How engineering firm Magnomatics is using its technology to make flying taxis a reality

David Latimer, CEO of Magnomatics.David Latimer, CEO of Magnomatics.
David Latimer, CEO of Magnomatics.
The push for carbon zero is providing huge opportunities for magnetic gear manufacturer Magnomatics, according to CEO David Latimer, writes Lizzie Murphy.

For an aviation fan like David Latimer, the chance for his company to design motors for some of the first air taxi prototypes is a thrilling opportunity.

The CEO of Sheffield-based Magnomatics, which uses magnets to make gears for the renewable energy sector, particularly wind, oil and gas, says: “There are something like 215 different drone vehicles being designed at the moment.

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“We can make very lightweight motors so we’re doing some specific designs for people you would have heard of, but we’re also trying to develop a more generic product that would appeal to everyone.”

Latimer’s fascination with flying stretches back to childhood. “I was really into aeroplanes as a kid and I went on to study aeronautical engineering at Bristol University”, he says.

He began his career as an aerodynamicist for Rolls Royce and also flies gliders in his spare time, so the opportunity to contribute to the future development of the aviation industry is an exciting one.

But this is only a tiny part of the Magnomatics business. The company’s techology replaces gear teeth with magnets, a unique move which means there aren’t any contacting parts that can wear out, making the gears more efficient.

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Its engineers are able to convert the gears into electric motors or generators, making them ideal for offshore wind.

It is currently working with a large company to design offshore wind generators, a project which is worth just over £1m in revenue to the business. “Because the technology is very efficient, it means, effectively, you can generate more electricity than you can with other technologies,” Latimer says.

It could be a huge opportunity for the business if it pays off as it would bring manufacturing back to the UK. According to Latimer, generators are currently made abroad.

Magnomatics is also designing machines for trams and light rail for the same partner.

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If the generators move into mass production, Magnomatics intends to license the technology rather than try to make fulfil the orders itself.

“We might start making prototypes or small early production runs but once it goes to high volume then we would expect to license that to somebody else,” he says.

Magnomatics, which was formed in 2006 as a spin-out from the University of Sheffield, has a £2m turnover and employs 24 staff. Latimer says the business is breaking even.

Industrial firm Mitsubishi Heavy Industries is an investor in the business, according to Companies House. Honda also owns a small share.

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Latimer believes the Government’s ambition for the UK to reach net zero emissions by 2050 is a big boost for Magnomatics.

He describes the Prime Minister’s pledge that offshore wind farms will generate enough electricity to power every home in the UK within a decade, as ‘ambitious’ but believes the UK’s offshore wind industry will ‘grow enormously’ over the next few years.

“Our vision of the future is that there’s an overcapacity in offshore wind so that you start using the surplus electricity to make green hydrogen,” he says.

Magnomatics recently secured government grant funding to design a large component for an offshore wind turbine with the AMRC and another grant to design a magnetic gear for a bus to increase the efficiency of air conditioning compressors.

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Generators and motors designed by Magnomatics are up to 10 per cent more expensive to buy than traditional technology but Latimer says the long term cost is lower because they use less energy over the whole life cycle.

“The reason you would use our technology over somebody else’s is it’s more efficient and, therefore there’s less Co2 involved,” he adds.

The Covid-19 pandemic has slowed down some of the sectors in which the company works, particularly oil and gas for which it manufactures magnetic gears for oil wells. “We’ve lost some revenue because of that but we’ve actually been fortunate because we secured the green innovation grants which have backfilled the loss of revenue,” he says.

Looking ahead, Latimer sees Magnomatics becoming a design consultancy for electrification in the future. It will also continue to manufacture in small quantities.

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The company is exploring a number of new sectors in which its technology could be used. It is an electrification partner for Soil Machine Dynamics, which makes underwater remotely-operated vehicles for manufacturing offshore wind farms.

Latimer expects to start manufacturing those units next year. It is also looking at other industries, including electric ship propulsion. “We’ve spent a long time securing our position in offshore wind and also rail. Now we’re looking for new opportunities,” he says.

The 59-year-old’s career to date has seen him run a handful of engineering companies, including EVO Electric, a spin out company from Imperial College that worked in the electric and hybrid vehicle sector; and Bluebird Vehicles, a manufacturer of low floor accessible buses.

He has also turned around a number of engineering businesses where he specialised in reorganisations and change management including Weir Valves & Controls, Brush HMA (electric machines and turbo generators), Bedford Pumps and Howden Wade (aircraft air conditioning and hydraulic systems).

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He was headhunted to join Magnomatics as business development manager in 2013 and replaced the chief executive the following year. When asked how he would describe himself, he says: “I’ve always thought of myself as more of a Major than a General. I enjoy the dynamics of working with people and I like to be involved in the action. I’d rather be in the trenches than directing from a tent at the back.”

Title: CEO of Magnomatics

Date of birth: November 4, 1961

Education: Magdalen College School Brackley, South Northamptonshire; aeronautical engineering degree, Bristol University; MBA, Manchester Business School

First job: Aerodynamicist at Rolls Royce in Derby

Favourite holiday destination: La Thuile, Italy

Favourite song: Perfect Day by Lou Reed

Favourite film: 24 Hour Party People. I was at Manchester Business School in the Hacienda days

Last book read: The Second Sleep, by Robert Harris

Most proud of: The team at Magnomatics. They’re a really engaged bunch of people and I’m really impressed by them

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