With 36 years of electro-mechanical expertise, Houghton International has become a leading supplier of repair and maintenance services
Despite being a relatively new player in the coach and bus repair and maintenance market, Houghton International has already proven invaluable to operators. With its 36 years of electro-mechanical expertise it has engineered solutions for New Routemaster, Volvo, TB08 and TB100 traction motors and generators.
The company is now diving deeper into the sector to assist operators with the maintenance of driven systems and ancillary equipment in emerging hybrid and electric fleets. routeone speaks with Chief Executive Michael Mitton to learn why its solutions will be necessary in the coming years.
Since being founded in 1984 Houghton International has worked across the industrial, rail, marine and aerospace industries, and is now bringing its broad spectrum of experience to the passenger vehicle sector.
The company is one of the best-known service providers of traction motors to the rail industry. Houghton cemented its reputation by in the mid-2000s while overhauling traction motors for Merseyrail, which it helped take from being the worst performing TOC in the UK (with a >20% in-service failure rate) to one of the best for both on-time running and in-service failures (<0.02% in-service failure rate, with average Public Performance Measure of over 96%).
During the transition from traditional diesel to hybrid and electric drivetrains, evolving technology has migrated from rail vehicles into the coach and bus sector, and integrated driven systems in rail and urban tramways have become comparable to those used in buses. Houghton is therefore using its transferrable expertise to nurture the same relationships with coach and bus operators to develop solutions when problems arise.
To get to the root of a problem with an asset, Houghton takes a 3D scan of the geometry of the machine, breaks it down into a computer-aided design model and measures every component to 3μm or less. The component is then rebuilt and tested. All this is done in-house and completed, ideally, at a price-point beneath the cost of replacement. If the price of repair is higher than the cost of replacement, Houghton recognises that commercial gain then relies upon how quickly that repair can be delivered, and aims to provide a reduction in downtime.
Michael anticipates the pressure of emission control zones will expedite the coach and bus industry’s transition to electric and hybrid drivetrains. How operators will make that shift, and the lifespan of such vehicles, is still a matter for debate. But one thing is clear in his mind: electro-mechanical expertise is going to be essential to ensure those fleets keep running as they move into the aftermarket proper.
“As assets, which can include an entire vehicle or components in the propulsion system, move into the aftermarket, there is a risk that a lack of cost-effective supply options might open up for operators desiring a move away from OEM maintenance and servicing.
“We’ve been talking to different operators and looking at which machinery in their fleets we can service and repair, because they have expressed a lack of supply options now that the vehicles are entering the aftermarket.”
A Transport for London audit into the capital’s bus fleet on 31 March 2020 revealed that, of a fleet total of 9,102 buses, 3,773 are diesel-electric hybrids (which includes 1,000 New Routemasters). Most are three years or older and, according to Michael, are entering the mid-life section where they need to be maintained in a more cost-effective way.
“From the operators we’ve spoken to, it was consistent among them that they need someone to help solve problems as they emerge over time, to make sure they have the right expertise and technical back up. Not many people have that depth of electro-mechanical specialism within the bus sector, so importing that through supplier chain or finding people with those competencies from other industries is the best way to do that.”
‘As good as the OEM’
What sets Houghton International apart, according to Michael, is its rigorous quality and competent management process, which puts emphasis on delivering an outcome as good as what an OEM can provide, while applying it in a relatively short period of time.
“Be it a traction motor, steering wheel motor, or the generator that provides the electricity to run a traction motor, operators need a supplier that is adept at being able to reverse engineer an asset while applying a proven process for doing that on a potentially infinite range of different products. As an aftermarket specialist, that is where we come into our own,” Michael explains.
Houghton International’s depth of knowledge, experience and process control takes it through that engineering challenge to provide an outcome “at least as good as what the operator was getting from the OEM”. Within that process, the company also analyses how it can optimise and improve the performance of the asset. Adds Michael: “Historically, within the rail industry, where we have added value is by being able to understand a problem consistent across fleets, get to its root cause, prove a fix works, apply it, and add volume in a relatively short period of time.”
Safety is of the utmost importance in how the company manages competence. No matter what the process, a member of staff is trained and signed off as competent by a technical authority. Outcomes are measured and documented to ensure traceability exists right through the system.
Houghton recognises that it is still working to understand the nuances and challenges faced by the coach and bus industry. The company takes a collaborative approach to solving problems; listening to operators’ concerns and not just reliant on its past successes, it wants the opportunity to learn what the challenges are, and how it can fix them.
When operators collaborate with each other, the benefits go even further.
“There is commonality of assets, where operators with similar buses and identical components can collaborate and pool together to benefit from economies of scale,” says Michael. “The greater the collaboration between us, and operators as a whole, the better we can leverage our supply chain, reduce our price point, improve lead time, and reduce the cost.
“At the end of the day, we’re here to be the backup – to help maintain and optimise fleets, and solve problems when they occur.”