Ian Foley’s Equipmake is not yet the biggest player in Hethel but, with claims of being two years ahead of electric motor rivals, one day that might change. By Steve Cropley
Britain is about to have its very own Henry Ford of electric car propulsion, and his name is Ian Foley.
Through a combination of rare engineering insight, enthusiasm for electric machines even when they weren’t fashionable, clever planning and helpful semi-government finance (plus a helping of luck), Foley and his 20-man team at Equipmake in Hethel are preparing for a remarkable expansion that within five years could result in them manufacturing hundreds of thousands of electric motors in a brand-new Norfolk factory.
Already well known in race and road car tech circles, Foley and Equipmake have recently come to far wider notice as the designers, builders and suppliers of the four 295bhp APM200 electric motors and some of the power electronics that will propel the mighty 1180bhp four-wheel-drive Ariel Hipercar, a high performance range extender Equipmake is co-developing with Delta Motorsport and Ariel.
Though Foley is quick to acknowledge Hipercar’s value in spreading Equipmake’s name and skills, he’s also clear that the company’s aim is much larger than becoming a maker of engines for high-performance electric cars. A bus project and a second automotive customer project are already on the boil, and the number and quality of serious enquiries from giant automotive players is rising rapidly.
I always had the feeling electric cars were coming quickly
“Over the past couple of years,” says Foley, “the attitude of car companies to launching electric models has changed completely. I wouldn’t say they’re panicking, but many now feel an urgent need to get some sort of halo product out there on a very compressed timescale. Projects that might normally take four to five years are having to be done in two.
“Potential customers who feed their requirements for electric motors into Google tend to arrive sooner or later at our website. A gratifyingly large number seem to want exactly what we’re offering. We’re a risk for them, of course, in the sense that a big tier-one supplier making the right product might be better. But there simply isn’t a tier one with the right product.”
Equipmake’s pride and joy is a highly flexible design it calls the spoke motor, an interior permanent magnet electric machine in which the magnets are arranged radially, like the spokes of a wheel. This gives the motor the greatest torque density going, Foley says, and Equipmake’s version permits more efficient liquid cooling than previous spoke designs, highly desirable because well-cooled magnet motors can run faster and deliver higher power for longer.
Foley acknowledges a body of opinion against magnet motors (and in favour of induction or switched reluctance motors), mostly because of magnet cost and price volatility, but he bats the criticism away on the grounds of compactness and efficiency. Equipmake has solved lingering design and production problems with previous spoke motors, he says; the APM200 is roughly half the size and 80% the weight of rivals with the same output.
According to Foley, who cut his engineering teeth 20 years ago on Lotus’s active suspension Formula 1 cars, Equipmake currently holds an advantage of around two years over the rest of the electric motor world. The challenge will be to maintain that, he says, though he makes it sound almost straightforward. Compared with those hectic days at Team Lotus, perhaps it will be.
After F1, then 34-year-old Foley obeyed a long-held desire to start his own company, so he founded Equipmake in 1993 to make electronic control systems, data loggers, pneumatic paddle shifts, railway signalling gizmos… in fact, anything his imagination allowed.
Before long, he was working with Williams F1 on flywheel-based energy recovery systems for racing cars that are really, he points out, high-speed electric motors. Soon adopted by Audi, the flywheels helped deliver three Le Mans wins before a regulation change made batteries a better storage medium. But Equipmake’s high reputation – and its founder’s invaluable engineering network – had been well and truly established.
Foley, who describes himself as a technology nerd (“I love performance, but not necessarily 500-horsepower V12s”) became increasingly attracted to the idea of electric propulsion so, equipped with his flywheel knowledge, set about designing and making electric motors suitable for cars and trucks. Then, three years ago, Foley abandoned his habit of buying Jaguars in favour of a Tesla Model S.
“Even quite recently,” he says, “people were saying electric cars were years away, but I always had the feeling they were coming quickly. In nearly three years and 54,000 miles, the Tesla has been fantastic and very, very easy to own. The crucial thing that makes it work is the Supercharger network. In three years, I’ve never seen a broken charger, and I’ve never had to wait to use one. That’s Tesla’s advantage in a nutshell.”
Although Foley is very much a leader in electric cars, even he is shocked at the speed of their advance. Foley says: “Until 18 months ago, our plan was to put our motors into Hipercar, get on with the bus project and let things develop. But everything has changed. There’s no longer any need to convince car makers that they need electric motors.”
And Equipmake’s new future? “I break into a cold sweat when I say this,” says Foley, “but our opportunity is to become a tier-one business, employing hundreds of people and making hundreds of thousands of engines.
“Of course, we’ll need to go step by step, increasing scale carefully as we build the right quality systems and get the finance in place. I own this 100% as it stands, but I guess we’ll need investors to take things forward. That’ll be another challenge. But there’s no doubt we have a huge opportunity.” A
SEE HOW THE SPOKE MOTOR WORKS
The principles behind Equipmake’s spoke electric motor aren’t entirely new, says Ian Foley, but they’re uniquely applied and the machine itself is quite different – smaller, lighter and higher-revving – from motors used by most of the rest of the industry. Watch Foley explain how and why in an exclusive video at youtu.be/HKUX8x1_BCE