Blog: UK plc’s strength in depth
Dave Leggett | 14 September 2006
I learnt quite a bit the other day at the niche vehicles conference that I spoke at. There were some fascinating insights into low volume production issues at places like Aston Martin, Stadco and, of course, Lotus – manufacturing issues, different approaches to vehicle engineering, chassis design, material use, costs, body structures and so on. I don’t get exposed to that sort of sharp-end stuff very often, so the detail was pretty new to me. It was worth sticking around for and at least raises my level of understanding about what goes on under the skin with such vehicles.
The presenters seemed pretty open and sharing, which created a good atmosphere. At this level it’s kind of like a club of mates – these engineers have moved around, worked with each other before (alongside in same company or as supplier and customer on projects), studied together and served apprenticeships together.
And strength in depth in highly skilled engineering is at the heart of Britain’s still strong proposition as an auto industry hub. There may not be an indigenous mass-market volume carmaker in Britain any more, but there is a strong engineering base that supports high value-added activity – niche volume manufacturing, design engineering companies, motorsport engineering companies. It was something to reflect on.
A journalist from France was in attendance and interested in talking about low volume vehicle manufacturing operations in Britain for an article he’s writing. A profile of the French auto industry compared to the British one would certainly make for an interesting project. I think the cultural differences would come through big time.
At the end of the day there was a tour of the Lotus factory and that was really something (unfortunately, cameras not allowed anywhere at Lotus; below pics were taken outside Hethel Engineering Centre where the conference took place, which is not part of Lotus Group). I’ve been around plenty of big assembly plants in my time, but to see a low volume operation up close was fascinating (eg chassis on trolleys that are manually moved around). I learnt a bit about aluminium extrusions and the bonding that is behind the Elise chassis, among other things.
Saw a few finished Europas. Looks okay, but I’d have an Elise for a bit of fun, myself. Something a little compromised and a bit more refined for those who want that makes business sense I'm sure, but I prefer the concept of the two-car solution that involves something sensible Monday-Friday and the Elise for the weekend. I just need to get saving.
Something else to reflect on was the man from Gibbs Technologies and his car-boat hybrid, the amphibian (amphibious?) Aquada. That’s niche alright. On one level, it seems daft to wrestle with the engineering conflicts involved in making a leisure vehicle that will do land and water. On another, it’s hats off to them for trying. You can’t knock anyone for trying and I found myself hoping that they get enough sales to at least justify the enormous investment. If global water levels really do rise, maybe its time will come!
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