BMW MINI Plant Oxford: The UK’s best example of a Smart Factory

BMW’s MINI Plant Oxford Assembly won the highly prized Smart Factory category against strong competition at The Manufacturer Manufacturing Excellence (MX) Awards 2018.

Steven Barr talked with general manager, Martin Koch and members of his team about their smart perspective on sustaining a celebrated British classic.

Some years ago (ahem) I helped my dad rebuild an Austin Mini 850. There was little danger of it exceeding the speed limit and so I passed my driving test.

I loved that car, just like hundreds of thousands of drivers do these days when they co-create their very own MINI and drive it away.

CROP - MINI logo - image courtesy of Depositphotos.

But the real thrill for me a few weeks ago was to be found inside a 100-year-old factory building where respect for British automotive heritage is combined with German innovation and a drive for efficiency.

MINI traces its history back not just to 2001 with the launch of the new model, but all the way back to the very first Alec Issigonis ‘classic’ Mini of 1959.

Martin Koch, general manager of Plant Oxford Assembly, explains how old and new fit perfectly together.

“We’ve built in funding for the years ahead because we see the value of digital devices in boosting productivity and capacity in the small and historic space for assembly that we have inherited at Cowley. We are committed to working together as a team to find new ways to use digital devices to enable us to deliver our targets,” he said.

Smart systems put the product in the hands of customers

When you buy a new MINI you have the choice of three models, 15 colours, four engines (soon to include the new electric option) and a myriad of parts and finish options.

Inside of Mini Cooper S - image courtesy of Depositphotos.

Mass customisation is at your fingertips through an online app in the showroom or at home, helping you visualise every aspect of your car and make smart choices to balance impact, performance and your pocket.

And then your car is built to your order in less than 24 hours!

Your digitally-enhanced engagement with the company sets the scene for each bespoke car’s journey through the Cowley assembly line.

That’s right – just the one assembly line delivering 1,000 cars per day in more than 10 million variations of model, engine, paintwork, trim and much more.

🚨 UPDATE 📢

The Manufacturer of the Year 2019: BMW Group Plants Oxford and Swindon - image courtesy of The Manufacturer.BMW Group Plants Oxford and Swindon was named The Manufacturer of the Year, as well as retaining it’s title for operating the UK’s  best example of a Smart Factory, at The Manufacturer MX Awards 2019.

The ceremony and gala dinner took place at Exhibition Centre Liverpool on the evening of 14 November.  

 

Click here to view the full list of 2019 winners

Customers can change their minds on the specification of their MINI up to six days before it starts life on the assembly line. From ‘the freeze‘ the assembly sequence is set, and the choreography begins.

With just four hours’ notice some 500 suppliers from 27 countries start building in the same sequence and the automated logistic system ensures that the right parts are delivered to the right point on the assembly line at exactly the right time to enable the associates to make the customer’s dream into a beautiful reality.

Smart devices empower associates to innovate

That automated assembly process is poetry in motion through two levels of the building, choreographed with ‘just in time’ delivery of components and with the activities of 700 associates on each shift in assembly.

CROP - Despite the widespread use of robots in the bodyshop, the assembly line is crowded with human workers - image coutesy of BMW MINI Oxford.

MINI’s associates are the maintainers, planners, control engineers, parts deliverers, assemblers and quality checkers who make the difference behind the Smart Factory.

The smart devices employed at Cowley would form a catalogue of best practice in any high-tech manufacturing venture.

They range from automated guided vehicles, to moving track, to Proglove scanners, to tracking transponders, to visual monitoring of status and performance – and everything in between. Just what you would expect from a leading manufacturer.

What makes the MINI Cowley assembly plant a Smart Factory TMMX Award winner is how the innovative ideas of the associates drive the continuous improvement in productivity that is so important to the company.

Let me highlight just a few of the smart devices now proving their worth and the people who are inspiring these innovations.

CROP - BMW expects electrified vehicles to account for between 15-25% of sales by 2025 - image courtesy of BMW MINI

Fortnite, the online combat game, does not yet include a smart car factory in its scenarios. But simulation technician Ross Krambergar has turned his knowledge of the programming environment into a major asset, creating a digital twin of the Cowley assembly line.

Production manager Greg Denton highlights the operational value of the model, which “allows planners to predict the impact of live events and to simulate the impact of potential improvements or any other change or relocation of equipment and material bank parts and boxes, so we can be confident the changes will work on a line that has to keep running. We have even used it for office planning and logistic transports in and outside of the building”.

Fully controlled assistor units are already in common use, for example to lift parts from the AGVs and swing them in to place.

Now technical planner Vaibhav Boricha is running a programme testing applications for collaborative robots (‘cobots’) in an increasing range of assembly operations where their interaction with associates is practical and beneficial.

There are examples of cobots already in full series production and working hand in hand with associates to do fastening and riveting jobs.

CROP - RITA on the MINI Plant Oxford production line, helping to assemble components for the car’s crumple zone pre-assembly - image courtesy of BMW Group MINI.

Another example is a camera mounted on a cobot arm to deal with variability in engine types and the location of key features.

And there are other examples currently in the test phase to be rolled out soon.

Digital monitoring of production

Cameras are already used to improve the automation of assembly, for example in detecting a roof aperture so that a sunroof can be fitted.

Now people such as group leader Alex Brandham are finding ever more innovative uses for cameras.

“It may not be in the user manual,” he said, “but continuous high-resolution photography helps us to spot flaws on a car and to trace back to the points where they originated.”

The overall effect of all these small digital improvements has been exceptional improvement in all KPIs of the business from quality to efficiency.

Learning together is a big part of BMW Mini’s culture of empowerment and innovation. In that spirit, Martin Koch has three “tips” for other manufacturers who see the potential for gain from smart devices:

  1. Don’t bring in smart devices just because they are available. Start where you have a definite need, or an improvement opportunity.
  2. Once you have identified the requirement, select the right tool or method or equipment which supports your improvement goal.
  3. Make changes step by step and let your experience as a team work out what works best for you. Your first local projects will show you how you can multiply the benefits to other areas.

Martin concludes: “In 1985, Back to the Future showed a vison of 2015 with us flying on hover boards and wearing clothes that roll themselves on automatically. But also, paper messages that come out of the wall!

Nobody thought about the smartphones that have actually had a more fundamental effect on the way we live. It’s the same with Industry 4.0 and the concept of a Smart Factory.

“There are lots of ideas and products and we know use of data is really important, but what a production line will look like 20 0r 30 years from now we can’t know. But it is on us to shape the future using the best of digital devices, and our imaginations.”


Dr Steven Barr is a chartered engineer and expert in manufacturing business transformation through technologies, people and partners.

He is the managing director of EDGE Digital Manufacturing, and a founder and board member of the not-for-profit DRL-Tool.org – a cross-industry collaboration between Digital Catapult, EDGE Digital Manufacturing, HSSMI, the High Value Manufacturing Catapult Centres, the Knowledge Transfer Network, The Manufacturer and Valuechain.


*First two images courtesy of Depositphotos, the following three are courtesy of BMW MINI