who we sell it to.
“Graduates come out of university with their aspirations raised far too high. Not everyone is going to be an MD and when they don’t become one, they quickly become disillusioned. My aspirations on leaving school were short all the way through as I did my apprenticeship, and by showing application it just happened” says Wayne Woolford.
Designing the 2012 Olympic Torch
Six months before the 2012 Olympics Premier Group were contracted by the London Organising Committee for the Olympics (LOCOG) to make the Olympic torch. LOCOG having reviewed over 1,000 competition entries, selected their preferred concept proposed by design duo, BarberOsgerby .
Once Premier Group had ensured with LOCOG that they would be able to work with their suppliers of choice, they selected Bullfinch (Gas Equipment) Ltd , in Birmingham for the LPG burners needing to be robust enough to withstand whatever the British weather might throw at them, together with local Black Country foundry, Alucast, renowned for their technical expertise in casting, to produce the top and bottom caps at either end of the torch.
LOCOG, on presenting Premier Group with the BarberOsgerby prototype, initially conceived in four parts with a conical top bearing the burner tapering into a finer stem to be held by the runners, were keen to see Premier Group work with these original design concepts, rich in symbolism reflecting both the Olympic heritage and ethos.
There were 8, 000 circular holes – each representing a runner and punched out of two layers of perforated aluminium, forming interlocking circles and creating the shape of the Olympic rings when looked at straight on.
It was designed in a triangular shape to represent a number of ‘threes’ associated with the Olympic Games – the three Olympics hosted in Great Britain – 1908, 1948 and 2012; the Olympic motto of ‘faster, higher, stronger’, and the founding principles for the London Games of sport, education and culture.
But there was at least one challenge still to be overcome in taking account of the laws of physics. Speaking with Wayne Woolford, MD, and Gez Halton, Operations Director at Premier Group, this was about the displacement of mass as a shape collapses from a wider cone into a narrower tube.
Where does the displaced material go? The type of metal hadn’t been specified and how this object was going to be produced in the sorts of numbers being required by LOCOG, who wanted 11,804 Olympic torches for the Games, no one was sure. This number was required as 8,000 torches would be provided for each of the runners involved in the 70-day relay around the UK; 2,000 for the Paralympics, with the rest designated for use by the official sponsors.
Premier Group’s first port of call was WMG at the University of Warwick, renowned for working in collaboration with industry. They wanted WMG to reverse engineer a prototype so they could produce a CAD drawing which could be further refined for production. This process involves using 3D scanners to measure the model and produce a digital image or a ‘point cloud’. However, with the 8,000 holes in the prototype the scanner found it impossible to develop the grid of ‘points’ needed to represent the image digitally.
So it was back to the drawing board. Quite literally. They saw their great strengths in the intellectual application of technology combined with low tech manufacturing, process and materials know-how to produce something extraordinary.
Crafted Design Solutions
Gez Halton says, “We were aware of the shortcomings of depending on the technology alone. The modern technology had neither been able to produce an image of the shape nor predict the material behaviour, but both had been possible when building the torch ‘the longhand’ way.
“In the end it came down to our experience and understanding of metal in finding a solution. We drew on our artisan and craft skills to develop and test different versions, manipulating the metals, machining out the 8,000 perforations to try to produce a physical version of the torch.
“We started generating the press tools and forming the shape and after much trial and error we found that we reached the point of being able to weld it together with a laser.”
“Turns out we overcame the laws of physics by ‘minding the gaps’,” quips Wayne Woolford, “you could say these absorbed mass as we manipulated the shape to create one we’d be able to reproduce through a viable production process. We refined the shape considerably making the torch in two pieces of aluminium, as opposed to the four originally proposed.
“We also had to ensure the design protected each runner bearing it from the heat and flames. And using aluminium we were able to produce the lightest torch ever made, weighing just 1.7lbs, making it even easier to carry.”
“It was difficult to manufacture, but we came up with a solution and process we knew was repeatable and I think when you look at the torch and its gold colour, it’s absolutely fantastic,” Gez Halton notes.
Whilst the design has not been without its critics, with some referring to it as a ‘designer cheese grater’ on its launch, its originators, designers Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby, have subsequently been recognised through many awards, most significantly perhaps through their OBEs, with the torch named as the Design Museum’s Design Of The Year, 2012, one of the creative industry’s highest accolades.
Reflecting on their experience as part of the team responsible for creating the Olympic torch, both Wayne Woolford and Gez Halton felt they were only just beginning to feel the benefits.
“We wanted to show that no matter what design you throw at us we would be able to make it,” says Wayne. “We recognised the torch could help us grow a greater presence for our brand — we are often required to be ‘quite insular’ as a lot of our work is secret, for example on cars of the future.”