Sunday, 9 December 2012

‘Cut and paste’ Hotfire engine plant for JLR

The secret plant for JaguarLandRover’s next-generation Hotfire engine, now in the early stages of construction adjacent to the M54 in Wolverhampton, will effectively be a ‘cut and paste’ job of an existing UK engine facility.

The implications of this will be revealed in the nature of the machine tools and other manufacturing equipment, most of which will be sourced from Germany.

In today’s computer-generated industrial world, it almost becomes second-nature to ‘cut & paste’ individual machining cells and other process equipment to create a manufacturing hinterland. Cells for the five-Cs – cylinder heads, cylinder blocks, crankshafts, camshafts and con-rods – are all well defined in machine tool vendors’ CAD goody boxes; though today camshafts and con-rods will likely come direct from component suppliers.

It is most likely, in this respect that the £355 million Hotfire engine facility due to come on-stream in 2014 could bear a close similarity to various aspects of Ford’s Bridgend Engine Plant (BEP) - or indeed various individual aspects of other engine plants in Europe or the US. Earlier this year Ford announced plans to boost output at the South Wales plant of its 1.6-litre EcoBoost four-cylinder engine. The move effectively will triple the production of vehicles with EcoBoost engines to 480,000 a year by 2015 up from 141,000 in 2011.

The investment means Bridgend will build 400,000 EcoBoost engines between 2012 and 2015, with the site producing over one million engines for export in this period.

Ford has plans to double the types of vehicles using EcoBoost from five to 11 by 2015 when the engine will power more than half of all Ford’s petrol-engined vehicles. EcoBoost gasoline engines use both turbocharging and direct injection.

Sherif Marakby, director of powertrain at Ford, has declared the company at the “cutting edge of technology”, claiming its Fox three-cylinder 1-litre engine “cannot be matched for its balance of efficiency, power and refinement”. JLR engineers will at least aim to match Ford's level of refinement - with a goal to exceed it, bearing in mind who they see as the company's competitors.

Bridgend has produced 120,000 EcoBoost engines since 2010 and is set to double this to 230,000 in 2012. EcoBoost provides one-third of the plant’s total planned forecast production output of 780,000 in 2012.

Ford’s Bridgend plant is one of the most cost-effective engine plants in the UK and is regarded as a benchmark in the type of engine it produces. Other class-leading engine plants include BMW’s facility at Hams Hall in the West Midlands, Honda’s in Swindon, Toyota’s engine plant in Deeside, Ford’s diesel engine facility at Dagenham, while Nissan’s plant in Sunderland builds at least 60,000 2-litre gasoline engines a year for Qashqai models.

JaguarLandRover has enjoyed close links with Ford Motor Company over the past few years, even to the point of being owned by the US vehicle builder, prior to its change of ownership following its acquisition by Tata Motors.

The company’s engine design engineers at Whitley, Coventry and Gaydon, Warwickshire, are familiar with Ford’s engine products which are used in both Jaguar and Land Rover vehicles. They are familiar too with Ford’s manufacturing processes, its culture and its whole approach to high-volume engine manufacture. Some have visited Ford engine plants in North America many times.


The new engine facility at Wolverhampton is set to have an eventual capacity of 300,000 engines year from a workforce of 750. Bridgend employs around 2,050 employees. The similarity between the latest EcoBoost capability and JaguarLandRover’s upcoming plans cannot be discarded. Hotfire will use both direct injection and turbocharging – two essential features of any present-day gasoline engine.

In 2012, Bridgend is expected to 380 engines/employee/year compared with a projected 400 engines/employee/year at the Hotfire facility in Wolverhampton – if JLR can contain future head count. By comparison, at Deeside in 2011, Toyota built 260 engines/employee/year. These are figures with which JLR engineers will be familiar.  

Notwithstanding this, global machine tool builder MAG IAS of Erlanger, Kentucky, also has unusually close links as a preferred supplier to Ford; it is likely to be the principal machine tool supplier to the new Wolverhampton engine plant. Other machine tool vendors are unlikely to obtain much of a look-in, unless they have specific, value-added technologies to offer.

MAG also has a maintenance unit at Minworth, Birmingham; this is only a “stone’s throw” away from Wolverhampton along the M6 motorway. This also will prove an advantage to the machine tool builder – and to JLR, especially during commissioning.

Maintenance is often an area where a machine tool builder can recover some value-added profitability that may have been “shaved off” during the hard-won negotiation phase of the principal machine tool contract. This is especially so in the case of a company like Ford with its massive global machine tool demands. Tata Motors’ contract will be small in comparison with this, but on-going maintenance contracts still cannot be ignored in these hard-pressed times for machine tool builders and equipment suppliers.

MAG embraces names familiar in the UK, including Cincinnati Machine Tools, Cross Hüller, Ex-Cell-O, Hülle Hille, Giddings & Lewis and Lamb Technicon. All these names, stand-alone companies, have disappeared from the UK over the years through acquisitions and restructuring, mainly to meet the cost-demands of companies such as Ford. And MAG’s gain has been the UK’s loss.

JaguarLandRover’s purchasing staff too will be all too well aware of how Ford purchasing conducts its negotiations. For many of them, however, it will be the first time they have been involved in the purchase of a complete engine plant.

The net result is that Germany is now the centre of the machine tool supply industry for the automotive industry. Ford has long made a practice of dealing principally with one supplier – it deals with others but only on a minor scale by comparison. In this context, Ford’s one meeting point is MAG which has restructured to meet Ford’s ever-advancing, down-bearing cost-pressures.

Added to which, among the expertise that MAG and Ford have co-developed is that of machining compacted graphite iron (CGI) – a material used for the cylinder blocks of various Ford V6 and V8 engines, most notably at the Dagenham Engine Plant in the UK and the Chihuahua Engine Plant in Mexico. Although CGI is unlikely to be used at Wolverhampton as a cylinder block material for some time, MAG’s knowhow in this specialised technology does give it added purchasing edge with Ford Motor Company.

And so it is when the Wolverhampton plant is finally revealed, at least three-quarters of the equipment on the shop floor will be sourced from Germany. More than likely, machining centres will continue to be the basis of the facility’s machining practice – a technique that Ford and MAG have developed together as conventional transfer lines have become redundant, and cost-pressures have driven down machine tool prices.

In the drive for flexibility, and future demands to adjust engine design during product lifetime, the machining centre offers a much enhanced cost-effective solution. Tweaks in engine design, demanded for example by emissions requirements, can be accommodated easily. And it is relatively easy to replace one or two machines in a line.

And for a plant that will be supplying engines for many years to come, such machining practices are most likely to be adopted at Wolverhampton.

Even end-of-line engine dynamometers too could be sourced from Germany even though years the UK had a vibrant dynamometer activity.