Director & Co-founder Alex Tylee-Birdsall reflects on 10 years of Drive System Design

As we round off a year of celebrations to mark our tenth birthday, co-founding Director Alex Tylee-Birdsall reflects on our founding years and considers the optimistic future of the powertrain industry.

In May 2007 Mark Findlay and I started talking about forming an engineering consultancy that operated a little differently, to focus on engineering and customers first and foremost. We wanted a name that described what we did, and felt strongly that if we could create a company that would strive for excellence in engineering and create strong collaborative customer relationships, then the rest would take care of itself. Drive System Design was founded, and now ten years later we’re proud to say this ethos and way of working continues to thrive.

Drive System Design Limited was incorporated on 6th July 2007 with an immediate ambition to grow. Both founders were involved in a long term contract with an OEM customer and we managed to pull in some interesting smaller projects alongside. We very soon needed help, and recruited the help of David Kelly and John Morton. They both became Directors in, and co-owners of, the business at the start of 2009. The four owners brought different technical and organisational skills to the company that complemented each other well. This, combined with a unified belief in what we were doing, created a very strong base on which to build the company. At this stage we were still home based, meeting up most Fridays in Mark’s front room. It became clear we needed to be based together more often, and we started the search for suitable premises.

We found a small 450sqft office in a farm yard in the village of Fenny Compton. It was perfect for the four of us and there was a gearbox mechanic with a workshop on the same site who came in handy for strip and rebuilds. (There was also a noisy donkey and a cat that strayed into the office on occasion.) We continued to win and deliver small to medium projects, including our first work in electric vehicle transmissions.

At the end of 2009 we made the daunting decision to recruit our first proper employee, taking us to 5 people. We then won a significant hybrid vehicle demonstrator project from the USA and needed to grow fast. By April 2010 we were at 10 people in the small office on the farm. One of our engineers was working on a piece of loose kitchen worktop supported between two other desks, with four other people sat around one table. The office toilet had also become a store room and was stacked with stripped transmissions and components. We needed to move!

In June 2010 we relocated to 1,700sqft office in the upstairs of a building in Southam, which we thought would last us for a good few years. We were still recruiting heavily having won more project work from Germany for electric vehicle transmissions. This included taking on our first graduate engineer and building up our control software team. We still stuck to our principles, only recruiting the best engineers to ensure the quality of our deliverables. Our commitment to engineering and to developing collaborative and trusting partnerships with customers meant demand for our services was increasing. However, we also saw the need for research and started to consider what future transmissions for electric vehicle would be like. It was from this that the MSYS multiple speed electric vehicle transmission was born.

A few months further into 2011, and as we took over the downstairs of our building (increasing space to 3,000sqft), we began a part grant funded project into the MSYS electric vehicle transmission concept which would eventually make it into a demonstration vehicle in 2014. This research was ahead of its time, with the electric vehicle market still in its formative years. For us at Drive System Design, the project gave us an excellent showcase of our engineering innovation, which is still relevant today.

It wasn’t long before we needed workshop space, in addition to our office, as we began building demonstration vehicles for customers. In 2012, as we grew past 20 people, we took on a small industrial unit in Kineton. At this point we were designing and building prototype transmissions. The next step was clear, we needed to be able to test and develop them.

With this in mind, in 2013 we started installing test rigs at a new 4,000sqft workshop site in Napton. The new capability grew quickly. At the same time, we were operating out of multiple additional offices in Southam, and by 2014 with 40 people it was time to move again. Our aim with this new site was to expand our test and development capability, and we soon found a suitable 20,000sqft site in Leamington Spa. This came at the same time as the founding of our North American office, based near Detroit in Michigan.

We’ve now been here in Leamington for 3 years, and as we approach the end of 2017 we have grown to just over 80 people here in the UK, with a further 20 staff in the USA. We have modified our building heavily to cope with the continued expansion in staff and test facilities. This includes substantial investment in electrified powertrain testing, which was very recently recognised by ATTI as they awarded our electrified powertrain test facility “Engine test facility of the year” 2017.

Particularly proud moments for us included winning the British Engineering Excellence Awards Consultancy of the Year in both 2010 and again, in this our tenth year, in 2017. The contrast is staggering; we first won this in 2010 when we had only 16 staff. Our second win this year feels like such an achievement, as we‘ve worked incredibly hard to maintain the same high standards as we’ve grown.

The past 10 years have gone relatively quickly. I guess that is a testament to the fun we have had on the way. However, the growth we have seen has not been without its challenges. For this reason we were delighted to welcome Gerald Andrews as our Chairman earlier this year.

As we start to plan our strategy for the next 10 years, all the Directors at DSD look back proudly on what we have achieved. Even though we have grown, we have stuck to our core principles and still value the quality of the engineering and the importance of the customer. We have been lucky to find such high quality employees, many of whom have grown into strong leaders. As we’ve reflected on the last ten years, we have a renewed commitment to research, to ensure we continue to bring the most innovative solutions to our customers over the coming years.

Looking to the future, we’re excited to play a substantial role in the changing landscape in vehicle powertrains, with our vast experience in electric vehicles coming into its own. I look forward with much optimism to the next 10 years of excellence in engineering, and am pleased to recognise that the name Drive System Design continues to represent our growing eDrive design capability.