Meet Adam Thomson, Chief Engineer of Body and Trim at Volta Trucks

By Duncan Forrester

What was your working journey to Volta Trucks, and what attracted you to the company?

“My career has provided me some fantastic opportunities & I count myself as extremely fortunate to have had the chance to do & see so much already. My first role as a graduate was with Toyota Europe within the Powertrain Engineering Department of Product Development based in Brussels. It gave me a fantastic basis to learn about how Toyota engineer cars but also how they manage processes and ultimately build quality into everything they do. In 2009, McLaren invited me to the McLaren Technology Centre in Woking to see what they were working on – the prototype for the MP4-12C. I couldn’t turn down the opportunity with such an ambitious and capable team to work on something truly ground-breaking. I joined body engineering working in composites design for the MP4-12C and next onto P1. As McLaren grew as a business, so did my role, becoming Chief Engineer for the McLaren GT in 2017. I became aware of Volta Trucks in the autumn of 2020 and was instantly impressed by what the company is trying to achieve. I saw the opportunity to join a fast-growing company that is trying to make a big impact in the commercial vehicle market and change the way we view urban distribution from a sustainability and safety perspective. Like all the businesses I’ve worked for in the past, our ambition is to be the best in the world at what we are doing and that’s why I’m working for Volta Trucks.”

What does the role of a Chief Engineer of Body and Trim do?

“I lead the team within Engineering which is responsible for all the systems and components on the truck that build up to make the cab, load box and exterior panels and trim. Right now, our priorities are in developing the 16-tonne project whilst, in parallel, building a team of world class engineers who will, in the future, be at the heart of every product we deliver. Our team is also responsible for the research & development of our new composite materials and ensuring these are integrated into our future product deliveries. This is an exciting area of technical development and has the potential to revolutionise the way we all look at composite materials and their impact on our environment.”

You’ve previously worked in supercars with McLaren and now commercial vehicles with Volta Trucks. The products couldn’t be more different but what about the processes that you go through to develop and engineer those products – is it very different?

“The short answer is – not very different. The process we follow in product development is fundamentally the same as it is within the automotive, or any other transportation, sector. Whilst there are differences in the environment, load cases, product usage, customer and regulatory requirements, the journey from product vision to production is the same. One of the major differences at Volta Trucks is how clear the vision is for our products and services, and how this translates into the Volta Zero. The safety of the driver and the interaction the truck has on other road users is paramount in every technical decision we make. It’s then about how we can deliver the best solution for our customers in terms of product features and quality, also considering the materials we use, the production process we follow, and the efficiency of the final truck guiding us with the choices we make in product development.”

There are clearly very significant packaging differences between the full electric Volta Zero and ‘traditional’ trucks. How have you used these packing opportunities to your advantage, and what challenges have you had to overcome?

“We have taken the opportunity an EV powertrain offers to completely rethink the way drivers and road users interact with a truck. Not having a diesel engine at the front of the truck which requires cooling allows us to seat the driver in the centre and at the same height as pedestrian standing on the pavement, transforming what the driver can see and eliminating blind spots that put pedestrians and cyclists a risk with traditional truck layouts. The lower seating position also makes getting in and out of the truck simple, eliminating the need for drivers to climb in and out of the truck from over 2 metres off the ground, thus reducing the risk of driver injury. The EV powertrain also comes with weight offsets that we need to compensate for in the rest of the truck to maintain a competitive payload capability. To do this, we are developing new composite materials to minimise weight in the body panels – something which is traditionally not a consideration that commercial vehicle OEMs prioritise.”

The Volta Zero was launched with natural composite external body panels as a world-first. What are the considerations and challenges engineers face bringing these new innovative composites to market at volume, rather than just one-off launch vehicles?

“Developing a new material is always a challenge on tight timescales – especially when we have such high surface quality expectations on the interior and exterior body panels. The broad range of environments – heat, cold, vibrations, salt, dirt and the physical loads a component is exposed to on a road vehicle, are a challenge for almost any material over the product lifespan. Therefore, to begin with, we work to understand the mechanical and chemical properties of a material and match these to the specific application in the vehicle. Once we have an idea of how the material would react in a real-world scenario, we can then develop a manufacturing process that allows us to learn how it behaves within a tool and then, ultimately, how to modify our design considerations to deploy it on a production component. Part of the study of how the material behaves in the tool is about understanding and developing how we can optimise the process to meet the quality targets & cycle times needed to scale production up to the volumes we are planning for the Volta Zero.”

Given all of your experiences, what’s your advice to a young engineer just setting out?

“My advice would be to find a business that can offer a good graduate development scheme, or one that gives you real responsibility and accountability from day 1. I have found that trying to do something myself is the best way to learn – even if that means I have made mistakes in the past.  However, it is these mistakes which I have probably learned the most from. Over the years, I have found that working with five principals has always been a solid basis for me.”

  • Get the basics right
  • The best solutions come when we understand the fundamentals of what we are doing and why we are doing it.
  • I’m a firm believer in ‘from first principals’ approach being the basis of our decisions and understanding the root cause of any problem helps to ensure that the solution is going to work.
  • Be passionate about what you do.
  • It doesn’t matter what you love doing if you are doing what you love.
  • Be proud of your work and make your work something to be proud of.
  • Do everything to the best of your abilities.
  • Let your work speak for itself.
  • It doesn’t matter if you get something wrong – its about how we work together to find the right solution.
  • Ask the right question.
  • Don’t be afraid or embarrassed to ask if you don’t understand.
  • Always work to understand why.
  • Be ready to be the most knowledgeable person in the room.
  • Ensure you know the details of your area of responsibility.
  • Always seek to find the real data and use this to drive your decisions.