04 Jul 2011
The automotive sector needs some disruptive technology to shake up the way cars are made, Formula One engineering icon Gordon Murray tells Matthew Valentine
In an era of change, one product key to modern life is looking a bit old-fashioned. The fundamental process of mass producing cars has changed little since the introduction of the Ford Model T in 1908, contends Gordon Murray.
Even though those vehicles had a separate platform, it was still a standard steel body, welded together, painted and the bits assembled onto the finished motor car," he says. "And we now use aluminium for primary structures instead of steel, and we use some plastic mouldings for bumpers and wings and things like that. But, essentially, we still make cars the same way." The traditional methods require huge investment and are energy-intensive, he argues.
Before environmental issues attained their current profile, Murray was already convinced that smaller, lighter cars were essential to maintain personal mobility as traffic grew. Having always worked on low volume sports and racing cars, he began to examine the mass production of small cars.
It soon became obvious that the reason why car companies didn't encourage people to buy small cars, and the reason they didn't make smaller, lighter cars, was because you don't make much profit on them. If any profit at all," he says. But costs are similar to those for larger cars, which can be sold for more and equipped with more options: "You can't really blame the car companies for not making smaller cars."
Murray started seeking an engineering solution to making smaller cars more cost effective, and soon turned to an area he hasvast experience of: structural composites. He designed the first Formula One car to use carbon fibre in 1979 and the first car to use it on the road, the McLaren F1.
There were three barriers to using structural composites for high volume car production: unit price, cycle times and the difficulty of attaching point loads to composite panels. The solutions to these comprise the starting blocks of iStream, a new vehicle manufacturing system that Gordon Murray Design has developed and is now selling to manufacturers.
"If you say structural composites, people immediately think of carbon fibre. But there are other fibres and there are other matrices you can use to hold the fibres together that don't have to be epoxy. So we started looking around and we're got a very low-cost system for the actual monocoque panels," says Murray. Cycle times for low volume carbon fibre cars are too long for mass production, he says: "Epoxy resins in thermoset composites are hours in an autoclave and you'd need so many toolsets to make even 5,000 cars a year, let alone 100,000 or 500,000, so we set about working with various suppliers to reduce the cycle time. We've got it down to 100 seconds."
Yet the most important problem is in attaching point loads to a composite panel, which is essentially two skins either side of a flimsy core material. "It's very, very difficult, because you need an insert to spread the load. When you're hand-making a Formula One car, or even a sports car, you can have a template and drop in 160 inserts. But when you've only got 100 seconds, taking point loads out in composites is virtually impossible.
"So the other bit of iStream is that we use very low grade steel, mild steel, and we make the world's simplest frame. It's not a spaceframe, it's just a frame that essentially joins up all the point loads," he says.
Mountings for everything from seatbelts to engine and suspension are fixed on this frame. "Once you bond the monocoque into it with a robot, you've got a massively safe, strong, lightweight structure. And, in one fell swoop, we're reduced the capital investment, we're reduced the weight and we've increased the safety because of the strength of the shell around you," he says.
Non-structural body panels hang on the car with mechanical fastenings, meaning a platform for a small family car could use different bodywork to be a van or a taxi, for example. "The chassis doesn't know, when it comes to station one on the assembly line, what it's going to be. It has no idea if it's going to be electric, petrol, a van, whatever."
For car makers, building to order is a Holy Grail. Current car production is invariably stockpiled. A sudden economic downturn leads quickly to fields of unsold cars because factories can't be turned off.
The iStream system is designed to be more flexible. A central site would manufacture the frames, while small, local plants would put the cars together, to order. The plants would be small enough to back on to sales offices: "You could walk in, choose your car and come back three days later to watch it be put together."
The system can be applied to any size of vehicle, from city cars to buses. The capital investment to set up an iStream manufacturing system is around 10% of that needed for a conventional car plant and it uses less energy, too. Talks are underway with a number of parties interested in licensing the system.
New jobs will be created. "It's not just direct, manufacturing engineering jobs. We're working with a consortium at the moment in the UK. The direct jobs, making the frames and assembling the cars for 100,000 vehicles a year, would be about six or seven hundred jobs. But, if you look at the broader picture, it's five to eight thousand jobs for tier one, tier two, tier three suppliers, for servicing, accident repair."
However, new skills will be needed in this new sector. "Because this is very disruptive technology, it uses very little current car technology. It will create around it new opportunities in engineering, in more diverse skills. Nobody in the world has yet made a mass-produced composite car."
Staff from traditional car manufacturing would not be able to transfer easily to working with composites, says Murray. Recruits would need additional training. He has taken this approach before, when creating chassis and body sets for McLaren. "We had nobody locally who could do the laying up, so we worked with Brooklands College and developed a training scheme where we taught people."
A breadth of skills will be required. Smaller car companies, with fewer people, will need flexible staff who can turn their hands to more tasks than the dedicated specialists responsible for a lot of automotive engineering now.
The growth of specialists has been a feature of car manufacturing and F1 racing since Murray started his career. When he joined Brabham he was the only person in the design office. "I was running the show, running the prototype shop, the prototype build, testing, racing, engineering both cars at the race meetings; them coming back, designing everything, the gearbox, the engine installation, aerodynamics, suspension, brakes... the whole car."
Some F1 teams now have 200 people working on aerodynamics. "The most I ever had at Brabham was me and four other guys, and one of them was a boy who made the prints. And made the tea," say Murray. "It's the way it's had to go and there is no use moaning about it. But what it has left, we have found here, is that there is a gap in multi-skilled engineers and designers. And this sort of business needs multi-skilled people. Even the experts here can't just focus on their own job."
A long-term process to bring a new generation of multi-skilled engineers is now underway at Gordon Murray Design. This will include an apprenticeship scheme, which may offer a unique education.
"We don't have anybody in this office who can't sketch," says Murray. "We operate here in a very old-fashioned way. We still have a full-size drawing board. When we are doing a design programme, we have a design meeting every Monday morning where everybody sits around the board and argues about packaging. And then they go back to CAD. So everybody can see in full size, not on a 14 inch screen, where their bit goes and why it has hit the handbrake cable or fouled the gearlever. It's a little bit 'back to the future' and I want to take that philosophy and put it back into the workshop and the design office."
This will be reflected in the apprenticeships. "It it's a technician in the prototype shop, they'll have to spend time in accounts, with marketing, with design obviously, with styling, to see how they interact. So they have an idea of where the problems come from when they arise, and they can stop the problems happening. Then, when we're done a couple of apprenticeships in the technician's area, we'd like to do the same thing in the design office. And those guys will have to go down and learn to weld and machine, like I had to. I spent six months in the workshop and I had to learn every single skill the workshop had in it, when I did my apprenticeship."
This flexibility and breadth of skills means that, if a designer of suspension needs to be pulled off a job to help with work on the cooling system, he can be. And it is reflected in the advice Murray gives to young designers. As somebody who built his own car and engine when he was 19, he is always impressed by students and job applicants who have outside interests where they apply their engineering talents. And that love of creating things should never be allowed to wane: "Keep getting your hands dirty," he says.
Professor Gordon Murray was born in Durban, South Africa. He studied mechanical engineering at Natal Technical College (now the Durban University of Technology), also holding down a job to fund the building and racing of his own car.
He moved to the UK to work at Brabham, where he became chief designer under team boss Bernie Ecclestone. Murray was responsible for a number of world championship-winning F1 cars and the famous Brabham 'fan car', the BT46B.
Murray was technical director of McLaren from 1987 to 2006. The car he designed for the 1988 season won 15 out of 16 races, giving Ayrton Senna his first championship win. He headed the McLaren Cars company, making road cars: The famous McLaren F1 and the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren.
Good things in a small package
The T25 city car, and its electric-powered T27 sibling, has been developed by Gordon Murray Design as an automotive calling card to demonstrate the iStream process.
Three T25s can fit in a standard parking space, but the car still achieves at least a four star score in Euro NCAP safety tests. Weighting just 550kg, it has a 6m turning circle.
Low weight is crucial: "If you could shave 10% tonight off the weight of every personal car in the world, it would have more effect than every single new electric, hybrid or hydrogen car in the next ten years, in terms of reducing emissions and fossil fuel usage," says Murray. Running in the Future Car Challenge from Brighton to London, the prototype petrol T25 achieved 96mpg from its 660cc three cylinder Mitsubishi engine.
The T25 could sell profitably for less than £7,000. Although it wasn't intended for production, talks are underway with a company that could undertake production of the T25 and T27 in the UK.
Gordon Murray Design Ltd
McLaren Automotive Ltd
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