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Business & Economy

Building a properly sustainable future

Right from being a youngster, Professor James Widmer recognised the benefits of electric vehicles. Unfortunately for him, though, the speed of industrial development failed to keep pace with his desire for change. But when he pivoted his career at the beginning of the last decade, Prof Widmer was handed an opportunity to play a part in accelerating zero–carbon motoring. And it’s one he’s grabbed with both hands. As founder and chief executive of Washington–based Advanced Electric Machines, he’s overseeing production of what the company aims to be the world’s most sustainable and high performing electric powertrain technologies. Here, Steven Hugill speaks to Prof Widmer, and tours his company’s Wearside factory, to find out more.

Professor James Widmer points towards a canvas hung on a boardroom wall.

Taken more than 50 years ago, it looks down on the towers, tanks and huge saw–toothed roofs of a sprawling Washington asbestos works.

At first glance, it’s a completely incongruous addition to the surrounds of Advanced Electric Machines, the engineering firm founded by Prof Widmer that sits at the vanguard of the transport sector’s green revolution.

But view the picture – which shows the business’ home was once a magnesium dump – through a lens that knows the works were long since razed and the land remediated, and it takes on new meaning.

For between the black and white of then to the technicolour of now, a seismic environmental transformation has taken place.

And it’s all so poetically metaphorical for Advanced Electric Machines, which is fashioning a more sustainable future for a world long cloaked by a heavy carbon blanket.

Led by chief executive Prof Widmer, the company is known the world over for its next generation HDSRM and SSRD–branded recyclable, lightweight and energy–efficient electric motors and powertrain systems, which offer new solutions for the commercial vehicle, passenger vehicle and aerospace sectors.

Having grown rapidly since launching as a university spin–out five years ago, the business now employs more than 50 people, and has capacity to make 12,000 motors every year.


And with a Downing Street push to make all new cars and vans zero–emission by 2035 – matched by similar commitments around the globe – it has no intention of applying the electronic handbrake any time soon.

Seeking a “much larger” North East base than its existing home on Teal Farm Park, the firm – which counts luxury car maker Bentley and electric truck pioneer Tevva as long–standing partners – is eyeing similar moves in the US and Asia, to build on a recent Thai expansion.

Prof Widmer says: “Our growth potential is enormous; our equipment is available, it’s on the market and is in real products now.

“Tevva – which is due to deliver its first production vehicles later this year – was our first customer, and our relationship with them will be replicated with others.

“Our ambition is to remain an independent, UK–led business that retains a big manufacturing presence in the North East, while expanding globally where we see the need,” says Prof Widmer, who left a career in aerospace to pursue a PhD around electrical engineering at Newcastle University in 2009.

He adds: “We have established our first overseas presence in Thailand, which is providing good traction, and we’re looking to do the same in the US.

“We are also looking to establish additional manufacturing presence in North America and Asia, ensuring we have production facilities that are local to the key areas of the global automotive industries, using local labour and local materials.

“We would manufacture here for the UK and Europe, have a base in the US for the American market and one for Asia, which would all develop local manufacturing supply chains while increasing sustainability.”

A key facet that will aid such growth is the company’s approach to motor manufacturing, which underpins its very existence.

When he swapped aerospace for academia, Prof Widmer – who, during his time at Newcastle University, oversaw its One North East–backed Advanced Electric Drives hub – quickly identified a sector trend.

And equally rapidly, he began seeking a U–turn.

At the time, the car industry, spearheaded by huge investment from Toyota to roll out its groundbreaking Prius, was pressing ahead with transitioning to electric power through the use of interior permanent magnet motors.

However, Prof Widmer – who also helped Newcastle University become a centre of excellence for the UK’s Advanced Propulsion Centre – says the moves were actually counterintuitive, as the motors contained rare earth magnets that cause incredible environmental harm.

He says: “We worked with a lot of companies, including Jaguar Land Rover, Airbus and Cummins, to get their first generation electrified products to market.

“It was a real who’s who of the great and good.

“However, what quickly became clear was that the car industry was leveraging the hundreds of millions of dollars Toyota had put into interior permanent magnet motors.

“But the rare earth magnets within them are very poor from a sustainability perspective – you need to dig up an awful lot of ore to get a little bit of material.

“And it’s the type of mining that takes tops off mountains, while increasing levels of CO2, radioactive waste and acid in the environment.

“I tried to persuade them to take a different, more sustainable, approach, but there was a general ‘let’s not rock the boat’ mentality, because manufacturers had first generation products that needed to work.

“It quickly became apparent that if we weren’t going to look at alternatives, then nobody else was going to either.”

From Prof Widmer’s initial observations now stand Advanced Electric Machines’ systems, which contain no rare earth magnets but retain the same performance and efficiency benefits.

Its products – which the firm aims to be the world’s most sustainable and high performing electric powertrain technologies – use electrical steel instead of rotor magnets, and can replace copper coils with highly–compressed aluminium windings, meaning they are fully recyclable.


The developments, says Prof Widmer, mean systems are able to run much faster, with the potential for short circuit currents or high–voltage spikes, so associated with permanent magnet motors, eliminated too.

“We’re now at the point where our systems could – based on global car production figures of 97 million – annually save 133 million tonnes of CO2 and 300,000 tonnes of radioactive waste,” says Prof Widmer, who complements his time at Advanced Electric Machines with a governor role at Newcastle Sixth Form College.

Like all start–ups, though, the road to such potential began in more humble surrounds.

Today, the business’ Washington factory is a hive of activity, the repetitive taps of mallets from bottle green–shirted staff matched by the whirs of motors in a dedicated testing bay.

At its inception, however, it was all a little more primitive.

Having spun out from Newcastle University in 2017, a small unit close to Scotswood Bridge, in Blaydon, was where the firm embarked on its growth journey.

Though confined, and in need of some repair work, its first factory – supported by Innovate UK cash – was momentous, for the space it did afford allowed the company to begin manufacturing work in earnest, with its first pre–production HDSRM traction motor built by Prof Widmer and co–founder Dr Andy Steven a few months later.

And with the milestone raising ambitions further, Prof Widmer capitalised on the impetus to secure two significant hires.

Mike O’Neill, a long–standing production boss at ZF – where lines once made motors every 30 seconds – joined as chief operating officer, with Mike Woodcock – who commissioned Prof Widmer to work with Tata Steel during his time at Newcastle University – arriving as chief commercial officer.

The pair instantly added another dynamic to the company, helping not just to build its technology, but the business as an entity, with the former Mike – a son of a Sunderland shipbuilding worker – providing high–value manufacturing insight, and the latter Mike bringing knowledge of electrification and material recycling from his time in the steel sector.

Their recruitment was followed by more shopfloor appointments, and further ignited by investment from industry bodies and individuals.

And the business picked up additional momentum from helping to secure

£80 million investment from the Government’s Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund – known as Driving the Electric Revolution – to bolster regional electric drivetrain research and manufacturing.

Prof Widmer says: “People began to see the potential, and we started getting larger investors interested, including Northstar Ventures, which got involved at the end of 2019 and allowed us to move to Washington.

“And there really is potential.

“The electric truck sector is so interesting; there are plenty of vans out there, but nothing that is moving your parcels or food deliveries in and out of cities.

“And there is massive pent–up demand – all of the distributors are desperate to have them, because of their big sustainability targets and because the Government is busy introducing ultra–low emission zones in cities.

“What it means is a real opportunity for companies like Tevva to steal a march.

“The electric car market, being more established, was harder to get into.

“But we knew we had the technology and ideas to move things on, and we found a partner in Bentley that chose us in 2018 to help create the most sustainable luxury car on the market.”

And from those beginnings, the company continues to move forward – and do so at pace.

Indeed, where the COVID–19 pandemic could have acted as a roadblock, instead it provided a catalyst for growth.

Prof Widmer says: “We officially launched our HDSRM motor in February 2020, and for the rest of the year, the phone never stopped ringing.

“We had thought about doing some proactive marketing to encourage potential customers, but we didn’t need to.

“We had engineers, from some of the world’s largest companies, getting in touch with us while they were locked down at home.

“2020 was a quite extraordinary time in terms of establishing real momentum towards electrification, and most of our growth came during that period.

“The world realised we were definitely going towards electric vehicles.

“There were so many announcements, and I think cities being closed and people being able to hear birdsong really helped create a feeling of, ‘wow, look how lovely it is when we get rid of the petrol and diesel vehicles’.

“By the start of 2020, we’d probably supplied motors to companies in three or four countries – since the pandemic, we’ve supplied them to more than 20 customers around the world.”

He adds: “I always wanted to get involved in electric vehicles; from a very young age I saw them as the future, and I was one of the people who was extremely frustrated that they weren’t available until I was in my 30s.

“So to be now part of the industry, and helping its growth, is fantastic.

“We’re doing something momentous here; we’re not just creating a sustainable future, we’re creating a properly sustainable future.”

Advanced Electric Machines