“It’s all very well having an exclusive brand, but we need to be more visible and we need to be profitable, which means making an average of 5,000 cars per year,” says Aston Martin CEO, Dr. Ulrich Bez. So in an effort to become something more than a firm that offers the most advanced hand-assembled sports car line in the world—and to become a stand-alone profit center for parent company Ford—they’ve constructed a new facility in Gaydon, UK, which includes a manufacturing operation. The new facility is built alongside the headquarters of sister Premier Automotive Group brands Land Rover and Jaguar. Set in a 55-acre site, constructed from sustainable materials and making extensive use of natural light to help conserve energy, resources include a design studio, complete with showroom, five-axis milling facilities, a wood mill and composite manufacturing area. There is also a color and trim studio and a 3D visualisation suite, a climatic test area, power test units and a pass-by noise facility.
Yet although technical facilities are way ahead of those found in any of its previous sites, Aston Martin does not want to lose its ‘hand-built’ reputation. There are, for example, several bespoke components, such as the alloy strip around the side glass, that cannot be mass produced. The varying form precludes extrusion so this component is welded and polished to produce the vital dynamic effect Henrik Fisker, director of design, was seeking. Likewise, the headlamps are, most unusually, dropped into an aperture in the front wings—one of the few composite panels—and these have to be fettled individually to final fit.
An important new element on the new DB9 is the introduction of the VH Platform (vertical-horizontal) strategy. Unique to PAG’s exclusive sportscar brand, it uses extruded aluminum and is set to provide the basis for every product for at least the next 15 years. The principle is a simple one—an adaptable structure that can have its overall length, wheelbase and tracks altered to suit various models. There are common hard points, particularly around the driver area—steering wheel, facia, pedals and H-point—and there is the opportunity to use common steering and suspension components. That structure is an aluminium tub, supplied by Norsk Hydro, which is similar to that supplied to Newport Pagnell for the Vanquish. However, the VH monocoque is a far more unitary construction with aluminum replacing the steel and composite sections pretty much throughout. Bonding is used almost universally, with Dow developing its new polyurethane adhesive Betamate 2810MV to achieve handling strength after just 10 minutes.
“We have introduced only one robot worker to the line. Instead of applying adhesives by hand, we now use a robot for this task in the body shop—but we still paint our cars manually,” says Bez. The robot applies the bonding substrate; die-cast, extruded and stamped aluminum components are all bonded. These bonds are later supplemented by mechanical fixing using self-piercing rivets.
DB9 body assembly takes just 30 minutes compared with four hours for the Vanquish, although each car still takes around 200 man-hours to build—three times longer than that required to assemble what company executives describe as ‘mass produced’ sports or GT cars.
|“Gaydon is the future of Aston Martin,” says Dr. Ulrich Bez, CEO of Aston Martin. “It combines cutting-edge high technology with hand-craftsmanship and tradition. It is probably the best facility of its type in the world, and the perfect showcase for how to design and build innovative sports and GT cars for the 21st Century.”|
Aston Martin believes it has raised the bar in the luxury sports sector when it comes to technical specifications, the most significant of which is the bonded aluminum frame that it maintains is the most structurally efficient in the automotive industry. At 1,775 kg for the automatic transmission model, its shell is 25% lighter than the DB7. While a carbon composite propeller shaft plays a part, as does the use of magnesium on the steering column and inner doorframes, the real benefit is the aluminum construction, which with a torsional stiffness of 27 kNm/deg, is even stiffer than the Vanquish. “In making the DB9 frame entirely from aluminum, we have drawn on the experience we gained with the Vanquish, and what has been produced is far superior to the conventional steel saloon-based floorpan,” says Bez.
Hailed as a world first, advanced ultrasonic welding joins the C-pillars of the new model. The joint between the two aluminium panels is said to be 90% stronger than a conventional spot-weld. Because the process requires only 5% of the energy of conventional welding and generates no heat, there is no contamination or change in the characteristics or dimensions of the metal. Cast aluminum is used in the windscreen surround—another industry first—and the hood, roof and rear wings of the car are aluminum, while composite material is used for the front wings and trunk lid.
Each Aston Martin chassis is checked on a coordinate measuring machine prior to entering the final assembly line, which is made up of 30 workstations. Bodies are fitted to posts mounted on a track, which carries them from station to station.
The 6.0 litre V12 is still built by Audi-owned Cosworth Technology, but production will transfer to Cologne in Germany and a Ford-owned facility by mid-2005.
Aston sees the VH platform strategy allowing greater flexibility in the future. “VH will carry the DB9 Volante, which is soon going into production at Gaydon, the AM V8 Vantage in the next two years and the convertible version in 2006, then the Vanquish replacement. It will also be the platform for further special Zagato products that we started with the DB7,” says Bez. “We will be able to make a quick response to market requirements, do small numbers of models and special runs of cars. We could even make an estate.” An integral part of the VH strategy is making use of expertise across all PAG brands. Volvo, for example, played an important role in developing the crash structure, including the airbag system. This is also the first Aston Martin to offer DSC. “Rather than sharing various bits and pieces, the rationale is to share services and knowledge, which we think is really quite smart,” says Bez. “We have 170 engineers at Gaydon, but we have access globally to 35,000 engineers through Ford and eight proving grounds. We couldn’t have had facilities like these as an independent unit.”
“We have come a long way in the last decade,” says Bez. “Back in the early 1990s, this company was facing a disaster because it was making the wrong product at the wrong time,” In 1993, the carmaker produced only 43 cars. However, with the introduction of the DB7 the following year, Aston’s revival had begun, further rising with the introduction of the 12-cylinder engine. With the launch of Vanquish in 2001, production rose to 1,500 cars a year. “However, it was impossible for us to produce another single unit either at Bloxham, the DB7 factory, or at Newport Pagnell,” he adds.
The need to lift output led to Bloxham, the former Jaguar XJ220 plant, being sold following the end of DB7 production last year while a similar fate could await the Newport Pagnell facility after Vanquish production ceases within five years. This means that Gaydon has now become the hub of Aston Martin and the home to every new model in future.
“We will retain a presence in Newport Pagnell because we will keep our Works Service there, which is a busy department that will maintain our link with our spiritual home,” explains Bez, “but Gaydon is of extreme importance to our long term strategy. It is the first new factory ever for Aston Martin and it has been designed from the ground up to transform the company and its product range.”