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Midlands firm rewrites future of rotary engine

Midlands firm rewrites future of rotary engine
Monday 13th February

A tiny Staffordshire company is gearing up to become a world-beater – and unveil the untold story of the rotary engine to a whole new range of  21st century customers. Lichfield-based Advanced Innovative Engineering (UK) Ltd have their sights set on conquering this largely untapped market, once hailed as the ‘powerplant of the future.’

The engine was designed in the 1950s by German inventor Felix Wankel and within a decade was regarded as the next great innovation in car design, with the likes of General Motors showing keen interest. The fuel crisis of the 1970s largely put paid to the dream of mass Rotary Engine production – but now Lichfield-based AIE are in the vanguard of the movement to write another chapter in the latter-day story of Wankel’s invention.

AIE managing director Nathan Bailey said: "The story of the Rotary Engine has largely not been told in the UK, and I would like to play a part in telling that story. "We want to become a dominant player in the market, the go-to manufacturer of in the world. The engine was once seen as a revolution, the engine of the future. "General Motors, Mercedes, all the big boys started to develop vehicles using. But the fuel crisis of the 1970s made all auto manufacturers reassess their strategies, and concentrated on economy rather than power. "The Rotary Engine was seen as less economical than the piston engine, nobody was going to be buying engines based on performance. The fuel crisis pretty much killed the industry off.”

Today there are less than 10 companies in the world manufacturing – and AIE, formed in 2012 and, with £3 million worth of investment from Middle East and Indian backers, has bold ambitions to race ahead of the pack.

"We have done a phenomenal amount in the last four and a half years – it has been crazy although we still consider ourselves to be a relatively young company.  There were three of us to start with and now there are 17. "We have had innovation grants and project funding – the UK and the Midlands is a fantastic area to create technology, I still consider the Midlands to be the UK’s centre of manufacturing excellence. "You have got the supply chain, automotive, JLR, JCB, Rolls Royce – it is like the Golden Triangle and Lichfield is an ideal base for us.”

Nathan said AIE, members of Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce, had sold 20 in the past 12 months, with products ranging in price from £2,500 to £30,000. 

"There is no volume in what we are doing at the moment so the cost of the engines has to be higher.  We see this technology as being focused on niche markets, I do not see being mass volume or being manufactured in thousands a year.” He said the potential of the electric cars market was considerable for AIE. "I am working with OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) in electric vehicles, niche vehicles within the commercial range.  Electric cars are not going to be huge volumes for a long time. "There are less than 10 companies in the world making and our ambition is to become number one in the world – we are not restricting our thinking.”

He said it was ‘difficult to predict’ how the market for engines would develop with exports likely to be 80 per cent of turnover – AIE already has agents in Korea, Taiwan and China. "We are finding that as we push our technologies out to the market, people are approaching us with new concepts. There is great potential there, one of our goals is to push back the tide of pessimism about the rotary engine.”

*AIE has already made history with the debut of the first British made sports car successfully powered by a rotary engine at the 2016 Cenex Low Carbon Vehicle Event last September.

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