At first glance, the Aardman office looks like that of any other medium-sized company – perhaps a high-tech engineering works of some kind. But inside, things are a little different.Well, for a start, the staff are predominantly young, they’re all terribly nice, and they’re also terribly busy. In this factory, the staff are clearly on a mission.The canteen is different too…Where your average engineering company might have picked up the odd award for widget-fettling, Aardman has an impressive array of gongs, including a small group of Oscars, all displayed with delightful nonchalance across from the baked spuds and soup de la jour.
For the philistines amongst you, Aardman Animations began life in a quiet way back in 1972, before making it big with the plasticiny ‘Morph’ in 1980, and finally rocketing to national then international stardom with the much loved Wallace & Gromit.The company has gone on to produce many award winning television advertisements and has entered into a partnership with US film-maker Dreamworks.The result was Chicken Run – the company’s first feature film.
…a number of subscribers, including Dave Sproxton… the Executive Chairman.
So what has all this to do with A to B? Well, it just happens that Aardman is based in Bristol, home of Sustrans, and a city sharing equal billing with York as the UK’s cycling capital. Perhaps, then, it’s no surprise that amongst 60 or so Aardman employees there are a number of A to B subscribers, including – most usefully – Dave Sproxton, who happens to be one of the founders, and now the Executive Chairman.
Making lateral connections, as creative types often do, Dave wondered whether electric bikes might benefit the company. Aardman has two studios – a smallish place on Bristol’s fashionable dockside and a much larger studio some nine miles out of town, or thirteen if you take the motorway, which you generally do, because Bristol is one of the most congested cities in Europe.
Put the blame where you will – car-centric national policies, car-centric local policies, a tram system that never left the drawing board, Railtrack’s spectacular implosion, John Prescott’s tummy, and so forth.Whatever the reason, Aardman suffers like every other business in the city, and the bill runs into millions of pounds every year…
So why doesn’t this thrusting young company simply up sticks to its big studio at Aztec West, an industrial development bordering the US-style Cribbs Causeway retail park, way out of town by the freeway? Sorry, the M5 motorway.
According to Operations Manager Tony Prescott, Aardman intends to maintain its presence in the centre of Bristol because it’s a great place to be. Also, many of the staff live within walking or cycling distance of the urban studio, including (usefully, once again) Dave, the Executive Chairman. Lesson Number One for more conventional medium size companies – a ‘green’ minded MD can have a big effect.
..Aardman keeps three vehicles… All very useful in their way, but overkill for the toothbrush…
For Aardman, delays can be very expensive. Just imagine you’re producing the last few frames of a feature film, with the Dreamworks executives drumming their corporate fingers in L.A. and you urgently need a tin of Humbrol ‘signal red’ enamel and a toothbrush.You either put the production on hold, or send a ‘runner’ to the nearest hardware store, which tends to work out cheaper. Hence the runners – usually youngsters starting their film careers.
Aardman Animations keeps three vehicles – a Volkswagen Transporter for big things like cameras, a Peugeot 106 and a Citroen Berlingo van. All very useful in their way, but overkill for the toothbrush, and – according to 25 year old Jay (currently runner-in-chief) – the vehicles are next to useless after 4pm, when traffic can lock solid for hours.
The obvious solution was a bicycle, but Bristol is a hilly place, runners are not necessarily as fit as the name implies, and time is money. Perhaps an electric bike would provide a cost-effective answer?
In early May 2002, A to B entered the picture, helping to arrange a demonstration of the top machines. Choosing the best electric bikes is pretty easy: 1) Powabyke (rugged and cheap to run, but heavy and agricultural), 2) Heinzmann (solid in a teutonic sort of way, but a little stodgy), 3) Giant Lafree Comfort (light, quiet, efficient and just-like-a-bike-to- ride).The Aprilia looks good, but is a complete disaster, and now that Yamaha has thrown in the towel,there’s really little else up to commercial use.
In June the three bikes arrived for a two week trial, and Aardman invited staff to try them out.Those who climbed aboard soon found themselves smiling.The bikes were used for private errands too, including popping out for sandwiches – even popping home.
What were the results? The Powabyke was criticised for its weight and top-heavy feel, with several lighter members of staff finding it disconcerting on corners. (Macho types approved of the rugged MTB looks though). Some people also had problems with the controls – juggling 24 gears, two brake levers and a twistgrip throttle is tricky, even for an experienced cyclist.The Powabyke’s lack of suspension caused problems too.The Bristol docks are a maze of cobbled yards and monstrous potholes that ‘rattled the battery to hell’, according to Tony. In the end, the Powabyke proved too complex for beginners – if bikes like these are to succeed in a day-to-day commercial environment, they obviously need to be novice-friendly.
The Heinzmann was rated somewhere in the middle – no frolicking battery to worry about, but nothing particularly positive to write home about either.The two-hour recharge is a considerable bonus, but it was assumed that a ‘pool’ bike would require a spare battery, so the recharge time – for Aardman, at least – was less critical than one might imagine.
Far and away the biggest hit was the Lafree, the Aardman staff being ‘simply bowled over’ by the bike’s quality and effortless performance. According to Tony Prescott, ‘The Giant had the biggest grin factor’, and that was that. The simple controls (hub gears, no twistgrip throttle) were widely appreciated, as was the upright riding position, the understated appearance and quiet, effective motor. Perhaps the most important feature was light weight. At 22.2kg, the Lafree Twist is light enough for most people to carry up a couple of steps – something that’s bound to happen sooner or later on city centre deliveries.
A commercial application is quite different to a private purchase. Running costs – usually top of the list – were not really an issue for Aardman, because against running a van, even the most expensive electric bike comes cheap.The primary factors on Tony Prescott’s mind were convenience, ease of use, speed and availability. From the trial, the Giant seemed to be the best.
…Day-to-day commercial use can throw up all sorts of issues that were not envisaged…
These are still early days. Aardman is currently arranging to purchase a Giant Lafree and continue the trial in more realistic circumstances. Day-to-day commercial use can throw up all sorts of issues that were not envisaged at the start. Much depends on the attitude of the staff, but some are seriously considering electric bikes of their own, so that battle may be half won. Others are less sure. Jay, who obviously knows a thing or two about running, is sceptical that a bike will handle heavy packages. He makes another very good point that could only have come from the man at the sharp end:What if he rides a few miles to fetch something small, then gets a call to keep driving, to pick up something bigger? This obviously happens – easy with a van, but requiring a wasteful journey back to base if he’s on the bike.
When we visited one September morning, Jay was making a couple of typical runs – two miles for some cider(!), then nine miles out to Bradley Stoke to return a spade after a location shoot…Yes, that’s right, one garden spade.The trip takes more than half an hour by van, and could easily have been matched by bike, although a spade is at the top end on the practicality scale.
Aardman has no plans to transfer staff between the two studios by bike, although we tried this run and did it in less than half an hour in ideal conditions.The longer motorway trip should be quicker, but can easily take longer, depending on congestion. For these cross-city journeys, a conventional bicycle would cost a lot of staff time, but the electric bike comes close to matching the car, at much reduced cost.
The real test will come as the winter unfolds.Will staff still be willing to jump aboard a bike when it’s raining or freezing, or both? Whatever Aardman decides to do, the traffic will still be there, and the city will continue to seize up after 4pm. One suspects that archetypal problem-solver Wallace would have taken one look at the hills, the one-way streets and the never-ending congestion, and invented the electric bicycle.