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“We haven’t even started to exploit the full range of aluminium alloys yet," noted Max Szwaj, "never mind more exotic solutions like metal-matrix composites.” (Aston Martin photo)

Jumping from Ferrari to drive Aston Martin's technology future

Riding shotgun with Ferrari’s test drivers at the company’s Fiorano circuit while developing the F150 ‘LaFerrari’ supercar would be a “bucket list” moment for any engineer. But even while that memory was still fresh, Max Szwaj jumped at the offer to join Aston Martin as chief technical officer, when the job was offered to him late last year by Aston boss, Dr. Andy Palmer.

“I was half-way between Ferrari, finishing its new architecture, and bringing some new ideas into Maserati when I got the offer; I finished in Italy on 28th November and started at Gaydon on 1st December,” Szwaj told Automotive Engineering.

He’s now overseeing the technology that will underpin the ambitious Second Century plan that Dr. Palmer has mapped out for the Aston Martin and Lagonda brands, which will see at least seven new products plus limited-edition models emerge in years to come.

While the scale of ambition for two brands that have rarely been financially stable in their 100+ year history is enormous, it is underpinned by a sound financial base which saw a £530 m ($660 m) bond offering over-subscribed seven-fold. There’s also a new facility in Wales being set up to produce the DBX crossover in 2019, followed by a new range of Lagondas in 2021-22 to effectively double annual production to 14,000 units.

So, what persuaded Szwaj to leave the Prancing Horse for a British Bulldog, albeit one favored by James Bond? Besides his love for the brand and passion for cars, it was the challenge “to match the engineering to the design.”

Aston Martin "was suffering a lack of finance, so the British innovation needed to support the brand was obviously limited through lack of funds. The Second Century plan has to be different,” Szwaj asserted. “You have to inject innovation and I need to win over young customers, people that can relate to the new technologies that are coming up. It’s important, of course, for me to maintain the traditional customers for sure, but we need to move on. We need to excel and bring certain technical competences to a benchmark level.” He said new technologies “will define which direction we go in.”

Key to this will be the relationship Aston has with the German high-performance tuning and engineering firm AMG over the supply of powertrains and other commodities. “We really need to understand how we want to evolve Aston’s future. We have this [AMG] partnership and we need to maintain it,” Szwaj said. “New vehicles will be supported by AMG’s input, be it powertrain or electrical architecture.” The challenge, he said, is ensuring the resulting vehicles are unequivocally Aston Martins in every dimension.

Szwaj wants to invest in know-how and competencies “that make Aston stand out and that we produce ourselves,” adding “We need to maintain development through innovation and make the Aston Martin brand stand out through this internal intellectual property.”

Interestingly, at the opening of the new Wales facility in St. Athans, CEO Dr. Palmer stated that one of his ambitions is to make the site a center of excellence for cyber security, which he sees as a bigger development challenge than vehicle autonomy.

With a battery-electric Aston Martin-Lagonda coming in 2018 and hybridization also in his forward product plan, vehicle mass reduction is a major focus for Szwaj. “We need to look at creating very light, efficient structures; this could be one of our major centers of competence. It is important for me to focus on that,” he explained.

All of Aston Martin’s assembly processes use adhesive bonding “which means it’s quite easy to introduce different materials,” Szwaj said. “We haven’t even started to exploit the full range of aluminium alloys yet, never mind more exotic solutions like metal-matrix composites.”

With such a busy agenda ahead, is he concerned about losing engineers to the new automotive start-ups? His predecessor Ian Minards was poached by Dyson for its recently announced EV project.

“I need to stimulate the team to bring innovation that will motivate them; they have to be enthusiastic. That’s key. If you have a group that’s enthusiastic about the work they do you get much more out of them and the results are higher, but also they’re working on something new. That’s a key focus for me.”

Szwaj said that the organizational changes he is introducing within Aston Martin’s product development team will allow engineers to rotate within groups and possibly within their own function and to move around within the organization. Young engineers fresh out of university need the encouragement that comes with creating tangible, high-technology products, Szwaj argues.

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