MG Birmingham : Brimming with British design and engineering talent
Words: Clive Goldthorp Photographs: Peter Young
Advantage West Midlands’ Deputy Chief Executive Officer, Dr. Richard Hutchins, cut the ribbon at the official opening of the new MG Design Centre at MG Birmingham last Tuesday morning and, in so doing, publically drew a firm line under the Longbridge plant’s troubled past.
The official opening was, in reality, much more than that – MG Motor UK Limited’s Sales and Marketing Director, Guy Jones, and PR and Events Manager, Doug Wallace, had clearly worked hard to persuade their colleagues in China that providing UK-based Journalists with unprecedented levels of access to SAIC Motor UK Technical Centre Limited’s (SMTC UK) Design Centre, Technical Centre and the company’s senior Designers and Engineers would play a crucial role in raising the MG marque’s profile prior to the upcoming UK launch of the MG6.
Guy Jones began the event with a presentation in which he explained that the MG Design Centre was the world’s newest and that the British Design Team, led by MG Design Director, Tony Williams-Kenny, had global responsibility for the exterior and interior design of all MG products. The MG Design Team are part of SMTC UK and Guy then gave a brief outline of the company’s place within SAIC Motor Corporation Limited’s (SAIC Motor) corporate structure.
SMTC UK is a subsidiary of SAIC Motor Passenger Vehicle Company Limited (SMPV) which is, in turn, a subsidiary of SAIC Motor. There are three Technical Centres: Anting, Shanghai, which employs 1,200 Engineers, Birmingham (SMTC UK), which currently employs 280 Engineers and Nanjing which employs 200 Engineers.
The UK Technical Centre’s Backstory
SMTC UK (formerly known as Ricardo (2010) Consultants Limited) was established as SAIC Motor’s European R&D Centre in May, 2005 and, in mid-2006, SMPV was created to develop the sales, manufacturing and purchasing for SAIC Motor’s own brands independently of the latter’s highly successful Joint Ventures with General Motors and Volkswagen Group.
The UK Technical Centre moved to the MG Birmingham site in late 2008 and the total sum invested in both the Technical Centre and the new Design Centre to date amounts to £3.0m. However, a new £1.7m Engine Test facility will be completed by the end of 2010 and so bring the total of SAIC Motor’s investment in R&D at MG Birmingham to just under £5.0m. The UK Technical Centre currently has 280 employees (20 of whom work in the Design Centre) and their average vehicle programme experience exceeds 20 years. A further 20 Engineers are to be recruited during the next six months.
The New Vehicle Development Programmes undertaken here in the UK to date include the following:
New Large Car Platform
Roewe 550 – launched in China
MG6 Fastback – launched in China with a UK launch during Q4/2010
MG6 Saloon – UK launch during H1/2010
New Medium Car Platform
Roewe 350 – launched in China
New Small Car Platform
New small Roewe
MG Zero Concept/new small MG
The Powertrain Development Programmes undertaken here in the UK to date include the following:
Medium Petrol Engine Family
Development of existing engine
Localisation in China
New Diesel Engine Family
< 1.9 litre
New Large Petrol Engine Family
> 2.0 litre
New Small Petrol Engine Family
< 1.5 litre
New manual transmission
New automatic transmission
New electric hybrid transmission
The UK Technical Centre has already had one major achievement as the Roewe 550 is the most successful car launched by a Chinese OEM to date. SAIC Motor sold a total of 2.72m vehicles in 2009 and, of the 90,000 MGs and Roewes sold, 64,000 were Roewe 550s.
The Opening Ceremony
The actual opening ceremony was preceded by short speeches from David Lindley, President, SMTC UK/Global Vice-President Advanced Engineering and Dr. Richard Hutchins, Deputy CEO, Advantage West Midlands (AWM). David Lindley pointed out that the new Design Centre was the first MG-dedicated facility since the one at Abingdon closed in 1980 and also the first at Longbridge for 20 years before adding: “This is an important landmark not only for the West Midlands, but the worldwide Automotive Industry.
“This £5 million investment by SAIC is a clear commitment to retaining and developing our UK workforce. Not only have we created some 300 hi-tech, high-value jobs, but invested £20 million in R&D companies throught the supply chain in the UK and Europe.”
AWM offered nearly £2.0m in financial support as well as strategic business advice to encourage SAIC Motor’s continued presence in Birmingham. Dr. Hutchins said: “It is great to be at the historic Longbridge car manufacturing site on such a positive occasion. Everyone is eager to see the first MG6s rolling off the production line here at the end of the year. And who knows what other design and technical wizardry will be revealed in subsequent models, thanks to the cutting edge work that will be going on here?
“It may surprise some to learn that a third of the UK’s automotives are produced in the Midlands. Also, two thirds of the spend on automotive research and development in this country is invested in Midlands-based companies. AWM is proud of the part it has played in stimulating and revitalising the region’s manufacturing base in this way.”
Inside The Technical Centre
Those attending the event were then divided into two groups for tours of the Design Centre and the Technical Centre. The group hosted by David Lindley were taken into both the Vehicle Workshop and the Engineering Office. AROnline reckons that, at this point, the photographs in the accompanying Gallery say far more about the facility than mere words can – one seasoned Journalist was heard to exclaim “Wow!” on entering the Engineering Office…
The Technical Centre includes a state-of-the-art Data Centre and all the product development processes were completely re-written so that the Engineers can take full advantage of all the latest in CFD and virtual technology. SMTC UK does, though, still outsource some R&D work to other UK-based companies such as Ricardo plc. David Lindley said that spend had averaged £20.0m over the last three years and remarked that “the West Midlands are extremely well set-up for that.”
SMTC UK’s ability to communicate with the two Technical Centres in China in real-time means that the Engineers can effectively work 16 hour days even though the normal working days only have a one or two hour overlap. However, the UK Technical Centre also features three Video Conferencing Suites so that overlap can be used for maximum benefit. SMTC UK also employs 30 British Engineers who are based in Shanghai and, at any one time, around 25 to 30 Chinese Engineers are on secondment here in the UK.
David Lindley added that the current Engineering Office can be expanded to accommodate a further 100 Engineers while there are plans to increase the size of the Vehicle Workshop and to enhance both the capability and size of the Styling Studio in 2011.
The UK Technical Centre has full capability across a total of twelve specific design and engineering functions and there were displays featuring Powertrain (Engines and Transmissions), Chassis, Crash, Safety and Vehicle Integration and Interior Trim in the Visitors Centre which were manned by either the Directors or Chief Engineers with responsiblity for those functions – a total of 21 SMTC UK Directors or Chief Designers/Engineers were available for interview during the event.
AROnline had the chance to speak with Ray Bench, Director – Interior Trim, Adrian Guyll, Chief Engineer – Vehicle Safety and Andy Kitson, Director – Chassis before running out of time! The most striking theme to emerge from all three discussions was the genuine enthusiasm which each interviewee clearly had for his job and the projects they are now bringing to completion.
Adrian Guyll, who had a long history with Rover Group and MG Rover before joining SMTC UK, said that the big difference now was “the ability to get things done – SAIC Motor just get on with it!” Adrian cited as an example the Crash Test Mule shown in the Gallery which had been specifically developed for that purpose at a cost of £1m and which he believed was ground-breaking. Adrian commented that he enjoyed working with his Chinese colleagues and had not experienced any cultural issues, adding that: “Engineers all have similar approaches.”
Ray Bench was demonstrating a Tekscan Body Pressure Mapping System which was attached to an MG6 front seat. Ray explained that the MG6’s seats had been designed to achieve a compromise between “OK to Good for everyone without being uncomfortable for anyone at the extremes of height and weight.” Interestingly, given the MG6’s sporting bent, that car’s seats use dual-density foam whereas the Roewe 550’s use single-density foam. Ray underlined the importance of the work which he and his team undertake by pointing out that the seats have to be right before Andy Kitson and his colleagues can fine tune each new model’s suspension settings.
Andy Kitson was one of what was then known as Ricardo (2010) Limited’s first five employees back in mid-2005 – he says that working for what is now SMTC UK “since Day One has been a privilege” with obvious sincerity.
Andy confirmed that the new MG6’s rear suspension does have some similarities to that of the Alfa Romeo Giulietta but the MG6 features a compliantly mounted subframe and the multi-links are mounted to that subframe so there should be no loss of wheel control.
Andy also said that the MG6 has an hydraulic PAS system whereas the Alfa Romeo Giulietta uses an electonic PAS system and intimated that MG will not switch to electonic PAS until he and his colleagues are satisfied that such a system can match or better the feedback provided by hydraulic PAS – he has yet to drive a Giulietta but probably has plans to do so…
Inside The Design Centre
MG Design Director Tony Williams-Kenny hosted the tour of the new Design Centre and gave a presentation in which he explained that his team included Designers and Clay/Hard Modellers with a range of core competences which covered Digital Design, Design Strategy, Design Programme Management and Colour/Trim. Tony then demonstrated the Design Centre’s Global Automotive Design Process with two Case Studies on the MG6 and MG Zero Concept.
The images in the accompanying Gallery should, hopefully, provide an outline of the Global Automotive Design Process but, in brief, the design of a new model starts with initial exterior and interior sketches and then evolves through 3D images produced using Autodesk’s Alias 3D CAD software to clay model development and the creation of a verification model to see how the design looks in a physical environment.
Tony Williams-Kenny would not, understandably, be drawn on how close the production version of MG’s forthcoming B-segment model would be to the MG Zero Concept but he did admit to being encouraged by the positive response which that had received. Tony and his colleagues do, though, seem to be particularly well attuned to the requirements of the youthful customers at whom that car will be targeted and Guy Jones wants all the new generation of MGs to be affordable and desirable…
Inside The Electronics Testing Facility
SMTC UK’s Engineers test each new model’s electronic systems in an area adjacent to the Design Centre and Richard McAlister, Director – Electrical, was on hand to explain the equipment used. The most sophisicated tool at Richard’s disposal is the LabCar which enables his team to conduct in-depth testing with engine integration and a complete vehicle set-up. LabCar significantly reduces the cost of developing a new model because the body and electrical systems can now be parallel-engineered and that means that fewer engineering cars are required.
LabCar also makes fault diagnosis much easier – the conditions which cause the fault can readily be simulated in the Test Facility without any need for them to be recreated on the road in an enginnering car. Mind you, more than one of the Journalists present commented that LabCar reminded them of an old Land Rover!
The Design Centre and Technical Centre tours were followed by a brief and informal Feedback Session in the Visitors Centre. Most, if not all, of the hardened hacks there were, to a man, seriously impressed by the facilities they had seen and the Designers and Engineers they had met – their overwhelmingly positive comments will surely prove that the decision to hold the event was more than justified.
Guy Jones recently told AROnline that he wants MG to follow the mantra “under-promise, over-deliver” – if last Tuesday’s event was an example of that in practice, then MG Birmingham (MG Motor UK and SMTC UK) seems set to have an exciting and successful future. A line has very definitely been drawn under the plant’s troubled past…
[Editor’s Note: Any AROnline readers still doubting that our growing optimism about the future of MG Birmingham is justified should also read the following articles: UK: SAIC formally opens MG design centre, Graeme Roberts, Deputy Editor, just-auto.com, 15th June, 2010, A ‘good news’ day for Longbridge, John McIlroy, News Editor, Autocar.co.uk, 16th June, 2010 and MG Design Centre opens in UK, Guy Bird, Car Design News.com. 17th June, 2010. MG Motor UK Limited’s own Press Release can be found here.]