McLaren aims to shake up carbon fiber output

Nick Gibbs is UK Correspondent at Automotive News Europe.
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McLaren Automotive's 650S replacement, which will debut this week at the Geneva auto show, is poised to benefit from the British automaker's aim to revolutionize the production of carbon fiber reinforced plastic, McLaren aims to completely automate the carbon fiber production process its uses to create the lightweight "tubs" around which it builds its supercars.

To do so, McLaren will end its contract with Austria's Carbo Tech and move the work in-house to a new 50 million pound ($63 million) factory in the city of Sheffield, northern England. The plant is due to start production in 2019.

The production process at Carbo Tech, which also made the body for VW's XL1 eco-car, is only 20 percent automated. McLaren want to push that to 100 percent, allowing the British automaker to increase production to 20 to 25 cars a day, up from 15 now. “You couldn't do that with current technologies,” McLaren CEO Mike Flewitt told me.

Giving the task to robots will decrease the tub's weight, increase stiffness and save about 10 million pounds a year, the company hopes.

“One of the many advantages is precision,” said Claudio Santoni, McLaren's head of body engineering.

Another benefit of an automated process is that McLaren can better react to spikes in demand because it won't need to recruit hard-to-find specialists, Santoni said. The 200 workers the McLaren plans to employ in Sheffield are expected to play more of a support role.

Moving production to the UK increases the local content of McLaren's car to 58 percent from 50 percent. That will have the side benefit of helping out the firm's foreign exchange earnings if the pound's value stays low following its post-Brexit drop. The volatile pound, however, wasn't what cause the firm to make the switch. “Currencies don't stand still. You have to financially hedge, you can't naturally hedge,” Flewitt said, pointing out that he bought very few parts from the U.S., McLaren's biggest market.

The tub will remain the cars' second most expensive part after the engine. But McLaren's move to automation will give mainstream automakers hope that, somehow, this lightweight wonder material can one day be made to work for high-volume cars.

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