How Horiba Mira turned a test track into an R&D powerhouse

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Under CEO Dr George Gillespie, Mira has rapidly expanded into a tech hub for the UK’s car industry

It’s not just the experimental cars constantly circulating Horiba Mira’s super-secret 60 miles of test track on their 850-acre site near Nuneaton, Warwickshire, that demonstrate a frequent facility for rapid acceleration. 

The Horiba Mira business itself — already unique for the way it combines a very large, overarching engineering consultancy with an elite community of 40 independent technical centres — is also beginning a new acceleration phase.

Work will soon begin to develop several new sites outside Mira’s existing boundaries, either side of nearby A5 trunk road, designed to encourage several powerful but yet-unnamed mobility businesses to open large automotive technical centres on the site, each housing up to 300 engineers. These operations — likely to carry well-known names — are far bigger than anything the site currently contains. 

Other important aspirations include establishing several compact manufacturing operations on the Mira estate (which has so far restricted itself to R&D) along with an industrial park for component suppliers. A “medium-sized” gigafactory could even be a possibility — no specifics yet — and in the meantime work is under way on a solar farm that frok next year will power an electrolyzer to produce green hydrogen, already much in demand from, Mira’s forward-looking tech businesses.

As Horiba Mira’s dynamic CEO of the past 13 years Dr George Gillespie explains, the expansion will be very much in character with the aims of the site’s original occupant, the Motor Industry Research Association that was established here in 1946 (on the site of the former RAF Lindley) to help UK car firms compete for all-important postwar export markets by pooling research to cut costs. The business was gradually commercialised from the 1970s, and bought holus-bolus by the Japanese tech firm Horiba in 2015.  

On Gillespie’s watch, Horiba Mira’s progress has been impressive. Current turnover of around £75million is three times what it was when he and his team took over, and has doubled in just five years, despite COVID. Nowadays, 80% of Mira’s work is devoted to electrification or autonomous vehicles (Gillespie prefers to call them “automated vehicles”) with a chunk of the remaining 20% devoted to the other growth area, cyber security. Forty percent of what they do comes via on-site tenants.

Mira’s recent progress and bold future plans are directly linked to its 2015 Horiba takeover and the owner has since invested heavily, empowered the management and changed the name to the Horiba-Mira. The sale became necessary because of Mira’s huge and growing exposure to punishing final salary pension costs: Gillespie successfully renegotiated the liabilities then searched (among around 10 prospects) for a buyer, before eventually selling to Horiba for whom he’d previously worked. “We trusted each other,” he says simply, “and the deal has worked brilliantly. We have great parents.”    “MIRA’s aims back in 1946 still apply to what we do today,” says Gillespie. “Back then, the government and the RAC cooperated to open this place as a way of helping the British motor industry compete and thrive, and that’s what we’re still doing now.”

Drive around the site, recently expanded to 850 acres, and you soon spot buildings that constitute the Mira Technology Park (MTP) that began growing in 2011. “Before that we were an engineering consultancy that rented out a few buildings,” Gillespie explains, “but the fact that these were nearly always full made me think about a new kind of business. People were paying fairly high rents for pretty ordinary premises so they could use the rest of our facilities. What if we made that a lot easier?” 

Today MTP is a well-planned estate comprising several dozen modern buildings. Many bear the car industry’s greatest names (Toyota, Aston Martin, Polestar, Jaguar Land Rover, Bentley) but are interspersed with tech companies (Bosch, Haldex) and start-ups like Viratech (a Hydrogen vehicle maker), REE (an Israeli maker of flexible chassis parts for EV trucks and delivery vans) and Warwick Acoustics (a new-tech audio company planning a car-based future). 

Some Mira-labelled buildings are homes for its own 600-odd engineering staff, their inmates standing ready to help clients with projects or to progress their own future-facing research. One requirement, says Gillespie, is to anticipate and invest in the facilities and know-how that’ll be needed in a couple of years’ time (“it’s a gamble; we’ve made mistakes”). But you must keep investing to keep the customer happy, he says, just like they do in Disneyland.

Mira well-known central features: it is comprehensively equipped with wind tunnels, excellent wet and dry test tracks, a variety of surfaces, NVH laboratories and much more. It has just completed a £600M update for its autonomous car test routes (now called Test Bed UK) and has also built an enormous tarmac “black lake” on the northern outskirts, where cars can be tested at all speeds in very unusual attitudes. 

There’s an academy, too, close to the main site’s entrance off the A5, that specialises both in technical short courses and degree-level training that needs university affiliations; Horiba Mira believes part of its job is to hot-house the next generation of technical experts.

However, you get the feeling George Gillespie particularly enjoys his team’s role in encouraging start-up mobility companies. “These small businesses live from funding round to funding round,” he says, “so their priority is to advance their tech. They don’t have money for non-core activities. If they want special facilities, they can often get them from us — that’s one of our strengths.

“We’re brilliant at R&D in this country, and our academic base is among the best. The good news is that none of this has been particularly damaged by Brexit, though it’s tougher in manufacturing because trading can make things more difficult. But when you’re dealing mostly in know-how, as many of these start-ups are, you can really get moving.”

Source: Autocar

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