Although production actually began during September, the new £50m McLaren Production Centre (MPC) – the specially designed and built factory where the MP4-12C and all its forthcoming derivatives will be built – has been formally opened by Prime Minister David Cameron.
Octane was invited along for the day to have a guided tour of the new facility, designed by the architect Lord Foster. And, for anybody who has ever seen pictures of (or, better still, been invited inside) the McLaren Technology Centre (MTC), it’s predictably fastidious. A 20,000-square-metre plot next to the Technical Centre (just outside Woking in Surrey, UK) has been turned into an 11m-high block within which the cars are painted and assembled. A 12,000-square-metre floor below, set a matching 11m into the ground, is dedicated to just-in-time component storage, and the whole factory – if we can call it that – shares the equally low-profile MTC’s water-cooling system, which discharges and dissipates heat via the curving lagoon that laps against the main façade of the MTC.
Staffing levels at the Woking site are now up to 750, slightly ahead of projections that had predicted a gradual rise to 800 (from the 500 post-McLaren-Mercedes SLR) once the whole range of new McLaren sports cars is in place. Yet the place is hardly crowded.
You access the MPC via an underground tunnel (workers use it to visit the canteen in the MTC) and climb stairs so you can survey the entire shopfloor. First impressions? It’s white. Very white. Even the floor. And it’s quiet. No sparks, no clang of metal on metal. They could be assembling watches in there. And the forklift trucks that sometimes scuttle about bearing components are shod with white tyres, so as not to mark that floor.
Cars start life as carbonfibre ‘monocells’ (actually moulded in Austria, in a process that takes just 3.5 hours – compared with 60 days to cure the McLaren F1’s!), mated to a cast/extruded/welded aluminium rear subframe, and then gradually move through the first assembly process on ‘skids’ (actually labelled – in the McLaren font, naturally – as Build Staples), gaining roof, scuttle, rear glazing and front subframe, before being masked and carried through the paint booth. They’re hand-sprayed in a 56-stage process along with their associated body panels, in colour batches, then held in a ‘colour bank’ to be matched to an order – and there’s currently an 18-month waiting list.
There follows a 33-stage assembly process that culminates in a completed car, with Ricardo-built, McLaren-designed twin-turbo V8 and seven-speed, dual-clutch Graziano gearbox installed, and the interior fully trimmed. Ready to go… as far as the Dynamic Test booth (a rolling road in a glass box), then the Monsoon Test booth, to be blasted with deionised water at high pressure, which is subsequently air-bladed off and recycled. Finally, each car is protectively clad and sent on a 30km test drive. Once it’s de-clad and cleaned, the McLaren badge is applied as a seal of approval.
Each build stage is scheduled at 45 minutes; currently ten cars are being built per week. More than 30 cars have so far been delivered; the eventual aim is to pump one out every 45 minutes, and the whole process has been future-proofed for a 15-year programme, which means that the whole layout can be rejigged in just a couple of hours.
Just as fascinating as the workings in the new assembly building is the approach of the different divisions within the company itself. CEO of McLaren Group (and a face familiar to viewers of Formula 1 racing on television) Martin Whitmarsh said: ‘We set out to develop the best sports car in the world – we could only do that by design. And it’s something we’ve been doing for years in motor sport.’
And did you know that every new McLaren Formula 1 car carries over 6% of componentry from the previous season? Yet 75% of that car is then completely re-engineered during the racing season. As MD of Vodafone McLaren Mercedes (the racing team), Jonathan Neale said: ‘We love winning races. We just want to win a few more Championships!’ His solution to that problem? ‘Graft!’
Peter van Manen, MD of McLaren Electronic Systems, was keen to point out that, since 2008, Formula 1 teams had to run with standardised electronic control units. McLaren makes them. It also makes all the ECUs for Indycar racing. And now NASCAR too, necessitating the shift to fuel injection after 60 years with carburettors! ‘We want to be at the leading edge, yet as conservative as you need to be for reliability,’ he said.
It’s that insistence on reliability that has taken his division into aviation. Final federal certification for McLaren’s electronic control systems for the Lycoming aviation piston engine is now in due process. His philosophy: ‘The fear of letting someone down means that you don’t.’ So don’t be surprised to hear that the youngest company in the group, McLaren Applied Technology, is taking techniques learnt in racing elsewhere. Its MD Geoff McGrath said it ‘exists to exploit the decades of resources that have gone into racing’. So far, thinking has been applied to athletics – the design of racing cycles, bobsleds and boats, and the optimisation of the athletes themselves by telemetric measurement during performance – as well as air traffic ground management (optimising the passage of aircraft from runway to gate, minimising taxiing time), medicine (applying pitlane techniques to minimise the time taken to transfer emergency cases from the ambulance into the operating theatre), the military (telemetry again, this time in the field of battle) and even rocket science. Remember Beagle 2? Its heat shields were made of the same plastics that protect an F1 car from its own exhaust.
Ron Dennis concluded proceedings with an upbeat reminder about McLaren’s illustrious racing past: 20 Formula 1 Championships and 175 race wins (actually 1-in-4 of the those it’s contested since 1966); three Indy 500 victories, and an outright win at Le Mans first time out. So at the end of this story of a British company at the international leading edge of technology, it’s worth considering Ron’s reminder: ‘We will always be a Formula 1 team.’ One whose future, it seems, is assured by the industry that has developed alongside it.