The Hand Craftsmanship Behind a McLaren

By Humans Invent on at

Car enthusiasts tend to talk about the McLaren Technology Centre in hushed tones such is the reverence for the place. Since it opened in 2003 it has taken on an almost mythical quality and it is true, as you approach the glistening, curving edifice walled with glass from the other side of the artificial lake, it does all start to feel a little otherworldly.

Humans Invent has been given a rare opportunity to see what goes on behind the scenes at Norman Foster-designed McLaren HQ. Once you've finished gawping at the selection of past racing cars, including Jenson Button's F1 car, dotted around the main hall, you begin to realise how precise and obsessively clean everything is, so much so that I started to look in earnest for dirt or blemishes on the tiled floor and found only my reflection. The place is also unnervingly quiet. Uniformed, trainer-clad employees move purposefully through the building without making a sound.


Behind the scenes

We are led into the press room where Ron Dennis, in a neat pair of tassel loafers, proceeds to give a talk about the importance of paint, which sounds boring but turns out to be quite interesting.

In 2007, Dennis began the hunt for a chrome coating on the McLaren F1 car that wouldn't weigh the vehicle down -- his initial inspiration came from the unlikeliest of sources. Dennis says, "I was finishing my shower and reached for my aftershave and noticed that on this bottle was chrome and yet the material was plastic. Normally chrome is achieved through an electroplating process, you wouldn't think that you would be able to achieve chrome with the application of a coating."

Paint company AkzoNobel were up to the challenge and managed to create a paint that makes the McLaren F1 cars look as if they have been electroplated. We were ushered down a spotless corridor past spartan, brightly-lit workshops within which employees were noiselessly working away, and into a lab where the nose of the F1 car was being painted, to see the chrome effect for ourselves.

While the Technology Centre was breath taking, it was the newer McLaren Production Centre, connected via a long, underground tunnel, that was the most intriguing of the two places. This is where the road cars are made, with the MP4-12C currently in production and the new P1 hybrid supercar soon to follow suit.

Operations director, Alan Foster is giving us a guided tour but before we enter the main hall of the MPC we stand in a sterile, white room that, he says, "is intended to act like a sorbet to, calm everybody down before we show them the exciting bit."


The Production Centre

Before we enter the MPC, Foster declares, "I'm going to take you through this door and show you 21st century manufacturing."

It's nothing like what I imagined. The immensity of the 20,000 sq. metre open-plan factory floor is made more apparent by how uncluttered it is, devoid of the robots and machines you might expect in a normal car plant. And, even though most of the engineers are on their lunch break, it's strange how quiet the place is.

Foster says, "People are quite surprised to learn that when the plant is working it is not much louder than this. There are no air tools, jackhammers, conveyors or robots. The emphasis is on the manual and on the precision, hand craftsmanship."

The hall is lined with small stations, each one with a computer terminal (all the cables are hidden) beside which the car, in its various states of development, sits. As we walk down the line you can see the car, almost like in a flip book, slowly come into existence.
Currently the factory can produce one car every 45 minutes -- nine a day and roughly 2,500 year.

Foster says, "It is an assembly line, but it is a manual one. The cars are passed from station to station by the team members, so they qualify their work before they move it on. Really, the MPC is where science meets Disney world. The science all sits in the background and what you perceive as you walk through the facility is the manual craftsmanship."

What perhaps typifies this relationship between man and technology, is the way every operator needs to swipe into the terminal of the station they are working on.

Foster says, "We have quality gateways, so nothing is allowed to flow forward personally have to pass your work onto your colleague in front of you, so it adds to that extra dimension to accountability and responsibility."

There is a large space on the right hand side of the factory floor which is completely empty. Foster explains, "When I designed this facility, I was already aware of the next seven cars to come and one of the things I fought for was that we would build a building once and we wouldn't change it. Underneath the tiles here we already have preconfigured cabling, data, power and water. We simply remove one tile, there is a junction box, and we plug and play."

In just a few months time, this is where the new P1 supercar will be produced.


The humans behind supercars

Foster then shows us into the paint room, which, like in the main hall, is visually open with large, glass rooms within which the cars are spray painted by humans rather than robots. Everything has been thought through in the design of this facility. For example, the ventilation panels in the painting chambers circulate the air in such a way that an air curtain is created on the inside of the glass; this stops dust and dirt settling on the windows.

The car is separated into two parts when it is being painted, the main body on one skid and the secondary panels such as the doors on a second skid.

AkzoNobel and McLaren have been working together to create new varieties of paint. Foster says, "Some of the finishes we're using are quite unique so you get a very deep reflection of the colour. The Volcano Red is an interesting one, you can see the base colour looks like a satin pink but when you apply the effect clear coat onto it you get this really deep, lusty red colour that comes from it."

Back in the main hall of the MPC, we are shown where the final testing goes on.
Previously, the car has been tested by a 3D coordinate-measuring machine (CMM) where 320 points are checked to make sure the car has been put together properly. Now it is time for some more vigorous testing. There is a dynamic rolling road that puts each car through it's paces as well as a monsoon test, where the car is put in a glass chamber and introduced to 16,000 litres of water in 7 minutes.

After this, the car is then taken on a 50km road test, to check the car handles well and doesn't make any annoying rattling noises. If there are any issues they are dealt with straight away by one of the engineers.

Foster says, "Our ability to respond is very much like the F1 team. If they've been racing on Sunday, there will be one or two things they don't like about the car, and these will be fixed before the next race. It's all about rapid recirculation of information and rapid fixes. Having worked in a lot of factories, this is uniquely simple and it is a fantastic place to work."

As I'm dropped off at Woking station, I can't help but notice how dirty and cluttered the normal world is. Sitting on a stained train seat as I head back to London I make a firm promise to myself: I will get back and give my flat such a thorough clean that even Ron Dennis would happily take off his tasseled loafers were he to pop round.

 Humans Invent is an online space dedicated to celebrating innovation, craftsmanship and design fueled by our most natural instinct – the pursuit of invention to help solve a human need. You can read their original article here.