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Dialogue: McLaren's Flexible Factory

Posted By Paul Tate, July 23, 2012 at 10:46 AM, in Category: Factories of the Future

British automotive company McLaren is heading for the fast lane of the world’s luxury car market with an innovative new sports car design. McLaren’s new purpose-built production facility, with Alan Foster in charge, is based on a forward-thinking operational philosophy of simplicity and flexibility.

In the heady summer of 1966, the streets of Monte Carlo were an exciting place for the ambitious engineers of a new racing car company. Set up in the U.K. by New Zealand racing driver Bruce McLaren three years earlier, it was the company’s first Formula One Grand Prix race. Some 48 years and 170 Grand Prix victories later, McLaren is one of the longest-surviving racing car teams in the Formula One world, second only to Italy’s Ferrari. Under the executive chairmanship of Ron Dennis, McLaren has become more than just a racing car company. The McLaren Group is now a diversified set of collaborative, high-technology companies covering racing cars, precision electronics, advanced new composite materials, and high-tech manufacturing. All of them, Dennis says, are “built on the shared synergies of innovation, creativity, imagination, and a commitment to excellence.”

McLaren’s latest venture is a potentially market-busting, $230,000, 205-mph luxury sports car to take on market leader Ferrari. McLaren calls it the MP4-12C, and already has more than 2,000 orders booked. The company has also opened a dedicated new $79 million, 32,000-square-meter (344,000-square-foot) McLaren Production Centre (MPC) at its Woking, U.K., headquarters, where it aims to build up to 4,000 of the new cars each year. The low-profile, eco-friendly building is just 11 meters (36 feet) high, but has a second level underground for storing parts before assembly and paint mixing for the car’s 56-stage paint process on the floor above. This sunken structure also cuts down heat loss, keeping the whole building within a degree of 22 degrees centigrade (72 degrees Fahrenheit) at all times.

After a career with some of the world’s leading mass-market auto brands, Alan Foster is now McLaren’s Director of Operations for the new state-of-the-art plant. In an exclusive Dialogue interview, Foster talks to MELJ Executive Editor Paul Tate about how McLaren has designed its new production plant with an overriding focus on simplicity, flexibility, and continuous innovation.

Q: You've been directly involved in the design and construction of the new McLaren Production Centre. What do you think makes the new centre so innovative?

A: I think it’s the overall simplicity of the system. One thing that pleases me most is that wherever I stand or wherever the management team stands at any point in the shift, you can see everything that’s going on. In terms of the span of control and grasp of understanding of where your issues are, you can stand anywhere in MPC on that ground floor and you can see the body shop, the paint shop, general assembly, and the certification. You can feel and sense how the pulse is going.

It was also really McLaren Automotive’s first opportunity to bring all the disparate parts of manufacturing together. In our previous ventures, things had been displaced by up to 50 miles. It was a very disjointed system. Our logistics center was in a separate warehouse, so there were a lot of inefficiencies in that. Part of the modeling that we did was to bring our automotive logistics center into MPC. As a part comes in, it’s now encoded and taken to the closest available docking station, then captured on a central database. It’s a very sophisticated system. All of that was modeled in terms of the parts flow to line, so that we could iron out any bottlenecks and decide on the level of storage and capability that we wanted.

Q: Was digital modeling technology helpful in that process?

A: Yes. There was a lot of digital modeling involved in the design of the MPC itself. Things like airflow, the temperature profiling and energy consumption within the building, were also modeled. But also at a product level, I spent a lot of time over the last 2½ years on digital modeling, something you typically see in larger-scale organizations but maybe you don’t see quite so much on the lower-scale volumes. We pushed very hard on that.

If you take the new 12C, for instance, we digitally modeled more than 3,000 cars before we even made our first one by taking the CATIA design information and the geometrical tolerancing system that we use, and digitally constructing the cars in a virtual way. The system is called 3DCS. It’s a digital modeling system, and it allows you to work out what the influence of engineering changes will be on the cosmetics of the vehicle. So, you can get back to the source in terms of engineering decisions, and that all links in with the manufacturing decisions you need to design and develop the best production systems.

Q: What still keeps you awake at night?

A: I’m more relaxed than I probably have been for the past six months now that the MPC is officially open. I always try to set myself the goal that when I leave at the end of the day, I have to feel I’ve completed something, but my mind never switches off. Some of our managers quite often will talk to me in the morning and go, “Do you never sleep?” I’m sorry; I woke up at 3 o’clock. This idea came into my mind, I fired an e-mail off, and then I go back to sleep. I don’t see that as a pressurized environment. That is a self-challenge. It’s about always looking for an opportunity to improve.

Q: What are your biggest challenges left for the future?

A: The biggest single challenge that I’ve got right now is that I will make no compromise on quality whatsoever. That’s overriding. I will focus on the overall total cost package. We are a manufacturing organization, but as a businessman, it’s about making a profit. We need to match that objective by providing an excellent service that ensures our customers’ expectations are exceeded.

I think from the manufacturing standpoint, it’s going to be scaling up to the full output of a single shift. In about two years’ time we’ll scale up to produce a full range of sports cars. That will necessitate a two-shift pattern; new ground for McLaren. A variety of different vehicles in production will require a much more complex manufacturing model, and the individual challenge will come from maintaining simplicity.

Q: How do you encourage that kind of innovation across the McLaren culture?

A: We have an edict that everything that we do should take your breath away, be it the engineering, be it our buildings, be it our behavior sets, the way that we talk with people. That ethos and way of working sets the behaviors right through our electronics organization, our Applied Technologies organization, and our client services. Every bit of McLaren exudes this connectivity. There’s a tremendous amount of conversation that goes on all the time where people are challenging things. That’s really where the power comes from. We actually say to our people when we go through a new staff induction that it’s your obligation to disagree. If you see something that you don’t agree with, don’t be a shrinking violet. Challenge it. It might be a lack of information. It might be a misunderstanding. But on occasion, it is that clarity that comes from somebody who is not immersed in something. They can see things you can’t. As Operations Director, I’m quite happy for anybody to challenge me. I still don’t believe that I know everything.

This Dialogue is an abbreviated version of a longer interview that appeared in the March 2012 issue of the Manufacturing Executive Leadership Journal.  To subscribe, visit.

Written by Paul Tate

Paul Tate is Research Director and Executive Editor with Frost & Sullivan's Manufacturing Leadership Council. He also directs the Manufacturing Leadership Council's Board of Governors, the Council's annual Critical Issues Agenda, and the Manufacturing Leadership Research Panel. Follow us on Twitter: @MfgExecutive

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