Episode 27 - Jon Partington

  

  

Jon Partington is the founding CEO and Chief Technical Officer of Partington Advanced Engineering, who is currently working on performance centric road-cycling wheels. The company is an innovative composites-cenric multi-materials engineering firm. They offer a wide range of industries for light-weighting services or adding funcfunctionality to structural applications using advanced design practices and strategic materials selection.

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In this episode we cover: 

  • Jon’s journey to founding his business.
  • The materials they use for their products.
  • Their company’s process for testing their products.
  • The versatility of their products and the services they offer to different industry sectors.
  • The benefits of having access to several research collaborations.
  • The future of the development of cycling products.

Links


    Transcript:

    FELICITY:

    This is episode 27. Welcome to the All Torque podcast, where each episode we interview an inspiring person to share their story with you. I'm your host, Felicity Dales, managing director of Body Torque.

    I have here today Jon Partington, the founding CEO and Chief Technical Officer of Partington Advanced Engineering. Partington Advanced Engineering is an innovative composite centric multi-materials engineering firm located in the heart of Deakin University's Geelong Future Economy Precinct. Jon's background includes being a Ph.D. scholar for advanced composites at Deakin University, being a graduate of Deakin Uni, and working in the U.K. as well as doing remote study under sponsorship of his employer. Responsible for the design and developing next generation products as contract Powertrain Design and Release Engineer with Ford Motor Company from 2010 to 2012. A Mechanical Design Engineer with Antonov, PLC in 2009 to 2010, and a Mechanical Design Engineer Powertrain for Prodrive for eight years. And prior to that as a machinist and technician for Prodrive technology limited for four and a half years, including production, training and mentoring apprentices, responsible for the running, scheduling, and maintenance of the machining facility.

    Jon's mantra is "Road Cycling is a passion, obsession, and a challenge. Victory awaits." Welcome Jon.

    JON:

    Well, thanks Felicity, Thanks for having me.

    FELICITY:

    You're welcome. Tell us about your story, Jon. How did you evolve from where you started to where you are now, and why cycling?

    JON:

    It's quite a convoluted story. I guess I've probably always been a technically curious person. My parents reminisce and regale me with stories of how I took everything apart as a child. But I guess, long story short, I had a very interesting career in the U.K., which was mainly centred around automotive consulting and motor sport.

    And I was very fortunate. Enjoyed going to work every day. Every day was challenging and rewarding. But then an opportunity arose around the GFC to move across to Australia, and my sister already lived in Australia. And my partner at the time, my partner still, found it appealing too. So we decided to make the move and there was an offer. So came across to Australia. Decided not to pursue the secondment because, I guess, geographically it wasn't in the right location for us. Took  the new opportunity at Ford, and joined the other Ford research and development centre in Geelong working on their r06 engine, more specifically I guess, the LPI variant that came out. And, yeah, Ford's a good place to work, but it probably lacked the raw innovative, and the technology and engineering side of things that I guess I really found fulfilling in the U.K. And it somewhat prompted a bit of a reflection as to, “Okay, where am I gonna go next in my career, and what's interesting?”

    And I was fortunate enough to learn of Deakin University, and I guess at the chutes and carbon fibre composites and the carbon nexus, which is the world's first and the world's only dedicated research development firm for producing carbon fibre. And I still had some outstanding undergraduate studies to complete. So I basically thought I had a great opportunity to transition into a different technology field. And I thought I'd complete my undergraduate studies at Deakin and try and make a focus or emphasis on carbon fibre composites. Final year thesis was working in collaboration with the Science and Technology Organisation up in Melbourne. And we were looking at some composite parts for helicopters.

    And really that was a springboard for me getting into the composite space. And my supervisor thought my primary of projects had composite's interests as well, and offered me a Ph.D. scholarship after I completed my degree.

    FELICITY:

    Fantastic.

    JON:

    And really, yeah, the Ph.D. was great. I mean, it's obviously very fundamental research into composites, and I kind of chose to focus my efforts on the design. And with composites, I guess, different from.. not entirely different, but somewhat differences of other manufacturing materials. You have to make the material at the same time you're making the part. So whenever you think about a design, you also have to think about how you're gonna make it. And that's true always of manufacturing, but I guess more so with composites. And so, yeah, the essence of my Ph.D. was all about how can we design to use composites more efficiently, and I guess use them in application spaces where there currently isn't the design knowledge to apply them. So anything that's geometrically complex. Typically carbon fibre's used in aircraft on big flat wings. It's easy to make, but it's very conventional geometry, and I guess there's opportunity outside of that. And I guess cycling is a good example.

    The cycling industry is quite rich in composites, but the scale and size of components is so much smaller, and there's a lot of refined geometry. And producing such parts to a high quality is a challenging thing, and I think now there's been plenty of press online and in publication regarding cycling and composites, and it's a very technologically progressive sport. But at the same time, there's some questionable quality. Hardware on the market.

    And yeah, I start to find synergies basically, so I guess my research was taking me down this really curious avenue of okay, well you can have a clean sheet approach designing things if you're thinking from the get go that you're gonna make them out of carbon fibre rather than just taking an existing design and throwing a different material in it.

    And then there's also an application space with the sport that I enjoyed, which was cycling. And I guess, looks. I always liked the shiny things in engineering like motorsport. I guess you always look at what is the most desirable thing to get involved in.

    FELICITY:

    Yes.

    JON:

    Always admired the likes of lightweight, I guess they're high in wheels. And totally acknowledge that they're cost-prohibitive for a lot of people, and they're very expensive. But for me, it's about indulging in the technology and how good can you make something if you're not so cost-conscious, I guess, and you know on what you can achieve.

    And yeah, I guess that's where the innovation started. And it was very much around that I wasn't interested in competing with the carbon hoop on metal spokes. There's any one of the thousand suppliers out of China that you can get such things from. And there, the market's saturated with that kind of thing. And I had already started thinking that there's potential commercial opportunity here. So it's something of an interesting project, but there's potential for a product to be at the end of it.

    So I decided very much to say, okay well let's add a load of technology, let's appeal to the kinda audience that aspire to things like lightweight wheels, and focus on that high stiffness, very low weight, very low mass but with supreme functionality of something.

    And quite clearly, that was a full carbon construction, so a carbon rim with carbon spokes. And the whole thing designed as a system and to work all very synergistically together.

    And then, yeah, basically try and improve on what they did. And I started off thinking that would be an easy task. And I started that journey about four years ago, and obviously we're still working though the last few teething problems. And it's taken, I kinda call it third generation, but if I'm being brutally honest, there's probably a very initial version which was so rough that I haven't even recorded any pictures of it. But yeah, it's effectively taken four iterations for us to come up with what we believe is a game changer.

    FELICITY:

    Wow.

    JON:

    As significant as lightweights were when they first emerged, the significant improvement was stiffness, the significant drop in mass. Now we're presenting equally as significant changes. But it's taken a different approach. You can't copy what everyone else has done and expect something different.

    FELICITY:

    That's right.

    JON:

    So we took it very much back to the bare bones and said, “Okay what is carbon fibre?” And basically carbon fibre is black string.. very good black string, but like all string it likes to be loaded in tension and not much else. So therefore, the design that we create needs to make sure that wherever possible, and almost exclusively, any structural load that goes through carbon fibre has to be on tension. And therefore, the material you put in and use inefficiently, you don't need as much of it. It's a weight save. But also because there's less of it, you can control the geometry better, and you can control the quality of it better. You can afford premium materials and still fit within a viable product. And yeah, the net result is a higher performing article.

    So, yeah. It's been fascinating, but certainly not without its challenges. And I must admit I was naïve at the beginning and thought I had all the answers fairly up front, but you have to get so far down the road before you realise the other challenges that are gonna be your way. And you get to a point where you're so far down the road that you can't really turn back.

    FELICITY:

    Too far. Yeah.

    JON:

    And it's always been tantalizingly close. And at the moment we've been fairly secretive about what we're doing. And that's been for a number of reasons. I mean, there's a personal pride element of it, which means that I don't want people to see anything that isn't perfect. There's another commercial element, where we've attracted interest from big RENs that potentially wanted to buy the design off us, or have us as a contract manufacturer for them. And therefore, they didn't wanna confuse the marketplace with us advertising as it being our own. If there was..

    FELICITY:

    Right.

    JON:

    So it's generally the reason why there's very little information about us on the Internet, I guess. And it's kind of been by design to basically keep control over the impression of the product when it comes to market. Keep control over the differentiating features, which I guess now add value to our product, which people will start to be able to interpret when they see it. And then also, yeah, just to keep our commercial options open. It's a very expensive and very resource consuming thing to go from nothing to start a business, and then even more so if you're going straight to market with a product, you've gotta make people aware of what you're doing. You've gotta have a good story, and you've gotta be reputable, and trustworthy, and all of those things take a lot of different skillsets. And a lot of resource. And it's quite a hard thing to manage as an independent over a small team. And really, for a long time, that was what added attraction to collaborating with someone like a big REN who had the established name and all that resource. And I could just focus on the technical side of things.

    But, yeah, for a number of reasons that, I think, it’s a better model, and it's more personally fulfilling if we go straight to market, and I'm pleased with that decision now. And excited and looking forward to the end of the year, and hoping to have product's ready to ship before the close of the year, with a formal release early in the new year.

    FELICITY:

    How exciting!

    JON:

    But yeah, there's pictures coming soon, as soon as we get some decent imagery taken. And I'm no expert photographer, so we're drafting someone in to get some quality images and then we'll start sharing what we've done. And then there'll be a build queue, so there'll be opportunity for people to pay a small deposit and join the build queue. And there's a degree of tailorability of our product to the consumer. So there'll be more information about all of that coming on the webpage and through Instagram very soon.

    But now it's exciting and tantalizingly close. It's just been a very long journey to get here, I guess.

    FELICITY:

    Absolutely. Four years. And how did you go about testing the product, Jon? Were you actually out riding with the wheels yourself and having other colleagues riding, testing the wheels?

    JON:

    Yeah, exactly that. So it's been very low key. So on personal bikes, and I guess people that weren’t familiar to things like that. And the reason for the four generations is when you're doing a design that is very integrated, and you get one thing not quite right, and it affects the whole structure it's not exactly just a spoke or, you know, adjust spoke tension or do those things.

    And the early iterations were.. I was struggling to achieve some design attributes like spoke tension that made the ride quality acceptable. And obviously we were chasing an exceptionally stiff wheel. To create a wheel that's pre-stressed and pre-tensioned spokes and make it run true and have all the right characteristics is a really challenging thing. And so the first couple of variants were poor performers in that respect, and so didn't get that much rigorous testing.

    And then following on from that, then there's also the due diligence with good performance to ISO standards and the UCI test standards. And we're in the process of executing those test protocols now, but we do all that in house, we've got our own. Where as long as you show traceability and due diligence and you're able to verify in house. But it keeps, you know, you get to witness the testing first hand. You get to learn from the testing. It gives you opportunity to improve your product. And that's all about what we do. We produce our own designs. We do our own analysis. We design our own tools. We manufacture our own tools. We develop our own processes. We verify our own processes and materials. The whole lot's done in house. And that very integrated holistic approach to things means that it's an uninterrupted flow of information. And that gives a more informed design decision. And yeah, I guess a more thoroughly considered product at the end of it.

    FELICITY:

    And that's very comprehensive. You'd be way more comprehensive than I'm imagining the average factory by far. You know, because you're doing everything yourself.

    JON:

    Yeah, and it's quite often very dislocated, I guess. You'd have a design house that come up with the concept and then pawn that off to a manufacturer. And quite often is the case that they've not really been dialoguing too frequently up to that point. So the manufacturer does their best attempt at delivering on the design intent, but you know, there may have been opportunity to do things more favourably had they communicated further upstream in the design process. And there's so much, especially with composites, where they are so process sensitive, and if you're not getting things quite right, then the impairment in performance is very significant. But you really wanna not make things harder for yourself than they have to be. So if you can be really conscious of the way you're going to make it in the design phase, and you have that hands on experience of how things work and how things turn out, then you can really come up with a much more informed design decision. And yeah, a better product for the..

    FELICITY:

    Yeah, it seems like any alteration there's a domino effect regardless, so you've really gotta be mindful of that. Because every change you make it just effects everything else.

    JON:

    It's a can of worms. If you change one thing and it has a knock on effect, another..

    FELICITY:

    That's right. Yeah.

    JON:

    It can be a headache, but it's the same thing that makes composites rewarding is what makes them challenging. And you're just pulling your hair out every now and then.

    FELICITY:

    Yeah that's right. So Partington Advanced Engineering Services a range of industries looking to benefit from light weighting, as you mentioned, and more adding functionality to their structural applications. What other value-add services do you offer to the broader range of industry sectors?

    JON:

    So it's quite diverse. By chance, there's a couple of sporting companies we've worked with. We've worked with a local rowing boat company to help with some of their composite projects. But even as diverse as some medical devices. Especially in medical imaging. I guess they've got some very precision instruments that have very high-speed optics, or optics that need to be very precisely mounted, and obviously these devices get moved around, and they are subject to a range of environments, different temperatures and humidities. And it's quite challenging to keep these precision instruments perfectly aligned and in order. And conventional materials such as metals are just too dynamic and thermal expansion is too high, so if you put them in a warm room everything grows, and then they lose focus. There's various challenges there, so it may be a slightly surprising and unusual application of composites. But for these dimensionally critical applications, there's a real opportunity there.

    And we've been servicing a customer through this R&D phase whose been working on a very high-end optical device for scanning the back of your eye. And they've come up with some very clever three-dimensional imagery of your retina, and your back of your eye, and capillaries, and blood vessels. It's very smart technology but as with all new technology, it has new challenges, and composites can satisfy that. But anything from that to high-end audio applications, where you're looking at managing the decay of sound and the high-rate reducibility of those and accurate sound.

    You can use composites, they've got the polymer, the plastic side of composites as a natural dampening, so it can absorb noise and vibrations. And you can design around that to tune the behaviour of composites to have particular acoustic characteristics.

    And renewable energy, wind turbine blades. But I guess the key point of difference from a service offering from my company is, we try not to just have a blanket approach with the use of carbon fibre. It's more about carbon fibre is a very capable and high-performing material, but its benefit is only in a very finite range of applications. And so therefore we try and keep the use of it as strategic as possible, and try and not exclude the use of conventional materials, which are quite often more suitable to applications basis. But also, a lot more viable for a lot of volume production applications. And a lot more familiar to a lot of people from the manufacturing side of things. It's easy to weld together a metal structure or fasten it with bolts, but it's a lot more complicated with composites. So there's opportunity to have a multi-material design which works very synergistically with all these different materials. And we believe that there's a better result to be had going that design route than by just using composites exclusively or conventional materials exclusively.

    FELICITY:

    Well it's great that you've got that versatility and also vision that you can see that and identify that and then work with multiple industries, that would make it really quite fascinating. I think your role would be really, super interesting because you're learning a lot and across a lot of different platforms.

    JON:

    Yeah, it’s phenomenal. And we're really privileged to be on site at Deakin. And obviously a lot of established entities look to universities for which direction they should move with in technology. And they're looking for innovative solutions to problems, and it's kind of part of the whistle stop tour. As they come past us and other companies and see what we're up to. And quite often, even those cold-calling visits pricks some curiosity and inevitably leads to some dialogue through email, and then potentially work prospects. It's just a really prosperous environment to be in. You've got that traffic of people looking for new solutions and that value-added technology and that's actually what we're trying to offer.

    FELICITY:

    Well as you said, you're close to Deakin. And you're also in close proximity to Carbon Nexus, who develop new carbon fibre materials. And the Institute for Frontier Materials, as well as the school of Engineering. So with access to several research collaborations, how does this benefit you?

    JON:

    It's really good. So at several levels, it could be as direct as we engage researchers to investigate a particular technological challenge. Or we might have an idea that needs some further thought. It can be offering internships, so it's great to see bright talent come through the university, and we're fortunate enough to be able to offer internships, and that can be across engineering, across business, or anywhere the centre. And you get the opportunity to really dive in to something that's technically curious but probably can't justify our full attention at the time. Say, it might not have the commercial application, but it might be such an exciting technology that it deserves a bit of attention. And yeah, to have someone like an intern that can invest..

    FELICITY:

    Research.

    JON:

    Yeah. A few months in looking into it. Is fantastic. We can share the use of their technical resource, a lot of their test equipment and machines. We've got a subscription model that we work with them, where we can hire use of their machines. And that's how we do a lot of our testing and validation and field characterisation stuff, because a lot of those bits of equipment are half a million or more, and just too cost-prohibitive for most small companies to hone themselves. So that's really beneficial.

    I like to say there's always industry partners passing through the university, and ongoing opportunity for collaborations, and people with new ideas that are looking for some support, or assistance, or even just a chat in the corridor kind of thing. It's really a great place to be.

    FELICITY:

    Absolutely. That's great. Where do you see the development of products in cycling heading moving forward, Jon?

    JON:

    I think there's gonna be a bit more of an emphasis on safety and quality. I think there's been a bit of noise in the space already. So I think bad news travels fast, and there have been some fairly high-profile failures, especially of composite materials. And the consequences of those failures can be quite catastrophic, so heroically, people are very concerned.

    And I think there are some liberties taken by some sometimes in this area with regards to quality control. So I think there's definitely gonna be cracking down on that kinda stuff. And there's probably gonna be some improved test standards or some quality requirements. And I think it's needed. I think composite materials, especially in comparison to steels and conventional materials are still very juvenile. Yeah, people can make some very high-performing things from them, but that the knowledge with regards to how to produce them, how to model them, and how to model failure, and damages. There's a lot of learning still to be done there.

    So yeah, I think without the incentive to invest resource into better understanding that, people, yeah just do.. I don't wanna say they do the bare minimum, but there's a lot of products out there that satisfy the immediate requirements for safety but maybe don't push much past that.

    FELICITY:

    They're not best practice, necessarily.

    JON:

    No. Exactly. Yeah, it's taking that step back and saying how can we improve. Not only just save more grams of weight, but now how can we improve the brokenness, or the reliability, or the repeatability of what we do. So yeah, I think that's going to be a good move in that space.

    FELICITY:

    Well thank you for joining us today, Jon. I really look forward to seeing the launch in the new year for your foil carbon composite wheels. That's an exciting result after four years of research, development, and then production, and testing.

    JON:

    Yeah, yeah, thank you.

    FELICITY:

    Yeah. We really look forward to seeing that. Our listeners can find you on your website which is www.partington.com.au and we’ll have those in our show notes as well. And you an also find them on Instagram which is @partington.cc so we’ll list that in our show notes for a reference and I’d like to once again thank you for joining us today and we wish you all the best with the launch of your new product.

    JON:

    Thank you, Felicity. We really appreciate it and we’ll stay in touch.

    FELICITY:

    Thanks for listening to the All Torque podcast. We'd love it if you would leave us a rating and review on iTunes. This helps us to deliver content you want to hear about. Please take a moment to share it with your friends and family on Instagram and Facebook. I'm Felicity Dales, see you next episode for another story of inspiration and motivation on the All Torque podcast.

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