McLaren Automotive: The best of the best

Posted on 8 Jan 2018 by Jonny Williamson

At the 2017 The Manufacturer MX Awards, the overall winner of the night was McLaren Automotive, the supercar maker from Woking.

On top of winning the Innovation & Design and Smart Factory categories, McLaren Automotive were judged to be the overall winner on the night, taking home the highly coveted title of The Manufacturer of the Year.

McLaren Automotive - The Manufacturer MX Awards 2017
Third from left – Alan Foster, McLaren Automotive’s Executive Director Infrastructure Projects, just after receiving The Manufacturer of the Year award – image courtesy of The Manufacturer.

Nick Peters spoke to Alan Foster, McLaren Automotive’s Executive Director Infrastructure Projects, about their success.

How does it feel for McLaren Automotive to have won The Manufacturer of the Year Award?

Alan Foster: To be honest, we are still revelling in the afterglow. It has spread like wildfire within the organisation – I’ve had heads of department and engineers from different areas of business coming up to me and going, “Can I have a look at the award?”

We get award after award for the vehicles that we produce, and we’re very proud of that, but to now get industry recognition at a national level from recognised bodies, and one of the primary leaders of the manufacturing industry – The Manufacturer, has great credibility for me.

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It means it is about the entire company, not just about the quality of your cars. It’s about the way the business is run.

The ethic of the business is to be innovative, to be creative, and to be obsessive. We can be quite an annoying group of people to work with, because we are very meticulous, very detailed in the planning stage, but then when we get to execute, we’re phenomenally quick.

It’s having the courage, when an idea is presented to you, to stretch for it, knowing that the stretch is probably beyond your reach. You probably won’t reach that goal, but you’ll reach a goal further from here than if you set a lower target.

A very special ‘Made in Britain’ production line – McLaren Automotive, Woking.
A very special ‘Made in Britain’ production line – McLaren Automotive, Woking.

The other element that underscores everything for us is what we call ‘relentlessness’. Do your best today, go and have a rest, get your balance, come back tomorrow and try and do something better. And the machine, the whole creative process will continue to move forward.

I visited McLaren Automotive, as you know, as part of the judging panel on the World Class Manufacturing category, which you didn’t win, perhaps because you don’t fit into a clearly-defined and understood manufacturing philosophy, such as Six Sigma.

We’ve tried to steer away from pulling any one particular business model in. My background is Toyota and General Motors, and Ford before that, and we’ve got people here from Italy, from France, from Germany, the likes of Porsche, BMW, and we’ve got a range of people that have joined us from different automotive teams or manufacturers in the UK. But there is no one singular dominating philosophy.

We must be able to respond very, very rapidly, and we release three engineering changes per day on our range of cars. In our Formula 1 team, they release one every seven minutes, 24 hours a day. It’s constant change that you don’t see in a normal manufacturing organisation, and therefore, normal manufacturing operation system rules don’t work.

We’ve not lost sight of our obsession, innovation, relentlessness, and courage, but we have tempered it with elements from different people, harvesting the best of the best, and then sprinkling the fairy dust of McLaren over the top.

Is it also because you’re not making cookie cutter cars? I know on a standard auto production line there are customer-ordered differences built in, but the customer-ordered differences that you’ve got are not just variations on a theme, are they?

According to Alan Foster, McLaren Automotive has produced close to 14,000 supercars since 2011, and never the same car twice.
According to Alan Foster, McLaren Automotive has produced close to 14,000 supercars since 2011, and never the same car twice.

No, they’re fundamentally wider. We will go so far in terms of personalisation and customisation on the main production line, but if you want something uniquely different, then we have the ability just to step that out of the main flow and then bring it back in.

We can tailor exactly what you want. Since we started in 2011, we’ve probably produced close to 13 or 14,000 super cars, and genuinely, I don’t think we’ve made the same car twice.

I don’t think it does British manufacturing’s image an ounce of harm to have a company with such a stylish and stellar reputation as your own winning The Manufacturer of the Year, and it couldn’t have happened at a better time. We need people, young people in particular, to see that manufacturing is cool, stylish, very focused, and a great place to work.

The Manufacturer of the Year award opens another channel for us to enhance the work that we’re doing with colleges and schools and universities. We have our own STEM ambassador who deals with this as a part-time job, with a team of about 20 cross-functional, cross-company young individuals, who go back to their seats of learning, go out to local schools, engage with young children, and talk to them about 21st century manufacturing.

But it’s actually not the kids you need to influence; they are already excited about manufacturing. The ability to create something that didn’t exist, to dream with the new technologies in terms of rapid prototyping, digital innovations, virtual reality, they can play in a relatively risk-free way.

If I contrast that to when I was 16 as an apprentice, I was bending and machining metal, but now you can do that in a virtual world, so you can be very creative, and you’ve got the ability to make things.

The McLaren Senna hyper car is the personification of McLaren’s DNA at its most extreme - image courtesy of McLaren.
The recently unveiled McLaren Senna hypercar is “the personification of McLaren’s DNA at its most extreme” – image courtesy of McLaren.

The issue that we’ve got is that their parents lived through the ’70s and ’80s, when manufacturing wasn’t cool. When today’s kids become all excited about design, technology, engineering and science, and then have to select their educational options, their parents put them off.

I’ve had conversations with principals of pretty significant colleges and schools, and they really hang their heads in frustration. These 16 and 17 year olds, when they become parents, will influence their children in a different way, but they’re being influenced by the current generation. So, we need to get to the parents.

By growing the impact of the The Manufacturer MX awards, showing more of what we do here, demonstrating manufacturing in action in the real world, in the 21st century, I think we can grow the presence of manufacturing in the UK almost exponentially.

I think we’ve got a long, long way to go yet, but we’re absolutely on the right pathway, and we’re gaining momentum.