Factory Visit: McLaren Technology Centre, Woking

Posted on 2 Apr 2012
The McLaren Production Centre (left) and McLaren Technology Centre (right)
The McLaren Production Centre (left) and McLaren Technology Centre (right)

The McLaren MP4-27 is off to a storming start in the new Formula 1 season, securing 55 points from the first two races.

Manufactured at McLaren’s base in Woking, Surrey, this is not your standard factory. This is the home of not only one of the world’s leading F1 teams, winners of 176 races, 12 drivers’ championships and 8 constructors’ championships, it is also the production site for the new McLaren Automotive supercars, including the current MP4-12C and future P12 and P13.

Around 50% of the components for the F1 race car (which is currently leading the constructors championship) are made on-site and the rest are outsourced.

Simon Roberts, operations director at McLaren Racing, says: “We have had about a 15-20% increase in the level of insourcing. The headcount is fixed these days due to Formula 1 rules so [every production decision] has to be made around working smarter. Machine uptimes are absolutely key.”

Lewis Hamilton in the MP4-27 car at the Formula One Malaysian Grand Prix.
Lewis Hamilton in the MP4-27 car at the Formula One Malaysian Grand Prix.

Ian Greenfield, senior production engineer at McLaren, says: “It used to all be about one man one machine and production wasn’t a word, it was all nice engineering. Now we are trying to make it all around production.”

The FIA has set up strict limits on spending called the resource restriction allocation (RRA), which places caps on the amount of money each team can spend and the number of employees in the workforce. “For every £100,000 we don’t spend outside Woking, we can bring in another person. We are allowed 10 graduate engineers on two-year contracts to up headcount,” says Greenfield.

Lewis Hamilton racing during at the Malaysian Grand Prix.
Lewis Hamilton racing during at the Malaysian Grand Prix.

There are 3,200 machined parts for the McLaren MP4-27 and the company works with the most innovative machine tool suppliers to achieve the its primary aim of reducing lead times while maintaining quality. Roberts says: “We are always looking to improve the tooling and use the best programmes.”

The more efficient the in-house capability is, the higher capacity there is to manufacture more parts on-site. McLaren Racing now has the capability to make axels, which are currently outsourced, so wants to bring this to Woking.

Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton unveiling the McLaren MP4-27
Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton unveiling the McLaren MP4-27

For security of supply and secrecy over technology, parts are strategically spread between a number of suppliers. “We have never outsourced the chassis or the front wings – we have always done all the tooling ourselves,” says Roberts. “However, it is also about capacity so we will outsource the production of rear wings in the winter.”

Because suppliers are specialist, Roberts says that they could dictate the lead time and some machined parts could not be sourced from the UK so would have to be brought in from America and elsewhere, resulting in 12 week lead times.

The Hyper Variaxis machines supplied by Yamazaki Mazak has given McLaren the opportunity to make a number of parts themselves, which cut the lead time and helped achieve a better product. McLaren was the first company in the UK to purchase this machine, which reduced the 12-week lead time down to five weeks. Roberts notes that there are risks when taking on a new machine tool but was happy to take on some of the risk to create a leading edge. “All our operators at McLaren Racing are programmers that have the capability to use three and five axis machines,” he says.

The McLaren Racing team celebrating a Jenson Button win at the 2012 Australian Grand Prix, Melbourne.
The McLaren Racing team celebrating a Jenson Button win at the 2012 Australian Grand Prix, Melbourne.

The level of continuous improvement is almost as fast as the car itself, seeing a design improvement made to the car, on average, every 20 minutes.

The front wings on the McLaren race cars used to be carbon spar but as Roberts explains, to shorten lead times, McLaren changed to use an aluminium skeleton with an outer carbon skins.

“We worked with Mazak on the Vortex machine as we needed to be able to machine light billets of high-strength aluminium to make this change,” says Roberts. “At first we didn’t have bar feeders as there was a fear of the noise, oil and general unsightliness of them. We’re now running five axis integrator blades with bar feeders on them, which lends itself to making complex parts such as wheel nuts.”

The McLaren site in Woking is the greenest of any Formula 1 team.
The McLaren site in Woking is the greenest of any Formula 1 team.

Continuing, Roberts says that McLaren looks at its manufacturing in a holistic way. “Jobs tend to be one off so we don’t finesse the programmes. We learned from a top military strategist that you don’t over manage the area. Parts for the race car will be anything from a batch of six to up to 50, so we are looking to put more and more shifts on to keep things running.”

The group built a wind tunnel in 2002 to optimise aerodynamics. The Technology Centre is made up of 43,000sq² of glass which the wind tunnel would shatter from its torque and power so it sits on its own foundations.

Despite the large investment, the wind tunnel has been limited to 60 hours of use per month as it requires 1.5MW to run. The tunnel creates clean air to reduce the variables while testing 60% scale cars with over 200 sensors and cameras. The walls can move to create different air pressures to replicate race conditions from Melbourne to Silverstone.

The Vodafone McLaren Mercedes MP4-27 launch
The Vodafone McLaren Mercedes MP4-27 launch

The tests can simulate the conditions of any lap from the last 15 years and aims to get air from the front to the back of the car as quickly as possible. To gain an advantage over other teams, the wind tunnel helps to test rooster tails to get dirty air coming off the rear wing to slow down the car behind.

Roberts concludes: “It’s a prototype sport, we use just 6% of the car from last season to next season. We don’t just take people’s money and spend it on a fast car; it’s a way of sharing technology.”