The Big Interview: Armadilla chief executive Ross Hunter on his pioneering ventilator design

Ross Hunter’s projects have ranged from a go-kart to outdoors living spaces – and now a pioneering ventilator design – with an appearance on Dragons’ Den along the way.

Hunter says Armadilla has turned from a small cottage industry into an advanced manufacturing business. Picture: contributed.
Hunter says Armadilla has turned from a small cottage industry into an advanced manufacturing business. Picture: contributed.

Design engineer Ross Hunter is the chief executive of Armadilla, a manufacturer of eco-friendly, luxury outdoor living spaces. He co-founded the business with his father Archie – the MD.

The company, based in Bonnyrigg on the outskirts of Edinburgh, has a commercial customer base including Riverbeds Luxury Lodges in Glencoe and Juicy Oasis spa and resort in Portugal, while it has been selected as the accommodation provider for the Wave Garden development at Ratho. Armadilla doubled its turnover in the last year to £2 million and continues to expand to serve clients in the UK, Europe, Middle East, Australia and New Zealand.

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It has more than 40 staff and a 25,000-square-foot manufacturing facility. In April it received a Queen’s Award for Enterprise for the hi-tech features of its Hotelier Pod.

The Armadilla HOP (Home Office Pod) is in development. Picture: contributed.
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Hunter also runs Whisky Frame, which sells picture frames made of whisky barrels, with his wife Kristen – the pair appeared on Dragons’ Den regarding the business – and he is one of just seven finalists in a prestigious global competition to design a ventilator to help Covid-19 patients.

You were recently named the only UK finalist in the CoVent-19 Challenge to invent a new ventilator to help Covid-19 sufferers. What prompted you to take part?

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When I heard about the CoVent-19 Challenge I decided I had to enter to try to help the growing number of Covid-19 sufferers across the world.

The pandemic is having devastating effects on people and communities everywhere and one of the best ways to treat sufferers is by ensuring there are enough effective and affordable ventilators available, especially in developing countries that don’t have many resources.

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I didn’t enter the challenge at the very start. I wanted to prove that my idea would work and the first few weeks were spent developing it. It can be quite intimidating being up against the likes of Dyson and Tesla.

One of the things that attracted me to the CoVent-19 Challenge was they did not expect you to build the final unit – they would take that part on once the design has been proven and chosen.

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If I’m honest, it’s still sinking in that I’ve reached the finals of the challenge up against such strong international competition, but I’m pleased to have been able to use my design skills and experience in such a worthwhile way while my own family business, Armadilla, is in lockdown.

The team and I are now working hard to develop our Core Vent prototype into a fully-functioning ventilator that I hope will end up helping those people affected by coronavirus.

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You studied mechanical engineering and product design and said you have always enjoyed “tinkering and inventing” – can you explain more about this interest?

To put it simply, I just love to solve problems. I love making and inventing – and growing up on a farm gave me the tools to become hands-on and practically minded.

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I was brought up with an attitude of “we can do that”. Since I was about eight, I wanted to design cars and when I was 11 I made my own “go-cart” from an old bedspread and a lawnmower engine in the farm workshop.

It didn’t last long, falling apart on the inaugural and very scary trip down the farm road when I quickly realised that a method of stopping was in fact more important than the cool steering wheel I designed.

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I didn’t give up, though, and instead it inspired me to make it better. Ever since, my passion has been to find solutions and design things that work, look good and are truly functional.

I’m fortunate to have the facilities at Armadilla to develop concepts and flesh out ideas, such as the ventilator prototype, which was adapted from a concept I’ve been developing in my spare time for a new type of speciality coffee machine.

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You founded Armadilla in 2010 with your father Archie – what prompted you to start the business?

Armadilla was actually born after we successfully built an eco house two years earlier using salvaged materials from an old chapel, a disused police station and a neglected tollhouse.

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We noticed a shift in the market with people opting for short experiential breaks but felt there was a gap in the market for luxury pods. We created a prototype, and one year later, in 2011, we had 110 units being used at Glastonbury and other festivals.

This pod has helped transform our business from a small cottage industry to an advanced manufacturing business dealing with high-end operators across Europe and beyond.

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You are chief executive – what does your role entail?

I’m involved in formulating policies and strategic planning. Also, as head of design and development, I can see what market trends are happening and adapt our products as necessary.

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The firm in April received a Queen’s Award for Enterprise for innovation – what does this mean to the business?

The Queen’s Award for Enterprise is the highest official award for businesses in the UK. It was a huge honour and privilege to receive it last month. It reinforces our commitment to ongoing innovation in all aspects of our work.

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We have a fantastic workforce who have all contributed so much to our success and this award is superb for morale. It also sends a strong message to all our valued customers. The award carries a tremendous weight with many countries, and we’ve seen a sharp upturn in enquiries from around the world.

Armadilla has said its fastest growth is in the staycation sector – what is your outlook for the business as lockdown restrictions ease?

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We don’t yet know what post-lockdown life will look like, but with expected restrictions on travelling overseas, UK travellers can still experience an interesting and unusual holiday without the need to leave the country.

Our Hotelier Pod and Waves are perfectly suited to what consumers are looking for as this “experiential economy” grows, particularly upmarket country house hotels and wedding venues who can expand their room numbers without disruption to the main building utilising their policy grounds. For those who don’t have catering facilities we do self-catering versions of both the Pods and Waves.

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The company has said it is exploring two routes to further expansion: sending flat-packed components to new remote assembly facilities, and a “factory in a box” concept. What are the advantages of these?

These routes to expansion would allow us to scale up relatively quickly as the pods can be built by others at the recipient country rather than in Bonnyrigg. It would also make exporting easier and more efficient. We have some exciting projects coming together in New Zealand and Australia that we are working on. Watch this space.

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What are your own ambitions for, say, the next five years?

We’re currently developing the Armadilla HOP (Home Office Pod). We have in fact been manufacturing Armadilla offices since the beginning and have built up a huge understanding of customer needs. The HOP will be delivered flat-packed and erected by trained assemblers.

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It is sized to accommodate a sofa bed in addition to the desk so that it can double up as an overspill bedroom and in almost all cases will not require planning permission and can be taken with you if you move. Fully air-conditioned and fitted out with all the technology the home worker requires.

We see a massive market from householders but also from companies who are concerned about their obligations to provide safe working conditions for their employees.

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We’re starting to see a recognition that things are not going back to the past – look at Twitter, which has given employees the option of home working for ever.

But there’s so much more I want to work at, particularly with the elderly and disabled. The key is to incorporate the smart technology into the fabric of buildings – not added on as an afterthought.

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We are developing incredible data from doing this with our Pod Control system I developed, which is now standard on all our products. It’s a small step to manufacturing low-cost modular housing with smart technology built in. This would be transformational for the elderly and disabled.

Put it this way – there are about 25 million vehicles in this country, most with some form of engine-management system – there’s a similar number of houses, most of which have only archaic systems of energy-management. That’s where we can make a huge impact on carbon-reduction. Think smart technology.

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In the short term, my ambition is to win the Covid-19 challenge and see my Core Vent ventilator helping people with Covid-19 around the world.

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