Britain’s large car manufacturers have taken a well-publicised battering in recent months. By contrast, some of the country’s smaller sports car specialists have never been in such healthy condition. Bolstered by enduring global appeal for their brands, they thrive by producing attractive and original new models. Equally importantly, they have embraced Japanese-style efficiencies in their factories, pioneered new materials and construction techniques, and struck up new business partnerships with suppliers. Aston Martin and Morgan are both leaders in the field.
Aston Martin was for many years a bit like England’s aristocracy: plenty of pedigree and style, but the carpets were threadbare and the castle roof leaked. When the late Henry Ford II bought the company in the late 1980s it was still firmly stuck in 1959, the year it beat the Ferraris and Maseratis at Le Mans.
Aston Martin launched the DB7 in 1994 – its first all-new model in 27 years – which it assembles in a small factory at Bloxham, near Banbury.
A replacement for the current V8 cars based on the 1998 Project Vantage concept car will be launched early next year, followed in two years by a more affordable model. Newport Pagnell, Aston Martin’s home in recent years, is being upgraded to make the new V8.
Annual output has been 600-700 cars since the mid-1990s – about three times as many as the company ever managed in its best year before the Ford takeover. But while this puts the company in better shape than at any time in its history, it is not enough. Achieving its grand plan will need more attention to detail across the whole organisation, particularly on the Bloxham and Newport Pagnell shopfloors.
Raising the output
Managing director Ken Giles is responsible for implementing the strategy. When he took over at Bloxham his task was to increase DB7 output from 12 cars a week to 22, while simultaneously improving quality, using the same number of personnel and the existing workspace. The shopfloor area was already full and most of the existing build stations were staffed by more than one worker, making it impossible to add extra labour.
Giles began a series of theory-based continuous improvement sessions early last year, but the initiative failed to gather momentum. In June he turned to the Kaizen Institute.
The institute organised three week-long workshops at Bloxham aimed at introducing kaizen self-sufficiency within Aston Martin. The first was led by KI trainers, the second comprised a mixture of KI and Aston Martin personnel, and the third was led by an Aston Martin team.
The most recent workshop focused on handling the increased material flow that resulted from the increase in production. Higher volumes meant more material had to be delivered each week and previous kaizen activity made this worse because more frequent but smaller deliveries were needed.
A team from purchasing, stores and line feed, along with KI consultants, scrutinised the existing process of material movement and identified a number of improvements. Overall, KI says its workshops have improved productivity by 32% and reduced the amount of space used by 25%.
Following the efforts at Bloxham, a workshop was run at the Newport Pagnell trim shop, which produces interiors for DB7s, V8s and the company’s car restoration department. With the increase in DB7 production, the shop was at bursting point, with no space and increasing levels of overtime being needed to keep pace. On top of this, V8 production had to be increased from one to eight cars per week.
Kaizen workshops achieved a 40% reduction in the amount of space needed and a 60% reduction in lead times. Now Aston Martin is considering spreading kaizen to the sales and service and restoration departments.
What is being created is the potential to produce around 1,400 cars a year, with existing staff levels and facilities – a huge achievement. Giles says: `This increase is largely thanks to the lessons we’ve learned from kaizen processes. It’s allowed the guys to think for themselves and sort out bottlenecks.’
Meanwhile, even the venerable family-owned Morgan showed a capacity for change with its radical Aero 8, revealed at this year’s Geneva motor show. The car is an outward symbol of what is taking place within the Morgan factory near Malvern.
On the surface, things look much the way they have since Morgan’s original four-wheeler was launched in 1936. Underneath the Aero 8’s aluminium body and behind the factory gates, though, Morgan is going modern.
Today’s Morgans are the result of modernisation over decades to comply with new safety and emission regulations and changing customer expectations, but the fundamental design remains the same: a steel chassis and a wooden body frame made of English ash overlaid with sheet aluminium.
The live rear axle uses leaf springs and the patented sliding pillar front suspension dates back to the origins of the firm in the early part of last century. Neither did body styling change much over the years, with cycle-type wings, louvred bonnets and running boards.
The Aero 8 accelerates Morgan into the 21st century. It keeps the traditional styling elements, plus the ash frame and aluminium bodywork of the current models, but is otherwise thoroughly modern. It has a bonded aluminium monocoque chassis, independent wishbone suspension and a 286bhp version of BMW’s 4.4-litre V8. It is scheduled for production in July.
Given that Morgan made a record 526 cars last year, but still has a waiting list of four years for one of its current models, why change when the formula is clearly a success?
Charles Morgan, joint managing director and grandson of the founder, is not proud of the delivery delays. He wants to cut maximum delivery time to two years. The company has already been famously criticised on the recent Troubleshooter TV series by management guru Sir John Harvey-Jones.
In addition to commissioning the new car, Morgan called in outside consultants to reorganise the factory.
`Charles knew he wanted a better company but he wasn’t sure how to achieve it,’ says Dave Wright, the director of the Strategem consultancy who was assigned to Morgan. Wright’s fundamental switch saw Morgan change from starting 10 cars a week to two cars a day, thereby improving work flow through the factory.
Component deliveries were matched to factory requirements, and production areas were re-planned to give faster access to parts and tools. A completely new pay schedule was agreed.
These and other changes mean that a Morgan is now consistently produced in 23 days, compared with at least 44 before the changes.
The number of direct-labour hours spent on each car is now regularly 280, a 20% decrease over two years. Four years ago, up to 120 cars, or nearly a quarter of the year’s total build, would be under construction at any one time. Today the figure is 55. And the factory’s average weekly output has increased from 10 cars to 11, and sometimes 12.
Other substantial improvements are expected when the Aero 8 reaches production. Charles Morgan says these changes do not mean the staff will be hammering away at twice the speed: `We’ve always had a skilled workforce, not a semi-skilled workforce. For them, the idea of continuous improvement is a doddle. It’s common sense.’