Aston Martin’s St Athan factory in South Wales all set for the DBX
The St Athan factory is at the heart of a new chapter in the history of Aston Martin. We pay a visit to the new Welsh facility…
The first Aston Martin DBX isn’t due to be delivered until next summer, but pre-production models are already rolling down the production line at Aston’s new plant in St Athan in South Wales, and Auto Express was invited down to take a look.
The 90-acre former Ministry of Defence site has been transformed since Aston Martin got the keys in 2016, with the three super hangers now housing a state-of-the-art car factory, described by Aston CEO Andy Palmer as “the world’s first beyond-lean manufacturing facility.”
The beautifully coiffured driveway, as well kept as the one at the brand’s HQ in Gaydon, Warwickshire, leads up to a plush new entrance that does a grand job of hiding the plant’s military roots. The sign above the door proudly proclaims Aston Martin Lagonda, a reminder that the new all-electric luxury offshoot will also be producing its cars here alongside Aston Martin’s DBX.
Offices and a staff restaurant are also situated at the front of the building, with views across the Vale of Glamorgan, but the space in the hangers behind have been used to house a production line that will eventually produce 5,000 DBXs a year, plus up to 2,000 Lagondas.
At that time in about three or four years time, staff numbers will be boosted to around 1,000 – up from the 750 that will be producing DBXs this time next year and providing a welcome boost to the area with Ford’s engine plant set to close in 2020.
We start our tour of the plant in the furthest hanger – although you’d be hard pushed to know its origins; Aston has fitted a mezzanine floor to provide more production space.
“If we were doing this anywhere else, we’d produce a flat plant,” says Scott Ward, Aston Martin’s Director of Manufacturing at St Athan tells us, “But there are big benefits to the height of this building, not least the huge hanger doors, which made it easy to get the machinery inside.”
The parallel production lines are familiar to anyone who’s been around a car factory before, but the new equipment and refurbished hangers are so clean it all looks like a modern kitchen as much as a modern car plant.
And cleanliness is important to avoid any imperfections in a luxury car factory, starting where the bonded aluminium body structure is glued together. The DBX uses lessons learned from the DB11 and shares that car’s Next Generation Architecture but, for example, there are 13 per cent fewer parts on DBX than DB11 when the car is 60 per cent larger by volume.
Once recongnisable bodyshells emerge – having been checked at every stage along the way – they move into the three-storey paint shop in the next hanger. Here robots prepare and spray the cars, although the ability to hand spray is still an option for special finishes.
As well as the familiar factory robots, St Athan also uses Automated Guided Vehicles around the plant – another improvement over the Gaydon plant – while the hangers’ original corridor running down the centre has been retained. “It helps with logistics,” we’re told.
The third hanger is used for final trim and assembly with the cars being carried on huge rigs along the production line and up and down further new levels put into the huge space. Then it’s on to further, meticulous quality control and out onto St Athan’s test track where every car is driven over a variety of surfaces and at speed to check that everything works as it should and to reveal any squeaks and rattles.
New stage in DBX development
St Athan has been declared by Palmer as Aston’s “Home of electrification” and there’s space to develop that side of production, although Lagondas will be built alongside DBXs on the same line.
And it’s at the end of the production line that one of the first St Athan built DBXs, wearing red camouflage, sits. Like all DBXs, it’ll feature the familiar AMG-sourced V8 under the bonnet – hybridisation comes later, according to Palmer – but while earlier models wore yellow camo, this car’s colour is important.
“The yellow cars were for what we’ll call underbody tests,” Palmer says. “That part is complete – now we’re moving on to upper body testing.’
St Athan will transform Aston Martin as a business and helps to complete Palmer’s plan of seven new models in seven years. It’ll see the company double its current output from just over 7,000 cars this year to closer to 14,000 by 2023. That has all sorts of effects, not least on the dealer network, which has also gone through a transformation. “The dealer in Milan has had to be re-sited as they couldn’t get DBX through the door,” Palmer reveals.
A DBX without the camouflage is set to be revealed to the world – in South Wales, of course – at the end of the year, although potential customers are likely to see the car from this summer.
Then production ramps up in St Athan over an eight-week period from April next year before the first cars reach their owners. So what can they expect? Palmer tells us: “DBX will be beautiful, handcrafted and luxurious. It’ll be the SUV that thinks it’s a sports car, but that you can drive everyday. And it’ll be specced to match your lifestyle.”
If you fancy one, you’ll be paying similar money to Bentley Bentayga or Lamborghini Urus customers – we’d hazard a guess at around £150,000. For that you’ll get the newest luxury sports SUV on the block with what we’re told is more space inside than in a Porsche Cayenne.
And it’ll be built in Wales – and we haven’t been able to say that about a car like this before.