David Hewitt is tasked with directing the manufacturing operations of Lotus, ensuring that Lotus Cars is able to build cars for its customers around the world.
Interviewed by Dave Leggett.
DL: What’s on your mind and occupying your time right now?
DH: Two things stand out. Firstly, there’s the whole question of our production activity – it’s a constant. We’re very much in full swing at the moment in terms of building cars. It’s about costs, quality, time…making sure we have got the right product coming out of the door, making sure we’re delivering the right levels of quality and continuing to try and improve that, making sure we are doing it on time… and just generally making sure that the machine keeps pumping out the cars that it needs to. It is never straightforward, never easy. Huge amounts of time can be spent sorting out relatively minor issues but issues that are important to getting cars out the door. It’s a major challenge. A second challenge for me is that we are in the final stages of finishing our preparation to launch Exige S into production. So we’re making sure everything is in place to ensure the smooth introduction of that product without causing pain to any of our other existing product lines. That’s keeping a lot of people’s attentions focused right now and there’s a lot of excitement around the site connected with that.
DL: Just on the day-to-day of keeping the production lines running, are there recurring types of issue for you to deal with?
DH: For the current models – Evora and Elise – production issues are pretty much ‘wrinkled out’, but there’s always room for improvement in terms of trimming time or finessing the quality, Generally speaking though, in terms of putting those cars down the line and assembling them, we’re pretty much there in terms of knowing what to do and how to maximise the resource we have available. Examples of unexpected problems would include things like a critical plant failure. We had one recently that took us down for a couple of hours and it was all hands to the pump to get that rectified. Supplier issues? Generally speaking our suppliers are pretty good but there’s always going to be that supplier who puts the wrong part in the box or goes back to a previous level of part rather than the current one, or has an unforeseen problem themselves. Those kinds of things can come along and trip you up and however good your systems and processes are, some will slip through and that’s when action needs to be taken.
DL: How many vehicles does Lotus produce annually and what’s the model-mix?
DH: This year we’re looking at producing just over 2,000 vehicles. In terms of the split by model, currently we’re 50% ‘large car’ – by large we mean Evora – and 50% ‘small car’, which is split evenly between Elise and Exige.
DL: And how many people are employed actually making Lotus cars?
DH: It’s around 300 what I call ‘direct overhead’ and wrapped around that are the supply chain and logistics functions which we couldn’t build the car without, but they are not classified under the direct overhead.
DL: And how do you calibrate skill levels to your manufacturing needs?
DH: The vast majority of that 300 are skilled assembly workers who have been with the company for a significant number of years. Many are highly skilled, very loyal, have worked in a number of different areas – they have amassed invaluable experience. The manual element for us is quite high and there is very little automation and we have moved to single line, so the skills and flexibility for the operators are very important. Each operator can be working on six different product lines at any one time, so a high level of training is provided by us and they have to have a high level of skill and capability. Within the manufacturing function we also have manufacturing and production engineers who are specialists in looking at things like process and manufacturability issues.
DL: Do you have any difficulties in the area of recruitment? Are there certain types of engineers, for example, that are difficult to find?
DH: The simple answer is yes, for certain disciplines. Take the example of a welder. We need welders for our fabrication operations and this isn’t an area that has a massive population of welders and we’re competing with the offshore energy industry which is close by and wants welders for offshore rigs. So yes, there are some shortages. If we’re looking for people with the right willingness and enthusiasm, then getting general operatives that we can train up isn’t normally an issue. If we’re looking for people that have a specific skill – for example, trimming or painting – then that can be difficult. The good thing for us at Lotus is that once we have got people, they tend to stay with us for a long time.
DL: I’m interested in how manufacturing works in a low-volume automotive context. Can you describe the basics of the Lotus Cars manufacturing set-up?
DH: The obvious thing is that it is manually intense with very little automation. In terms of the direct car build, the process starts with the assembly of the engine into the front and rear modules which are built at Lotus Lightweight Structures at Worcester. The car starts life being pushed around on a trolley and ends its manufacturing life by being taken off the trolley and pushed around on its own wheels. The car develops and matures as it comes through the system based on individuals in locations working on a vehicle and the vehicle being hand-pushed from station to station. It almost replicates an automated production line but with the automated activities taken away and the track that pulls the line along also removed. It’s a kind of hybrid way of operating. It’s not what I call ‘cottage industry’ where you have a car in a location built up from a bag of nuts. We have a production flow, but it’s a flow driven by people and the steps within that flow are all operated by people. Added to that we have a paint shop on site, a trim shop on site – so we create a lot of our own trim here.
DL: And it’s a process that has been refined over time to be as efficient as possible given the volumes you are building and the level of craftsmanship that comes with the high manual element?
DH: Absolutely. And given that’s how we operate and given that a car will be at a station for between 30 minutes and 50 minutes, we’re expecting individuals to be able to work for up to 50 minutes on anything from an Elise to an Exige, to an Evora, automatic and manual examples thereof. We clearly need to have very highly skilled individuals.
DL: How do shifts work?
DH: We operate one shift throughout the plant. We do have the option of twilight shifts in some bottleneck areas but that is very much on a needs basis.
DL: Where are the main components for the cars coming from?
DH: Near and far. Engines, for example, are coming from Toyota (Elise engines from Deeside, UK; Evora engines from Japan). Body panels are composite and they are currently coming from France and the UK. We have two or three main suppliers. There are also significant German suppliers and we have a number of suppliers in the local area (small parts and fixtures and fittings typically come from the Norwich area). Aluminium extrusions come from Lotus Lightweight Structures – part of the family – based in Worcester. It’s a real global gathering, but a lot does come from the immediate area.
DL: Do you hold significant stocks of parts? How lean is your manufacturing?
DH: We try, where we can and where it makes sense, to emulate just-in-time models. No matter how big or small you are, holding stock costs money. We try to minimise our stock and bring it in just-in-time and we have daily ‘milk runs’ across the UK and Europe to bring parts to the line immediately. It’s a challenge – there can be freak weather, ferry delays and so on. That’s a constant challenge. Clearly, when we are talking about engines coming across from Japan, that creates a slightly different challenge and on things like that we can bring in more stock, whereas a local supplier who is machining parts for us might be on a scale of hours rather than days. The business model we try to operate is bring the parts in as close to production time as possible.
DL: Are you seeing your costs hit by external factors outside of your control such as exchange rates and rising prices of some raw materials?
DH: These things can vary on a daily/weekly/monthly basis. Do I get a sense of whether we are net-up or net-down? Probably net-up and I would say I have got a very good purchasing team who seem to be able to continually perform magic and keep our costs at a relatively stable base. They seem to be able to manage it fairly effectively.
DL: How much manufacturing does Lotus do for third parties these days?
DH: We manufacture for a number of OEMs through Lotus Lightweight Structures (LLS) and we also manufacture through our ASO (aftersales organisation) for a number of parties who we have previously built cars) for (examples include the GM Speedster, Tesla Roadster, and the old Aston Martin Vanquish). There’s a requirement to meet their aftersales organisations with products for those vehicles. LLS is slightly different in that it specialises in extruded aluminium, bonded aluminium and they have a number of OEMs for who they supply parts directly.
DL: I understand you’ve been quite involved with the ‘Make it in Great Britain’ campaign. What’s that all about and what’s the extent of your involvement?
It has been something that has gathered pace through the course of this year. I was very pleased to be nominated as an ‘industry champion’ back in February. The UK government is very much wanting to highlight the manufacturing capability of the UK, especially with this year with the Jubilee and the London Olympics, so the spotlight is very much on UK plc. It’s an opportunity to shout about UK manufacturing and Lotus is an example of something that we should be shouting about. We are a UK manufacturer, we support a fairly substantial UK supply base and we deliver products of which Britain should be very proud. What does it entail for me? There was a kick-off event in London in February and then there has been a lot of regional and trade interest, interviews for trade magazines and the local press here in Norfolk. We’ve also gone down the route of using this as a springboard for promoting manufacturing in local schools and colleges. The University Technical College (UTC) in Norwich, for example, is an institution that we work very closely with. They’ve just been awarded Technical College status [these are very much linked to industry] and we were very much involved in that and used the Make it in Great Britain campaign to support and champion their activities.
DL: Is there much benefit for Lotus in this?
DH: Oh yes, massive. Going back to the recruitment issue, we want to be able to cherry pick what comes out of the other end of the UTC. And we run our own vocational courses here which can link into local colleges. This can help us grow and nurture the right kind of talent that we will need in the future at Lotus – engineers, designers, manufacturers and managers.
DL: What inspires you, gives you a kick?
DH: For as long as I remember I have been passionate about cars. What gets me out of bed in the morning? First and foremost, I get to work with exciting sports cars. We could be manufacturing tins of beans or washing lines, but we get to manufacture on a daily basis, nice shiny, expensive sports cars. I find that incredibly stimulating, interesting and exciting. The fact that I also get to do that working alongside people who are incredibly passionate, motivated and enthusiastic makes life even better. One thing I say to people is that I can be having the most miserable of days and then I take a walk into the plant, and ten minutes watching the production line flow and cars coming off at the other end is enough to turn a dire day into a happy day, every time.
Having trained as an engineer, David started life working for a British engineering firm in Cheshire prior to joining the automotive industry. Career highlights include senior management positions and continuous improvement (in Six Sigma/Lean Manufacturing) leadership at Volvo Cars, Vodafone and Lotus Cars Ltd. David is representing the Government’s ‘Make it in Great Britain’ initiative as an Industry Champion. He has a passion for supporting British manufacturing.