Think of a Formula 1 racing car and you invariably think of a machine that’s made almost entirely from carbon-fibre.
But that’s only partly true.
While carbon-fibre has been rightly acknowledged as the wonder material that’s enabled the sport to build safer, faster and ever more sophisticated cars, it’s but one in a vast number of materials used by McLaren-Honda.
The heavy machine shop, housed within the McLaren Technology Centre and exclusively populated by a range of Mazak’s finest tooling machines, works extensively with titanium, aluminium and stainless steel. Why? Because sometimes carbon-fibre components don’t offer a better solution than a well-machined metal part.
At McLaren, we use titanium because its strength to weight ratio makes it an incredibly versatile material; aluminium is heavier, but still comparatively lightweight, and also very strong; stainless steel is heavier, but has incredible wear-resistance and strength characteristics.
As ever, the purpose of the component dictates the material used. And, even in a sport where carbon-fibre is so prevalent, the Mazak heavy machine shop has been particularly busy during these winter months when the whole team’s focus is on the 2017 car build.
YOU MAKE ME FEEL BRAND NEW
“This winter has been an incredibly busy one,” says McLaren Racing’s machine shop and fabrication shop manager Malcolm Jones. “For the MCL32, every single Mazak-machined part of the car has been changed from this season to last. In a normal winter, we expect about 70-80 per cent of the machined parts will be new – but this year it’s 100 per cent. And that’s because the new rules are so different: everything on the car has either got longer or wider, so there’s much less carry-over than in a normal season.”
The new regulations have had seismic reverberations across the whole factory – suddenly, things that previously required no change have had to be redesigned or remade. Try and imagine how much it costs, for instance, to design and build 150 tyre trolleys for overseas freight, or order 160 new tyre-warmer blankets, simply because the dimensions of the tyres have changed. It’s a lot!
“That is a challenge,” Malcolm admits. “For this year, all the major structural and suspension parts are different – and that affected our work schedule. The machine shop makes parts for the half-scale wind-tunnel model, which is obviously bigger, so that was the first indication that we’d be facing some challenges over the winter. Everything is a little less straightforward – but we love a challenge!”
As the previous season ends, the car-build programme ramps up, with the entire factory’s resource thrown behind the design and construction of the new chassis. In the machine shop, demand for parts has never been higher: “In the first week of February, we peaked at our highest output ever,” says Jones. “We completed more than 560 jobs – and each job might consist of a parts order comprising an order of five or six parts, so we potentially manufactured around 3,000 components in one week alone. That’s quite a lot of parts – even for us!”
Of course, as the build progresses, that intensity starts to slacken.
In terms of throughput, the winter months are always toughest,” explains Malcolm. “That’s because you’re building key items such as the front and rear uprights, the roll hoop and all the bracketry and anchor points for the suspension. They’re the things you then don’t have to make again until the next season. So then we fall into the upgrade cycles; working more on front and rear wing furniture, floor upgrades, or you’re building or replacing parts that expire either through attrition or lifing.
“We’re in mid-February now, so we should start seeing things slow down a little. There might be a few more weeks of heavy work, as we roll up to the car launch and the first test, then it will definitely start to taper off as we go into the season. At that point, our focus shifts to delivering the necessary in-season upgrades.”
UPRIGHT (EVERYTHING’S ALRIGHT)
Still, there are always bumps in the road. The complex machining of components that are required to be both structural and aerodynamic means that the work is never easy. For Jones and his team, the most complex and difficult job of the year is the manufacturing of the front and rear uprights – the intricate housings that attach the wheel, brake components and suspension together
“Finishing the front and rear uprights is definitely one of our production milestones for the year,” he says. “They’re the main hinge-points for all the suspension, and there’s always a lot of focus throughout the whole company on those parts. They’re aero and structural, and also need a lot of weight removed from the structure. This year, we took a really close look at how we needed to pocket them – machining material away in order to save weight. Each one takes us about 30 hours to finish and requires about eight separate machine operations.
“We make 10 sets of four, and need to get at least three sets ready before launch. At this time of year, we’ve normally just made those three initial sets, but this year we’ve made them all. That’s a real milestone.
Clever machines don’t just build better components, they simultaneously increase throughput and reduce waste, too.
“Lean manufacturing has really helped us to increase the speed and improve efficiency of our production engineering,” explains Malcolm. “Upgraded CAM software enables us to drag and drop CAM sequences into the machines much more easily than before, and that alone has reduced the production time. We’ve also been able to cut down time and waste from everything we do, so it’s a very useful process.”
SPINNING THE WHEELNUT
One area where machinery has proved a radical game-changer is in the manufacturing of wheelnuts. McLaren Racing now uses an unmanned machine that’s solely dedicated to churning out new wheelnuts – whereas previously it required three or four separate machines to complete the work. Now, Malcolm and his team can leave the machine running all day, freeing up capacity to work on other jobs.
Equally, the newer generation of sophisticated five-axis Mazak machine means that most jobs can be completed on a single machine, because it has the agility needed to fully tool a part that was lacking in previous generations of machine.
Armed with the manpower, machine capacity and the agility that comes through effort experience, the machine and fabrication shops are fully geared up to prepare MCL32 for its first tentative steps on the racetrack…