Where it all started

James O'Donnell and Tony O'Donnell

How James O’Donnell Revolutionised Actuator Production.

James O’Donnell, the man who devised the revolutionary ‘Smart Actuator’, the Actuator that delivers a 75% power saving on standard models, has always been an inventor. As a child he loved tinkering with electronics kits and ‘educational toys’. Growing up with the internet, it was natural that his inquisitive mind took him into a degree in computer science and business studies. And he has been tinkering ever since.

The inspiration for this life-changing innovation came whilst playing with a Scalextric car. While examining how to make the motor more efficient on the track, James realised that his thinking could have much wider implications. The detail was, for a long time, a closely guarded secret and following that eureka moment, much of James’s time has been spent with lawyers ensuring the technology can be patented across the globe.

James O'Donnell and Tony O'Donnell

The next stage was for James to understand the applications of this discovery. James’s father, Tony, runs a successful computer maintenance company. So, using parts lying around in the workshop and utilising a deep knowledge of computers – and their insides – he added some complex electronics to this motor configuration and the very first electric motor system was created in the Rift Lab.

Together with Tony and a family friend who just happened to have over 25 years of experience on the valve actuator industry, they looked for ways to use this new technology. The team worked together to see if this motor could be used to revolutionise this market. They realised that the market had not seen significant mechanical or technological innovation for many decades and much the same product configuration is sold across the world.

Both James and Tony are fans of the concept of ‘disruptive technologies’ and they began looking in more detail at the actuator’s design – something which has not fundamentally changed for many decades.

As James explains, the challenge was to bring fresh thinking to an old, traditional product: ‘I started this exercise with a relatively simple aim to develop a part-turn electric actuator, capable of delivering a range of torque outputs (from 20 to 100Nm) with an operating time of 4 seconds and which complies with all the appropriate market regulations in the different markets round the world.

Very quickly I realised it seemed difficult or even impossible to turn 100Nm in 4 seconds without spending a huge amount of money on a motor. The motors capable of realistically turning 4 seconds were too slow and the motors with the speed to do the job did not have the required torque within a budget which could produce a competitive product. ‘ James O’Donnell

James set about analysing the market and taking apart a number of actuators from across the world.

He concluded that in most entry level actuators half of the cost goes in the motor, and the other half is equally split between electronics – usually simple power supply and relays – and mechanics.

He continues: ‘If we take an objective look at what an actuator is, we can see it is simply a means of converting electricity into rotary motion. We can also quite quickly determine that there is a relationship between current and torque, and a relationship between volts and speed. Although this is a simplification it is useful shorthand for understanding this problem.

‘I found splitting the current between a range of smaller electric machines enables the core components of those machines to be utilised much more efficiently. A combination of smaller motors working together allows them all to operate more efficiently in terms of resources, energy usage and the overall cost than a single machine.

‘Once this realisation was made we could adjust the core budget to significantly enhance the electronics inside the model and vastly enhance the features available from the end unit – while keeping the cost broadly the same.

‘I found splitting the current between a range of smaller electric machines enables the core components of those machines to be utilised much more efficiently. A combination of smaller motors working together allows them all to operate more efficiently in terms of resources, energy usage and the overall cost than a single machine.

‘Once this realisation was made we could adjust the core budget to significantly enhance the electronics inside the model and vastly enhance the features available from the end unit – while keeping the cost broadly the same.

‘ We end up with a unit which can turn over 100Nm in under 2 seconds. Utilising the motors close to their optimum efficiency, we have found demonstrates a significant energy usage reduction of approximately 75 per cent against most existing units. This lets us shift the paradigm within the actuator market allowing us to introduce aspects like a universal power supply containing both high and low voltages and a processor with a power comparable to or greater than that that of most smart phones.

‘And by reducing the core amounts of copper and magnets required, we greatly reduce the core carbon footprint of manufacture, keep the unit weight low which reduces the required infrastructure costs.’ 

James and Tony formed Rift Technology in 2011 and set about the task of developing working prototypes to test their proposition.

‘The workshop became full of deconstructed actuators and parts were strewn all over the floor of every room in Dad’s house,’ James explains. ‘In the end the family forced us to move everything into two workshops below the house. But every time we created an actuator, we were able to show the same amazing results and we were able to make demonstrations to
potential investors and partners. We used to joke that every time someone saw the tests performed, they ended up being ‘Rifted’. That club is growing by the day and each person is amazed to see the results.’

The path to manufacturing the very first ‘Rift Driven’ product has been complex. Innovating is a difficult task during recessionary times and the team really got to know the true meaning of the credit crunch. James says: “The banks were simply not prepared to help out and every potential investor wanted just too much equity to make the long-term proposition appealing. We’ve seen a variety of funding solutions but in the end, we have focused on raising our own private capital to get to a position where we can start shipping actuators.

‘If possible we would like to keep manufacture of this in the UK and create wealth and opportunities locally. We all live in Worcestershire and it would be great if we are able to keep producing our actuators in the county.’

James and Tony met with partners to help create the parts for the first actuators and the very first units came off the production line in August, 2013.

Meanwhile the Smart Actuator company was founded to market and distribute the new actuator and the company immediately received plaudits. The company was given an award by the local Chamber of Commerce for its innovation and the parent company received support from an unlikely supporter. Motor sport legend John Surtees saw a demonstration and offered his support to help take the technology to a wider audience. The team at Rift Technology are now looking forward to meeting with global motor manufacturing partners to look at offering the technology to Formula 1 and eventually volume production cars.

While many interested parties are making their way to Malvern to see the motor test for themselves, much of the team’s efforts is spent delivering the very first actuators off the production line.

James adds: ‘Like all new products, there are teething problems and the inevitable hiccups. However, it is great to see that every actuator coming off the production line shows the same great performance. We are now looking at new materials to make the actuator last longer as well and we are fully expecting this to be simply the best actuator available for a wider range of tasks’.

‘We are in the process of taking our prototypes out to our global sales partners and we are booking up space at exhibitions to start shifting product’.


‘It’s been an incredibly intense journey, but we all hope that once the word starts getting out, our order book will be full for many years to come.’