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Pancake motor maker does the splits

25 July, 2009

A long-established British manufacturer of pancake motors, Hampshire-based PML Flightlink, has been split into two separate companies following a court case and the placing of the company into administration.

Printed Motors was founded in 1963 to manufacture flat armature motors. These offer attractions such as low inductance, zero cogging, low inertia and precise speed control, in a low-profile package. PML’s servo disc motors were used in the R2D2 robots in the original Star Wars film in 1977.

During the 1970s, PML was bought by the Pilgrim House Group, which sold it to B Elliott in the 1980s. B Elliot then merged PML with the joystick manufacturer Flightlink Controls, to create PML Flightlink. In 2001, the company was bought by a private investor, Martin Boughtwood who began to focus the company on developing motors with integrated control and power electronics that could fit into the wheels of electric vehicles.

PML Flightlink worked with various car-makers, including Volvo and Ford, but had problems delivering prototypes on time. In 2007, a US-based venture capital firm, Oak Investment Partners, invested £10m in the business.

Following the investment, the business was restructured under a holding company called QED. Oak brought in a new CEO and COO (chief operating officer), and made Boughtwoood CTO (chief technical officer). However, serious disagreements arose between the directors over various issues. Boughtwood attempted to win control of the QED board and to remove the existing CEO by appointing his brother and a business contact as directors.

Oak was granted an injunction to restrain Boughtwood from refusing to recognise the existing CEO. Meanwhile, PML Flightlink was put into administration. The dispute ended up in court, where a judge found that Boughtwood had failed to respect the limits of his CTO role and had disrupted other managers. He was ordered to sell his shares in QED to Oak. The court case has sent ripples across the corporate legal world by setting several legal precedents under English law.

Earlier this year, the PML Flightlink business was split into two operations: Protean Electric, owned by Oak, which will continue to develop automotive in-wheel motor applications; and Printed Motor Works, owned by two entrepreneurs, which is focusing on non-automotive applications of various motor technologies, as well as continuing to produce joysticks. Martin Boughtwood is not involved in either venture.

One of the co-owners of Printed Motor Works, Christian Olsen, believes that there are many potential applications that could take advantage of the pancake motor’s unique characteristics and that the technology deserves a revival. The company’s motors (similar to the one shown above) are already being used in a wide range of industrial and other applications, from medical test equipment to self-propelling suitcases. Printed Motor Works is working with potential customers in fields as diverse as mobile robotics, power generation, large-screen displays, and underwater propulsion.

Printed Motor Works, which employs about 30 people, is focusing on custom applications for its technology. Despite the company name, the motors are no longer made with printed circuit boards – they are stamped from copper sheets, which are then laminated with aerospace composites in up to eight layers to create ironless discs. Printed Motor Works’ servo disc motors use long-life brushes that generally last longer than their application. The company is also offering hub motors and a range of compact brushless motors.

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