Seduced by Swindon

Posted on 1 Sep 2013 by The Manufacturer

It’s the secret manufacturing and technology hub of the South West. As Swindon ramps up its hydrogen transport cluster, Forward Swindon explains why ambitious manufacturing firms across sectors should consider establishing a footprint in the town.

Several years ago, the South West Regional Development Agency decided that it wanted Swindon to lead the way as a demonstrator town for hydrogen transport technologies.

And despite stumbling blocks for adoption of the technology among manufacturers and infrastructure providers, it has remained committed to proving hydrogen power can provide effective, low carbon transport for domestic and commercial purposes.

UK’s first public hydrogen filling station

The installation of the UK’s first open-access, state-of-the-art hydrogen refuelling station

Converted Ford Transits are running on dual-fuel systems in Swindon's commercial hydrogen demonstrator project

in Swindon in September 2011, realised the defunct RDA’s ambition to place Swindon at the centre of a ‘Hydrogen Highway’ between London and Swansea on the M4.

As a fully operational, commercial filling station using tested technology, it is a way that could be replicated across the country, potentially kickstarting the essential network necessary for the mass manufacture of hydrogen vehicles – either for domestic or commercial use.

Operated by the industrial gas supplier BOC, and based at the Honda plant in Swindon, the station was created through a project part funded and project managed by Forward Swindon, which was launched by the borough council in 2010 to promote economic growth for the town.

Those wishing to use the station for commercial vehicles can register online through BOC to refuel at the station, which looks and works very similarly to a traditional petrol station.

“Need to know” facts about Swindon

  • Costs:  Swindon commercial property rents are on average 50% less than other M4 towns, such as Reading, Bristol and Oxford, and yet it takes just one hour on the train to get to London from Swindon.  Affordability and availability of commercial space are two key assets for the town.
  • Made in Swindon: Proud of it’s manufacturing heritage, Swindon still has 11% of its workforce in manufacturing, and is home to many leading names including Honda, Intel, Johnson Matthey Fuel Cells and Plessey.  Its manufacturing base is larger and more diverse than locations such as Reading and Milton Keynes, and the range of products is outstanding: everything from composites for use by the armed forces and on racing cars, to silicon design and automotive components.
  • Innovation: Swindon is ranked amongst the top 10 most innovative towns in the UK according to a 2011 report from the Department for Business Innovation and Skills Distribution of Innovation across UK Industry. The town has a high density of hi-tech, hi-growth SME’s and the dynamic community perpetuates as new companies start up all the time. 1,500 new ventures were launched in Swindon last year, making it one of the top start-up locations in the South West.
  • Work ethic: Swindon’s workforce is highly productive: it has the highest GVA per head in the South West. GVA per hour in Swindon is 12.5% above the national average.  Unemployment levels generally sit below UK average, and many Swindon companies are looking to recruit. Some have been helping to promote the town in their efforts to attract the right candidates. See the Forward Swindon’s campaign case study videos here.
  • A Masterplan looking to the future: Over the last year, Forward Swindon has been working closely with business leaders and communities to agree priority regeneration projects which will significantly re-shape Swindon. The Masterplan has been agreed by Swindon Borough Council and key areas for improvement have been identified.  For example, the mainline from London to Cardiff, which brings three million commuters through the station each year, cuts Swindon in half, and the Masterplan will seek to find a solution to allow people to cross conveniently from the North Star area into Swindon town centre.

Hydrogen-powered vans driving on Swindon’s streets

A pilot project to demonstrate the commercial potential of using hydrogen fuel in an everyday setting is underway in Swindon. A consortium of partners including Honda, Forward Swindon, Swindon Commercial Services and Commercial Group are working together to launch a fleet of converted dual-fuel vehicles, including ordinary Ford Transit vans and forklift trucks. These vehicles will be in use around Swindon later this year, filling up at the H2 filling station, and going about their regular day to day business. Throughout the project the vans will be subject to continuous monitoring to check running costs, training requirements and a number of technical metrics as part of the project outputs.

The ultimate aim of the project is to encourage other commercial operators to develop their own low carbon initiatives, showing that a lower cost alternative to purely fossil fuel powered logistics can be a practical entry into greener fleet operations.

Economic Strategy for Swindon

But Swindon’s love affair with hydrogen technology is about more than simply its application. The town has a growing cluster of manufacturing and technology businesses in the hydrogen power supply chain.

And indeed Swindon has a clearly expressed ambition to become a preferred location for a wide range of advanced engineering, manufacturing and technology companies. This vision is set out in its recently formed Economic Strategy for Swindon.

One initiative under this economic strategy, has been the establishment of an advanced manufacturing workshop which aims to fulfil a gamut of requirements for a robust local advanced engineering and technology base including training the next generation of skilled engineers, sourcing suitable development land, and working within the Local Enterprise Partnership to identify central government funding opportunities.

Swindon will continue to demonstrate its commitment to the hydrogen sector, with plans to build an additional re-fuelling station; and a combined heat and power scheme, potentially integrating commercial and residential developments.