A lot is underway at Mellor. The manufacturer continues to grow its zero-emission small bus line-up, with the battery-electric Orion E23 low-floor and the high-floor Maxima E23 models its most recent range additions. Another, larger, zero-emission vehicle will debut soon.
Coming of the Orion E23 and Maxima E23 preceded an announcement of significant investment into the business. Zero-emission is key to Mellor’s future, and of equal importance is its relationship with fellow Woodall Nicholson subsidiary ProMech Technologies. Scarborough-based ProMech is under the charge of Chief Technology Officer John Randerson, who as former Managing Director of Woodall Nicholson’s bus division is well schooled in the passenger market’s wants and needs.
The bond between Mellor and ProMech “is continually strengthening,” says John’s successor and current Bus Division MD Mark Clissett. To demonstrate that, he cites recent work on an updated base vehicle variant. Several Mellor staff travelled to ProMech and engaged with colleagues there on what should be leveraged to permit minibuses to flow smoothly through the build process, and which new aspects of it can be capitalised on to benefit customers.
Facilities, people and technology at the heart of Mellor
That meeting encapsulated how facilities, people and technology are at the centre of what Mellor will mould its future around. It will reposition its business in 2022 to “become a major player on the UK bus scene.” More on that will be confirmed over coming months, but the additional zero-emission vehicle that will join Mellor’s line-up will form a major part of the transition.
Although Mellor uses the word “reposition” when teasing its plans, Mark says that the approach will not see it exit any current areas of business.
Indeed, on the agenda is strengthening its position in the local authority (LA), rental and demand responsive markets, in addition to further targeting the fixed-route bus sector.
While facilities, people and technology are described as separate areas of focus, in reality they are linked closely. The senior team at Mellor is well established, while expansion at ProMech will create a centre of excellence for future talent. ProMech’s growth will also factor directly into product and production advancements for Mellor.
Besides ProMech acting as a technology hub for all businesses within the Woodall Nicholson group, Mellor’s new 40,000 sq ft facility in Scarborough – slated to open in Q1 2022 – will make a major contribution to streamlining the build process for its vehicles, allowing lead times to be reduced.
“By applying a little more standardisation to the base product, before it is customised to suit the customer, we can ‘pre-build’ them at Scarborough,” says Mark. “More of the universal fit and finish will be done there. Scarborough will play a bigger part in the manufacture of all Mellor products, not just those that are zero-emission.”
Streamlining the build process is ‘next logical step’
Coachbuilt Mellor vehicles already begin life at its current Scarborough facility, where framing is carried out. “The next logical step is to look at how they can be floored, skinned and glazed there,” Mark continues. “The cut-off will be the point at which a product moves from being a standard vehicle to becoming something customer specific. That is when they would leave Scarborough for our Rochdale factory.”
Such an approach will enable stock vehicles to be progressed further through the build process at Scarborough than is currently the case, giving rise to shorter lead times.
That is an important part of Mellor’s strategy, although it is reliant the wider automotive supply chain.
However, support from Woodall Nicholson means that the existing pool of stock chassis is buoyant, as is the supply of battery-electric drivelines for the Orion E range and the Maxima E23. 20 such kits are held in stock at Rochdale, with “double that” at Mellor’s supplier in the Netherlands.
Zero-emission is key to future Mellor strategy
The Orion E is key both to Mellor’s strategy around zero-emission, and to the promotion of what it terms “size appropriate buses.” The latter refers to the replacement of larger vehicles and under-utilised capacity with smaller, more cost-effective products.
Mellor already has a strong diesel contender in that sector through the low-floor, diesel-powered Strata, built on the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter platform. But the coachbuilder was mindful of the need to offer a zero-emission product with a similar capacity.
Enter the Orion E23. It complements the original Orion E, which has been rechristened the Orion E16. The suffix denotes each vehicle’s passenger capacity. While the E23 broadly represents an extended E16, Mark notes that the project was more nuanced. Weight removal was at its core, which is again where ProMech played an important role.
“We have extended the framework on the Orion E23, but the big challenge was around reducing the weight of the vehicle without compromising quality, durability or reliability,” Mark explains.
Mellor and ProMech share “an obsession” with taking the last possible ounce out of a vehicle.
When that is achieved, both a battery-electric and a diesel minibus can benefit from a potential increase in passenger capacity. For a zero-emission model, a reduction also translates directly to range, although consideration must be made of cost versus benefit, he continues.
“The Orion E16 stood us in good stead for understanding where the potential weight savings are, so we were not starting from scratch with the Orion E23.” He refers to ProMech as Woodall Nicholson’s “Q division,” referencing the famed supplier to James Bond.
Battery-electric Orion E23 ‘gives new opportunities’
ProMech is also involved with driveline strengthening in the Orion E models. As they are converted from diesel-powered chassis supplied by Fiat, adaptation is needed for there to be no reliability or durability implications from the instant torque delivery of the electric motor. Software changes are an avenue to smooth the initial delivery; that work is handled in Rochdale.
The Orion E23 was also an indirect response to the failure of the Zero Emission Bus Regional Areas (ZEBRA) scheme in England to capture minibuses with a passenger capacity of below 23. Such a decision by the Department of Transport acted as an impetus to speed development of the larger example, although it was already on the table prior to ZEBRA being launched.
Mark uses one of Mellor’s major customers for the Strata as an example of how the Orion E23 could fit into a mainstream bus operator’s fleet. Multiple deals have been done between the two companies, which he says indicates clear demand for minibuses in the 23-passenger space. That customer is already active in the battery-electric sphere and recently indicated its aspiration to grow its presence there.
“With the Orion E23 we have given customers the opportunity to buy a zero-emission product in the Strata’s range. It is also of interest to LA customers.”
‘Everything is about the future’
The Orion E23 comes with a claimed 200km range. It is charged via DC, which is being retrofitted to some earlier Orion E16s. Such an approach will increase the model’s attractiveness, with DC charging rapidly becoming dominant in full-size battery-electric buses. It also opens the potential for LAs to take their Orion E16s and E23s to a bus operator’s depot for charging.
Both the Orion E23 and the Maxima E23 have a different generation of motor to the Orion E16. That was mandated by the newer vehicles’ additional weight.
Their upgraded driveline will be adopted for the Orion E16 in due course to deliver “a very significant range increase,” says Mark.
Examples of the battery-electric Orion E range have recently been delivered to the West Yorkshire Combined Authority (with First West Yorkshire operating them), and to customers in South Wales and the Scottish Highlands. The Maxima E23 is also gaining traction.
“In public we have only touched upon what we’re doing with investment in the business,” says Mark. “There is much more to come. We believe in the long-term prosperity of buses and everything we are doing currently is geared around the future of the Mellor business.”
That includes export opportunities; International Business Development Director Gustavo Marqueta has brought significant expertise and Mellor is currently building its third and fourth diesel Orions for Hong Kong. It hopes for further success there next year.
There are a lot of plates spinning for Mellor, but the groundwork being put in leaves it confident that an emphasis on facilities, people and technology will enable it to deliver upon its ambitious plans.