Bus and Coach Features & Interviews News

Designing a minibus, light weighting and the next generation

09 July 2014 #Bus and Coach #Features & Interviews #News

Phil Simcox is about to reveal what he contends is the next major step  as far as minibus production is concerned. As Sales Manager of conversion specialist Advanced Minibus of Clay Cross, Derbyshire, he will soon market a minibus able to transport 16 children, yet still remain just under the all-important 3.5-tonne weight barrier.

The newcomer will be based on a Citroën Relay which, says Simcox, is noted for its low unladen weight. “We should have it on sale by the end of July,” he states.

Taking weight out of minibuses so that they do not breach key weight and licensing barriers is a perennial challenge for converters, given that air bags, air-conditioning systems, stiffer body shells and other alterations have increased the weight of the vehicles on which they are based.

“We produce M2 category accessible minibuses and it is essential that we keep them under 5.0 tonnes gross weight,” says Mike Jones, Production Director at Hythe based Euromotive. If you go above that, he points out, you fall foul of the rules governing the construction of full-size buses, and that means a lot more expense.

Cutting weight means paying close attention to all aspects of the vehicle, including the weight of the seats.

“The seats we fit now weigh approximately 14kg to 16kg including all the fixtures and fittings,” says Jones. “In the past we were talking about as much as 22kg.”

Other changes are pushing weights back up again, especially where accessible minibuses are concerned. For example, wheelchairs are getting heavier so today’s wheelchair lifts typically have to be capable of hoisting up to 400kg once the weight of the wheelchair occupant, plus any carer who may also have to ride on the platform, are added to the equation.

On the face of it that means the lifts themselves need to be heavier as well. However, careful engineering means that PLS – Passenger Lift Services – has managed to cut the weight of its latest cassette-type minibus lift by 50kg to 220kg says Managing Director, Adam Beck,  without compromising its performance.

“One thing we’ve done is wrap the cassette itself in recycled plastic rather than sheet steel, which is what we used to use,” he says. “By doing that we’ve saved 18kg.”

Accessible minibuses can at least take advantage of a concession that takes the weight of any access equipment fitted into account. It enables those car licence holders who would normally be limited to 3.5 tonnes to drive models grossing at up to 4.25 tonnes, subject to certain restrictions.

With 50 full-time employees, Smethwick-based PLS has just amalgamated three separate fabrication and assembly plants into a single building boasting over 32,500sq ft of space with the aim of increasing efficiency and cutting lead times. “By doing so we’ve been able to get rid of two of our five hydraulic presses,” says Beck.

The factory will soon play host to a new paint shop, but PLS is much more than a Black Country metal basher, stresses Beck. “We spend anywhere from £200,000 to £400,000 on research and development each year,” he says.

Companies like Advanced and Euromotive also have to take the requirements of European Community Whole Vehicle Type Approval, and the various routes to compliance, into account.

“We carry out 300 conversions a year and we’ve gone the IVA – Individual Vehicle Approval – route,” Jones says. “It’s the best option for us, given that the products we produce differ so much one from another.”

Despite the challenges in design, minibus orders are on the rise, say converters. Mellor Coachcraft of Rochdale reports a strong order book and has had to recruit more staff in order to cope. “Euromotive was busy during the first half of 2014 and although there is a bit of a lull at the moment, we expect demand to come back strongly during the latter part of the year,” Jones says.

“The order book is fairly buoyant at present,” says Simcox. “We’re getting a lot of enquiries from schools.”

It seems that just because the buses are mini, the order book is not. A glance at the latest sales figures from SMMT shows that sub 3.5-tonne minibuses are up 8.5% year to date and 62.5% up in June compared to the same period last year. So, it seems that you’ll be seeing a great deal more of this ‘next generation’ of minibuses on our roads soon.

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