Project Siren: Ford and Venari to launch new lightweight ambulance

In the week that Ford of Britain and Venari Group jointly announced the launch of a new lightweight ambulance based on the Ford Transit chassis cab under the code name Project Siren, Emergency Services Times was granted an exclusive interview with Dr Graham Hoare OBE, Executive Director, Business Transformation & Chairman, Ford of Britain, and Oliver North, CEO, Venari Group, the parent company of the UK’s leading ambulance manufacturer, O&H Vehicle Technology.

Ford was a strong player in the UK ambulance business in the 1980s, ‘90s and early 2000s. What prompted you to return to the market?

Dr Graham Hoare OBE (GH): Ford was a partner in last year’s Ventilator Challenge project. That was an injection in the arm as it were; it showed us how to operate together in an incredibly agile way, while also making us realise just how adored the emergency services are in Britain. I was honoured to work with the NHS to deliver those ventilators and I wanted to create the equivalent of that within the ambulance sector, working with Oliver and his team.

During the ventilator project, we learned some amazing lessons about working remotely and in an agile fashion. We applied much of what we learned there to this ambulance project. We had to dig deep into our experience and bring the ambulance to life, collaborating with the NHS to develop an ambulance which not only serves fleet managers, but paramedics and, vitally, patients too. It has been exhilarating to be part of that journey.

Oliver North (ON): I have to say, Graham is being slightly modest about Ford of Britain’s, and his own, contribution to the ventilator project. He led and inspired a world-class team in manufacturing 12,000 ventilators – a feat almost unprecedented in an engineering context.

The Ventilator Challenge was the Government’s call to arms for the best of British manufacturers to come together. The Ford, McLaren and Airbus collaboration with Penlon was the one which delivered the most emphatic results and the one that inspired me most personally.

Around the same time, Venari engineered, manufactured and rolled-out hundreds of hugely innovative COVID test centres across the length and breadth of the country, as part of the national testing programme. Separately, we – both Venari and Ford – gained an elevated level of respect for the humanitarian aspects of the medical frontline response. Essentially, we could see that British manufacturers were needed to perform to a higher level than ever before – the more agile the performance, the more lives were saved, it was as simple as that.

After the initial COVID-response, there came a reflection period, where the manufacturing world realised that if we could innovate quickly in the face of a pandemic, we could do so during ‘normal’ times too. That’s when Graham and his team refocussed Ford’s ambition to further use its resource in the best way possible, to focus on the most natural life-saving tool to them – the frontline ambulance.

Ford’s appetite to build the best ambulance, not just the chassis, is – in my opinion – completely unprecedented. Having an OEM supporting the engineering of the conversion for the good of saving life, will ultimately save more lives in the future. Many are unaware that Ford’s engineering department is one of the largest and most experienced in the UK.

Oliver North, CEO, Venari Group (left) with Dr Graham Hoare OBE, Executive Director, Business Transformation & Chairman, Ford of Britain.

The new ambulance is scheduled to enter production in mid-2021. How did you develop it so quickly?

GH: Project Siren has been driven by both companies’ shared passion to innovate quickly. We’ve used the agile sprint process, with six months of accelerated activity. We’ve maintained consistent contact with stakeholders to get their immediate feedback. We focused heavily on human-centred development. Ford and Venari have multiple, online daily engineering meetings.

We looked at what we needed to understand to achieve the best results, drawing on the Carter Report and looking deeper at the key issues of serviceability, uptime, effectiveness, fuel efficiency and light weighting. To achieve a 3.5-tonne gross vehicle weight, we made a lot of changes to the Transit, working together in partnership to achieve the levels of lightness required. We also took time to look at all the digital technologies available today, which are not yet applied within the ambulance sector. Throughout the process we researched with fleet managers, paramedics and trust workshops.

How different has it been for Venari to be working in a partnership with an OEM like Ford?

ON: A standard ambulance ‘conversion’ currently is effectively a retrofit from a standardised chassis. It is the bringing together of two separate machines trying to work together in tandem.

With Project Siren, we have co-created a vehicle which works as one machine. The door closures and sensors are all part of the chassis and the ambulance specific elements become an extension of the chassis, not a separate system. We could only do this with immersion into the OEM’s ‘world’.

Has this accelerated development process allowed enough time to test the new ambulance for real world use?

GH: At Ford, we take great pride in our development and testing. This vehicle is being put through its paces at the Ford advanced proving ground. It has been tested for durability and safety with the user case in mind.

In other words, we manufacture and test according to all relevant crash testing, as well as ergonomics, and so on. But following the certification for frontline ambulance use, we then take it one step further and place the vehicle through rigorous durability tests to ensure the ambulance will stand up to the challenges which it will inevitably be put through in the field.

ON: The speed has been truly astonishing. We’ve created a ‘Ford department’ at Venari, which spends 100% of its time on this project.

A biproduct of the project is the accelerated learning my team has undertaken. We recruited engineers with motorsport and aviation experience to drive out-of-the-box thinking around light-weighting, aero-dynamics and sophisticated electrical systems.

GH: For the 3.5 tonne ambulance we looked at literally every detail using computer simulations to optimise strength. We have been very clever and imaginative in adding strength in a lightweight way. I’m inspired by the team’s attention to detail and bandwidth, working on mechanical and digital developments at the same time. I’ve learned a lot from the experience and about how we can work together.

ON: In terms of time; the engineering hours spent on the project will be equal to, if not higher than, other similar major projects. Our intensity of capacity and the formation of full-time, dedicated teams has meant a compression in real time development.

GH: I’ve been blown away by the rapid prototyping as part of the development process, and how the team has embraced this technology for the spirit of the project. One large part in particular was CAD designed, 3D printed, shipped and delivered to Venari the next day ready to fit onto the prototype vehicle ahead of a stakeholder review.

ON: The sheer size and capability of Ford has enabled us to achieve something I felt was unachievable on our own. The positive pressure has allowed us to produce a world class product.

GH: COVID has been the catalyst that has driven us to better-serve our NHS customers and ultimately the public who depend on them. It has made us think about paramedics and how we can make them even more efficient. The NHS stakeholders have been truly passionate about the project and our immersion in it. Together we’ve created something very special. The Carter Report has simultaneously provided a fabulous framework.

ON: I say to Graham that it’s our version of making Jonny Wilkinson’s rugby boots: it is the essential piece of kit that the best in their profession require to succeed at what they do, and if we can improve their performance by even 1% then we’re making a difference.

Is the new ambulance going to be future proof in terms of the electrification of fleets?

GH: The new lightweight design has been developed to be fully compatible with all-electric powertrains, which will be needed in cities in the UK and elsewhere in the world in the future. This is a future proof solution for ambulance operators looking to transition to zero-emissions fleets. We will be revealing more details of this in the second quarter of this year.

Is this a single vehicle or will there be multiple variants for specialist applications?

ON: The standard ambulance, with a choice of options, will cater for 100% of NHS Trust requirements, including HART, 4×4 and neonatal units with larger payloads. We’ve always said we need to cater for every role faced by our Ambulance Trusts.

Is this ultimately intended as a global ambulance project?

GH: Our focus has been on the NHS, arising from our desire to serve them from our home territory. We are confident we have a winning formula for around the world too. Ford’s global footprint means that together we can take this to other markets. Britain knows how to put great emergency vehicles together.

ON: We know the global market very well and know that the NHS ranks pretty highly in terms of demands, workload and efficiency. Unquestionably it will be available for export territories but first we must ensure we cater for our NHS.

Will the new ambulance be on show at The Emergency Services Show in September?

ON: Ford and Venari have highlighted their intention and excitement for this year’s ESS and have adjacent stands. We’re excited to show our new technology to our NHS representatives in attendance. As with any good show, there should be some innovation, but we’ll talk about that in show-week, of course.

To conclude, the passion from both of you is genuinely clear and refreshing to see. It will be hard to translate that to our readers. I can tell this is very much Ford returning to the ambulance market isn’t it?

GN: Ford of Britain has 100-year heritage and for 50 years the Transit has been the backbone of Britain. The time is right for Ford and Venari to put the Transit ambulance back into the NHS, the pride of the nation.