In February 2017, supercar maker McLaren Automotive announced plans to build a new composite chassis factory at the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC), Rotherham, one of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult’s seven major facilities. They will jointly develop novel manufacturing technologies and AMRC will both train apprentices and trial processes which will then be transferred to the new factory when it opens in 2020.
This is significant for a number of reasons.
The £50m investment is expected to produce 200 new jobs and contribute £100m or more to the local economy. It is a notable example of ‘re-shoring’: since McLaren Automotive launched, all its cars have been constructed around the ‘Monocell’, a moulded carbon fibre chassis produced in Austria then shipped to the UK to be built up. It also illustrates the strategic importance of Catapults in anchoring innovation, skills and wealth in the UK.
Despite its advantages, for many years carbon remained an exotic material reserved for high value products. Time consuming and difficult to work with, it was used in situations where performance and weight saving were more important considerations than cost: aircraft fuselages and satellites, top end tennis racquets and Tour de France bicycles. McLaren pioneered its use in road cars, with the introduction of its iconic F1 model, but at a price tag of $1m – in the early 1990s.
Over time however, investment in new manufacturing techniques made carbon more of mass-market proposition. In 1993, it took 4,000 hours to lay up a single McLaren F1 chassis by hand; by 2011 its spiritual successor, the Monocell, took just four hours to produce in a semi-automated process.
The global market for carbon fibre is expected to increase 16% per annum between 2012 and 2020 and be worth over $10bn per year. It is with that long-term value curve in mind that the High Value Manufacturing (HVM) Catapult has invested in facilities and research to ensure that the UK reclaims a leadership position in this sector.