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Arriving at McLaren's new, state-of-the-art “supercar” factory feels more like visiting a fabulously equipped hospital than a manufacturing plant. Sitting next to the racing car group's headquarters on the edge of Woking, the £50 million (R660 million) production facility, designed by Sir Norman Foster, is almost entirely white, spotlessly clean, polished to a dazzling sheen and very, very quiet.
There are no blaring radios or oil patches, no unidentifiable screeching noises and no dubious wall calendars in the plant, which was created to build McLaren's new £168,000 (R2.2 million) road car, the MP4 12C, in the group's boldest-ever foray outside Formula One. The occasional car hooter, the odd whirr of hi-tech equipment and the perpetually running polishing machine on what must be some of the world's cleanest floor tiles, are all that disturbs an almost eery silence.
WHERE’S THE SOUL?
this beautifully conceived, modern, highly functional space is undoubtedly a triumph of design and efficiency - except it almost feels a bit too perfect. In its pursuit of operational efficiency, the soul appears to have been left out, an omission which might, arguably, chip away at some of the productivity it was intended to promote.
McLaren Automotive head of engineering operations Lee Boyce, acknowledges that the facility “is very surgical in its approach … some people might find there's a degree of sterility to it”.
But Boyce is clearly in love with the factory that isn't really like a factory. A car industry veteran, he has seen the plants of Lamborghini, Bentley, Aston Martin, Porsche and Rolls-Royce, but McLaren's new site is the least industrialised of them all, he says with evident pride.
The more than 2000 components that make up the car are put together almost entirely by the hands of the factory's 200 assembly staff, with automation kept to an absolute minimum.
When pressed to explain which of the plant's activities are carried out by machines, Boyce said: “There’s an automatic feed system that takes paint from the drum to the gun, but that’s about it.
“We wanted to emphasise the handbuilt idea to underline the fact that there is no significant industrialisation in the process. We didn't want to be like anybody else, so we came up with a concept that is very different from other factories.”
Antony Sheriff, the American managing director of McLaren Automotive, the division which makes the 12C, is understandably proud of the carbon-fibre-bodied vehicle and of the team that has designed and produced it.
CULTURE OF ENGINEERING
But there are two obstacles facing McLaren and, in turn, British manufacturing, he says.
He’s highly critical of Britain's treatment of engineering, an attitude he finds all the more puzzling because the country has produced so many top-flight engineers over the years.
“It's always a challenge to get very high-quality people. British engineers are brilliant but we just need an awful lot more,” he said.
“One of the potential challenges in the UK is that there is not much of a culture of engineering being a noble profession like there is in Germany, the US and Asian countries such as China, India and Korea,” he added.
“If you look at the number of students coming out of pure technology and engineering schemes, it's nothing like as high as the US. I get the impression in the UK that classics, philosophy and finance are held in much higher regard, and if you can't do that, you go into engineering. “
“But what drives industry is making things and that comes from technical progression.”
McLaren Automotive employs 1011 staff, mostly engineers and technicians. While it has been able to recruit the majority of those staff from the UK, 133 of them have been brought in from 26 other countries.
Italians are the most common, representing about a fifth of the overseas contingent. French are next, followed by Germans and then Americans.
Sheriff's second comnplaint about British manufacturing is the quality of the suppliers, which he says has declined along with the country's wider industrial base. McLaren is forced to rely on imports for 60 percent of 12C components.
“Some parts are very difficult to get in the UK and it's a shame to always have to go to other countries to get them.”
He cited latches, lights, mechanical parts such as gearboxes and some electronic components as being especially difficult to source.
“One of the things that has become very apparent is that a lot of local supply has become rather weak. We really do rely on strength and innovation from suppliers. We don't just need one or two hallmark companies.”
Although McLaren is likely to remain a niche player in the car market, it has high hopes for expansion.
The company's present capacity allows it to produce about 1000 cars a year, for which there is a six-month waiting list. Over the next three years, McLaren hopes to ramp up production of the 12C to about 4500 vehicles a year.
And the bigger the industry, the more talent it sucks in. Which can only be good news. - The Independent