Chris Milburn Swift caravan designer
Head of Design at Swift
Chris Milburn: “My role is Head of Design for Caravans and Motorhomes at Swift.”
“I started life as a car designer. I graduated with a degree in Transport Design from Coventry in the 80s. I was then sponsored by the Rover Group to go to the Royal College of Art in London, to do a Masters degree in Automotive Design.
“I then worked at the Rover Group until the early 90s, until I joined a consultancy set up by the Rover Managing Director and Design Director. I worked with them for six years, doing business-jet design and working with companies like Honda, Rolls Royce and BMW etc. Then in the late 90s I joined Daewoo motor company to get a more global perspective on automotive design.
“I stayed with them until 2001, when the economic conditions in Asia meant that Daewoo sold off a lot of its businesses. I then did a short spell with Tom Walkinshaw, before arriving at Swift.”
Caravan: How does car design compare to caravan design?
CM: “It’s similar. The utilisation of space on the interior is very important, as are the exterior styling and aerodynamics. We use the same computer software that’s used to develop cars. All of our exterior panels are modelled on that software. This gives a very good quality of surfacing, which means you end up with a perfect part.”
“We use computer-aided design (CAD), computational fluid dynamics (CFD) and finite element analysis (FEA) (high-tech computer modelling softwares – Ed) to develop and test our caravans. We also do our own in-house physical testing on certain components, but outsource some of the larger parts.”
Caravan: 30-plus new caravans for 2012 seems a bit excessive given that there’s a recession on. What’s the thinking?
CM: “We have reduced our complexity by dropping the Abbey and Ace brands and focusing our attention on the Swift and Sterling ranges.
“However, we have to cover a wide range, to ensure we’re producing the right layouts for our customer base.”
“We have customers with very different holidaying requirements: older couples, younger couples, families, grandparents taking grandchildren away. There are so many different combinations. The layouts have to be flexible enough to satisfy all these different requirements.”
Caravan: Do you ‘platform-share’ like the car manufacturers are increasingly doing?
CM: “We do have platform sharing, but we have to optimise the product for any particular range. For example, the Eccles Sport and Challenger Sport ranges are both lightweight, so therefore they can’t share the same base as the Eccles and Challenger ranges, because those are much more luxurious products and therefore the requirements for those products are slightly different.”
“So, yes, we do share components where we can, but we also have to optimise them for specific characteristics.”
Caravan: Aerodynamics seems to be the new big thing…
CM: “I think aerodynamics is an ever-increasing issue. For those that tow caravans, you can clearly feel the difference when a caravan’s attached. It struck me that a lot of effort goes in to getting the aerodynamics right on the car, but when it comes to car-caravan combination, you need to take that airflow from the car and manage it as much as you can over the front end of the caravan.
“The compromise is always that you have to create a spacious box, so you can’t make it too small and curvaceous at the front because that compromises what you’re doing on the inside. So it’s always a balance and depends heavily on the type of car that’s towing the caravan, which varies dramatically.
Caravan: Will caravans be designed to suit specific cars in future?
CM: “I think the front needs to be tuned to suit specific cars, whether that’s a saloon car, an estate car or an off-roader. But tuning it for say, different off-roaders gets more difficult.”
Caravan: How important is customer feedback?
CM: “Very important. We get excellent feedback from our customers through our sales teams and at shows. The Swift Talk website is also an invaluable source of info. People are very open with their views, be they good or bad, so we monitor the site closely and respond. We take on board all the comments and we’re pro-active, we ask lots of questions.”
Caravan: Where have the weight-savings come from?
CM: “It’s very layout-specific. Things like simpler furniture construction make a difference. We make small gains all over and it’s amazing the difference it makes, it all adds up.
Caravan: What is the single biggest innovation for 2012?
CM: “From my perspective, the overall shape of the van and the integration of the sunroof are most important, plus the feeling of spaciousness. The brief we set ourselves was one of efficiency and lightweight and we’ve achieved that.”
“You can really spot the differences, especially against the outgoing generation of vans here. You can really see the differences in the overall shape and in the detailing. They all have very clean, neat lines with no obvious sealant. It’s all those little things that make a much better quality product.”
“We’ve worked closely with our manufacturing colleagues to make sure all our designs are easy to manufacture. For example, the large GRP front panel was designed so that the GRP matting could get into all the nooks and crannies to ensure a really strong and durable product.
Caravan: Who wins when designers disagree with engineers?
CM: “We have some robust debates with the manufacturing team about what adds value to the product. We have to make compromises, but that’s all part of design. It’s all about optimising, to get the right product for the customer.
Caravan: Do you see a day when we have composite carbonfibre caravans?
CM: Undoubtedly, the day will come when composites, like carbonfibre, are used in caravan manufacture. We’re always looking for new manufacturing techniques, new materials, new ways of fixing things, and there’s a lot going on in the background on parts design. But they have to be commercially viable and some of them affect the way we construct the vans, the manufacturing sequences.