Aston Martin has a very distinguished heritage. It has a history it is rightly proud of (and has learned lessons from) and there is significant value in this. How much value exactly is impossible to quantify but when you are running one of the more iconic brands in automotive history, you need to take care of it and you need to be very careful how you protect it. Like other brands, such as Rolls Royce and Bentley, clients expect a certain level of quality when spending the kind of money these cars are listed for. Arguably, if you remove the things that define these companies then you take away what’s special about them and you take away a significant percentage of their perceived value.
Attention to detail is expected when buying an Aston Martin and whether that’s the intricate stitching of the leather or someone hand-signing a plaque on the engine, it is part and parcel of the whole Aston Martin experience. You expect a personal experience and that is indeed what you get with this company. However, are they starting to follow other car manufactures and relying more on technology and robotics in their manufacturing these days?
Are Aston Martins hand built? Yes, Aston Martins are still hand-built in their Gaydon headquarters, located in Warwickshire, England. Although some robotics (assistors) are used for the more mundane tasks (such as applying glue), with almost every car being bespoke and with relatively low volumes being produced it does not make sense, currently, for Aston Martin to do anything else.
What do we mean by ‘hand built’?
When we talk about car manufacturers hand building cars we don’t mean that they are choosing to ignore technology. In fact, just the opposite – they embrace technology but use it in a different manner to high-output car manufacturers. So, what we mean when we say a car is hand built is that the emphasis within production is based on the individual skill-sets of the factory technicians, not of the programmers of the technology that might be used to run robotics.
Why do some manufacturers still hand-build cars?
Some may disagree but the reason I believe ‘exotic’ car manufacturers still do this is for a few reasons.
- Attention to detail – robots are awesome when asked to the same task thousands of times with a very high rate of precision. This is why they are used so extensively by major car manufacturers to help build their cars. They have the same parts being positioned in the same place, over and over again. There is less individuality about their cars than there is with a manufacturer like Aston Martin. Arguably, every Aston that comes off the production line is different. Customers have options to spec each car exactly how they choose and you will find that when someone is buying a car of this value, of this type, this is exactly what they do! So, with so much individuality required in each build, the robotics just aren’t the best tool for the job.
- It’s expected – when a customer buys a supercar costing upwards of $200,000 (and more) – they don’t want to hear that the car they are buying has been churned off the production line in the same way as hundreds of others have that day. They don’t want to hear that the process is automated. What the majority of customers want are people who have spent years learning their trade applying their skills to personally oversee and build their car. They want a signature on the engine cover from someone saying they performed the final checks and everything was in order.
- Cost – robots are expensive. Not just the robots (or ‘assistors’ as Andy Palmer, the head of Aston Martin prefers) though but the factory required to host all the robotics and technology required. Then you need the technicians to support the robotics and the support contracts to ensure that when they develop problems (which they will) you will be able to quickly get them fixed without putting a stop to the production line. In many cases, it’s just not efficient to use robotics to build cars. For instance, if you’re producing 10 million cars a year, all broadly the same, then yes – of course it makes sense to have a dedicated factory that automates the majority of the manufacturing process. If you build 10 cars a year, then, of course, it doesn’t. My point is, at some point the number of units a manufacturer produces of the same car makes it financially viable to automate. Aston Martin produces somewhere between 5,000 and 6,000 cars a year, with the majority bespoke. It makes no sense financially or otherwise to fully automate the production line.
Are any robotics used at Aston Martin?
Yes, some – but only where it makes perfect sense to do so and doesn’t distract from the individuality required in each build. For instance, the tasks that need to be repeated time and time again can be automated if they increase production without distracting from the bigger picture. So, to give an example, there is a fair amount of glue application required in each car and here, having an individual perform this task does not add, in any way, to how bespoke each car is, so this is a perfect task for an assistor (robot). Other tasks, ones that may cause repetitive strain injury and eventually possibly meaning the skilled technician has to have time off work, can also be replaced.
By default though, at least with Aston Martin, everything is performed by skilled technicians unless there is a very good reason for this not to be the case.
Will Aston Martin ever move away from building their cars by hand?
Someday it will probably happen yes, but not for some time. For robotics to be of any value to a company such as Aston Martin, they would need to adapt to different situations as humans do currently. With several components potentially being different on each car produced, at the moment robotics are not best suited for this type of autonomy. It is thought that in the future, with further artificial intelligence (AI) developments, they will eventually be able to adapt and make decisions based on what they encounter but the technology isn’t there quite yet.
There is more to this decision than just technology though. The people who buy these cars will need to still be willing to hand over their (relatively) large sums of money but will they then be getting value for money? Also, the people who buy an Aston like the fact that they are produced by people who have spent years training to do just this job. It’s part of the appeal when you’re looking for a car like this.
So, there are much wider things to consider when making the decision as to what gets automated in the production line – each of these will have an impact and has to be analyzed for its effect on the market.
Aston Martin Background
Aston Martin was founded in 1913 by Robert Bamford and Lionel Martin. The company manufacturers fine British sports cars from their headquarters, located in Gaydon, Warwickshire in England. Although the company has changed hands a number of times in their history (even being owned by Ford for a period of time) and have had their fair share of financial challenges, they are now back in British ownership and in the very capable hands of Andy Palmer, who has been the CEO since 2014.
They have a relationship with Daimler, who owns 5% of the company and has the contract to provide the engines and electronics for some of their cars. The first Aston to be equipped with a Daimler engine was the DB11 in 2016 and more recently, the 2018 Vantage comes with the twin-turbocharged V8 Mercedes engine.
I hope you enjoyed reading about how Aston Martin is still very much of the ‘old-school’ of thinking when it comes to manufacturing cars. Personally, I think they have this approach spot-on and with the company in the hands of Andy Palmer, whose enthusiasm for the brand is tangible, the feeling is they will have a far better 21st Century than they did in the 20th Century!