McLaren Applied Technologies

With a remit that includes sensors, alternators and ignition coils, the Electro-Mechanical Design team is responsible for some of the most critical elements in a race car or bike. And wherever you look in motorsport – from NASCAR and the World Endurance Championship to MotoGP and of course Formula 1 – you’ll find components stamped with the name of McLaren Applied Technologies.

For eight years designer Alex Moir has played a leading role in the team, helping to create a vast and diverse range of components. “With sensors alone, we have a massive catalogue of technology and parts,” he says. “Standard categories include pressure, temperature, speed and position sensors, and chassis dynamics, taking in accelerometers and gyroscopes.

“Then there are things like tyre-pressure measurement, where we have to squeeze sensors into wheel rims where they must be free from contact with the tyres and able to withstand the forces that a spinning wheel throws at them. And then fluid and aero pressure sensors... I could go on and on.”

The most prominent user of the team’s technology remains Formula 1 – a sport in which McLaren’s profile and prestige is legendary. Alex says: “Obviously, our sensors work in harmony with our engine management units, which everyone in the sport runs. But the design of Formula 1 cars is constantly evolving, and as the chassis and engine installations change, so do the sensor requirements.”

Achieving all this demands a skilled multi-discipline team that can deal with all aspects of electronic, mechanical and embedded-software design. “It’s a close-knit team and we’re responsible for everything,” he says. “Within our department we’ve got electronics, hardware and software capability. As design engineers we deal with enquiries from the customer, and we package the electronics to ensure they’re going to be reliable and survive.

“We deal with suppliers, identifying new parts and managing lead times, and we work with our own stock system. It’s great to be in control from start to finish. It means we’re fully responsible, and it makes it very satisfying when a project comes together.”

Producing standard, off-the-shelf products is only part of the story. The team is often called upon to produce bespoke solutions for high-profile clients. Many are variants on existing components, intended to fulfil specialised roles in some of motorsport’s most testing situations; and they may be needed in small runs or large quantities.

Alex says: “People come along and say, ‘We like that component, but could we have it like this?’ and we tailor it to suit their installation. A lot of the time we’re asked to combine two pieces of technology together, such as pressure and temperature sensors in one unit that can measure both parameters at once.”

The ability to design, tailor-make and test components against the clock is what places McLaren squarely ahead of its competitors – and Alex and the team thrive on the challenges. “It’s what I’d say is most enjoyable about working here,” he says. “The projects are short and sharp. The customer will have a deadline in mind, which may be a specific test or race. Timing is everything!”

The client-facing part of the job means always dealing with the art of the possible, and making swift and accurate judgments about what can be developed and delivered on time. Alex says: “We recently had an enquiry from a team who wanted to do multiple-point tyre measurement, which was a new one for us. In a situation like that, we’ll have an impromptu meeting with someone from software and hardware and say, ‘they want to do this, and there’s a business opportunity here – is it possible? If so, how easy is it going to be, and what problems can we foresee?’

“We’ll liaise with the customer and flush out a design specification both parties can agree with – so we’ll ask all sorts of questions about the installation and the speeds that the part will be operating at before putting together a formal quotation.”

And although the range of expertise within the Electro-Mechanical Design team may be unparalleled, it’s also closely integrated with the rest of McLaren Applied Technologies. “We can meet up with people on the power-unit or engine-management unit side if we need their expertise – or call someone who is an RF and antenna specialist if we’re doing a wireless project.

“That’s what’s special about McLaren. There’s always someone in the company who can answer a question if you don’t know the solution yourself.”

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