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Lightweight delivery pod puts Penso in line for growth

27 August 2020 #Features & Interviews #TNB News

Coventry-based engineering firm Penso has delivered the first of its Blue Ocean Home Delivery Pods to supermarket giant Asda.

Built from carbon fibre and recycled plastic, the pods promise huge weight savings, allowing operators to carry bigger payloads and make fewer journeys.

For fleets this has three main benefits – reducing road miles, and thereby emissions, and slashing fuel costs.

And for Penso the potential is huge, with the boom in home deliveries set to continue over the coming years.

The company has invested almost £20 million installing a brand new flexible automated robot assembly line with the potential to build up to 15,000 dry freight and temperature-controlled pods each year, and order books are already filling up.

This week TNB caught up with Penso Managing Director Daniel Hurcombe to find out more.

TNB: Congratulations on the delivery of the first 25 Blue Ocean Home Delivery Pods to Asda. How did the concept come about?

DH: It began with a chat with the directors of Mercedes-Benz at Van Experience Live at Milbrook.

We looked at the vehicles that were there and they asked what we could do to reduce their weight, whether we were able to take a couple of hundred kilos away.

That got us really thinking. We started with a desktop study and pretty soon went back to them and said, ‘we can do two hundred kilos fairly comfortably’. It all kicked off from there.

Our mission from the start was to take weight away, but to do so without jeopardising any of the integrity or aerodynamics of the body.

TNB: And the Blue Ocean pod is the direct descendant of that initial conversation?

DH: Essentially, yes.

To begin with we carried a grant funded activity together with Advanced Propulsion Centre to demonstrate how much CO2 we could take out of not just an individual vehicle, but a whole fleet, and looking at the journey towards electric.

From a commercial perspective we wanted to make sure our concept was future-proofed and that our pods could be moved from a diesel powertrain to an electric powertrain chassis with very little trouble at all.

We all know electric’s the future but there will be a transition period, so we needed to think about the here and now as well as what lies ahead.

It doesn’t matter whose fleet you look at today, 99% of the fleet is still diesel, and our approach was to look at how much impact we could make on that 99%, rather than the 1% that’s currently electric.

TNB: And what were the results?

DH: By dramatically reducing the unladen weight, improving the aerodynamics and reducing the frontal area of the vehicle, we managed to achieve a pure economy saving of about 30 to 35%.

It’s not just about straightforward mpg though. The savings come in different ways.

For example, the extra weight available means one of our customers only needs to carry out one delivery run a day instead of two. By adding nearly 500 kg to the payload, the vehicle doesn’t have to return to the depot and can go out for the whole day. This in turn means they can make their route planning more efficient and reduce the number of miles they travel.

That was the principle we took back to the Advanced Propulsion Centre, and from there we calculated that equated to a saving of about six tonnes of CO2 per van per year.

TNB: How does the price of a Blue Ocean pod compare to a more standard body?

DH: In terms of straightforward capital costs, the price of a pod is currently about double that of a normal body. However, the pod is a double-life body with a 10-year warranty and so taken as a monthly cost it’s broadly the same.

TNB: You’ve built huge capacity into your production facility. How big can this get and what are your aspirations?

DH: We’ll have the capacity to build up to 15,000 units a year, but our plan is to start small and grow steadily.

We want to be able to stand by what we say and deliver units of a quality that win us repeat business because without that repeat business, we’ll never reach 15,000 a year.

So, our plan is to steadily walk up to that figure even if it takes us five years or 10 years to get there.

That said, the robot line will be capable of building a body every 20 minutes.

We have to walk before we run though, so for now we’ve targeted a minimum of 1,500 sales for next year.

TNB: Is it safe to say that this is a brilliantly timed product for you with COVID fuelling growth in online retail?

DH: I’m going to choose my words very carefully because COVID has caused immense trouble all over the country and all over the world.

It’s affected us too, and we’re still suffering from the general impact within our team and supplier base.

However, it’s also resulted in a significant increase in demand for home delivery, and as announcements from one major supermarket this week show, that’s only going to increase. This means significant opportunities that we can hopefully jump at straight away.

We’ve definitely got two very happy customers so far and the orders are coming through, so we’re very positive about the future for our Blue Ocean pods.

TNB: You’re a British business. What about your plans for export? Do you see significant opportunities overseas?

DH: Absolutely. The three-and-a-half tonne payload limit is a European standard and so anything within Europe is an opportunity for us.

Everybody in Europe has to follow the same rules and our ability to offer significant additional payload gives us the opportunity to do significant export.

We’re already talking to customers now about left-hand drive vehicles and, and we anticipate the first Blue Ocean pods will be operating in Europe in 2021.

TNB: What about the name Blue Ocean? It sounds very environmental.

DH: That’s very deliberate. The whole point of the pod is to be lightweight and to help customers make environmental savings as well as economic savings, so we wanted the whole thing to be as sustainable as possible.

Within the vehicle we use recycled polyethylene that comes from plastic bottles. In the refrigerated vehicle, there’s more than five thousand plastic bottles within each pod.

The plastic forms a sandwich panel between two carbon skins.

This help us meet insulation standards for refrigerated vehicles and also helps in the pressing process, and means we can greatly reduce the number of joints in the pod.

So, for every 1,000 pods we build, we’ll be using five million recycled plastic bottles!

TNB: What about this country? When will we start to see Blue Ocean pods on our roads?

DH: The first vehicles are out there now with Asda, but we expect to have around 500 vehicles on the road by Christmas.

TNB: Do you fit the pods to the chassis cabs, or do you supply the pods for fitting elsewhere?

DH: We fully integrate them into the vehicle to ensure everything is sound structurally, mechanically and electronically.

TNB: And what about vehicle liveries? Is that done elsewhere and is the process different for carbon fibre?

DH: We’ve worked very closely with a company called AST to develop the livery process. Carbon fibre has a different substrate structure to steel or aluminium, so we had to develop the right films and fabrics.

We apply the wraps onsite at the end of the line and we’ve got about eight wrappers from AST working here. As we finish each pod it swings the corner and then they start the wrap before it goes. It’s fantastic.

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