Against a background of deep gloom surrounding Germany's automotive industry—Volkswagen recording a €47-million ($60-million) loss in the first nine months of 2004 and looking to reduce 30% of its labor costs in Germany over the next five years, Opel looking for 12,000 job losses in the same country, and even Mercedes-Benz suffering reduced profits and new model delays due to quality problems—there is a small ray of hope for Germany's embattled engineers. It comes from a most unexpected source, but one that is nevertheless very welcome.
Great though the name is, Aston Martin is hardly in the forefront of mainstream automotive manufacturing, not because of any quality issues, but due to the fact that the number of cars it makes is minute. What it takes to produce in a year can be sent down the production line of a mainstream automaker in less than a week. Yet there is something special about this small British sports car manufacturer, one that sets the pulse racing and one in which Ford, in the shape of the Premier Automotive Group, is prepared to invest quite a substantial amount of money.
After setting up a manufacturing plant in Gaydon in the Midlands of England last year, Aston Martin has now established an engine plant in Cologne, Germany, that was formally opened by Dr. Ulrich Bez, its boss, in late October 2004. It might only employ 100 people who will be producing just 5,000 engines a year between them when fully ramped up, but the psychological impact is massive, coming as it does at a time when so much else in the country is in doubt.
Taking 18 months to build from scratch, the 12,500-m2 plant is located within Ford's Niehl engine complex in Cologne. Lest there is any suspicion that it is no more than a satellite that simply bears the Aston Martin name and logo on the building, the look, feel and working practices inside are distinctly different to anything that might be seen at any Ford plant anywhere. This factory in Cologne will produce the V12 engines for the Vanquish S and DB9 and the V8 that will be going into the V8 Vantage (called the "Baby Aston," much to the disapproval of the company) that goes on sale in the summer of ‘05. Until now, Audi-owned Cosworth Technology, which is based in Northampton and close to Aston's various manufacturing sites, had supplied the complete V12 engine with the heads and block coming from its nearby foundry in Worcester. Now, though, just the blocks for both the V12 and the V8 come from its foundry.
The Cologne engine plant is capable of machining and assembling V8 and V12 engines simultaneously. Each technician takes around 20 hours to build a complete engine from start to finish; at full production, more than 30 technicians will be building engines. Each technician has the right to adorn the engine with a plate with their initials, continuing an age-old Aston Martin tradition, one that hints at the car's bespoke qualities.
"It is absolutely essential to us to have the core elements of our cars in-house," says Jeremy Main, Aston Martin's director of Product Development and Motorsport. "What do I mean by that? One of the most important features of our cars has to be the engine and the overall powertrain—they provide a great deal of the car's character. So we want to produce the engines ourselves and do it under our control."
One of the key elements in having its own plant is the ability to produce both the V12 and the V8 down the same line. "As the V8 engine starts to be produced for the V8 Vantage, we will have this conundrum about the ideal volume mix between the V8 and the V12," says Main. "In this plant, with the investment we have in flexible machinery, we can change the split at any level we like. We also have the flexibility to produce specials. Just as the VH platform gives us flexibility to produce special cars, this plant gives us flexibility for special engines, as well. In fact, we have just finished machining a batch of racing engines here. We produce new programs for the machines and then it's very much an automatic process."
"We also like to run our plants in a particular way," adds Main. "Although we are talking about a piece of hardware, it's a very humanistic business and a method of manufacture. Our cars are handcrafted and I like to feel, to an extent, that our engines are also handcrafted. The involvement of people in production is essential to it. People have to have a sense of pride and a belief that they are involved in something that is significant and worthwhile and have this common vision."
The company is also proud that it has devised a number of manufacturing solutions with the help of machine tool suppliers including Hüller Hille and Krause of Bremen. There are a number of machine tools that it claims are unique to this plant, including a multi-spindle drill for the crank bore which had presented its own challenges due to the length of the V12 engine. Aston Martin claims that its solution is far neater than that used by Ferrari in the production of its own V12 engine. Where possible, there is as much sharing of the production processes as possible between the V12 and the V8, including the monoblock polycrystalline diamond tools for precision drilling, boring, reaming, and even milling opera-tions. All engine testing is completed within the assembly process and unlike normal engine production both cold and hot tests are completed concurrently on all engines.
The facility, which has quality lighting with plenty of natural light, is divided into four areas: one to machine engine cylinder blocks; another for machining the cylinder heads; an assembly area for dressing the engine; a logistics section for receiving goods and shipping the complete engine to England. Naturally, the plant runs on a lean logistics system with a synchronized material flow.
There is a two-day maximum stock for European parts that account for 55% of the goods inwards while items from the US account for 45% of the total. It is altogether very quiet in the plant, with noise levels not exceeding 77 dBA. Most of the facility, except for the goods in and out, is a forklift-free area.
"You can't have too much new technology around you and as a relatively small company with a body of aspiration of only 5,000 units per annum, we couldn't actually afford a large number of advanced research engineers," says Main. "Being part of a larger group is fantastic. We have more than 1,000 engineers working in advanced research, all of them available to us, but they are paid day-to-day by our larger cousins. It's a very healthy relationship we have because we have excellent people doing this design development work for us around the world. We can pick up all the information they are working on, and then we can start to productionize in our sort of volumes the technologies that they are working on. That then helps them to develop the technologies further and get them into high volume.
"We have a part in the design and development of new technologies which Ford and PAG like us to do, and we want it because there are certain technology advantages it brings us. If you look at what we have done with ultrasonic welding, for example, or engine control systems and the way we have adapted NeuroNet throughout our electronic controls, we are doing things that small manufacturers simply could not do—so it's very healthy."