Design Thinking: Sparking an electric MINI revolution!

Posted on 12 Mar 2020 by The Manufacturer

Dr Paul Stead interviews Tom Festa, Plant New Model Project Leader at BMW Group, who explains the integration of the new electric MINI into the award-winning MINI factory in Oxford.

For anyone who has never been around the MINI plant in Cowley, you need to put it on your bucket list – it’s a must see! Not only is it one of the top tourist attractions in Oxford; for the past 60 years it’s been the historic home of MINI, plus it is now a worthy winner of The Manufacturer MX Award for Manufacturer of the Year 2019, the Smart Factory Award, and the Product Innovation & Design Award.

Tom Festa, Plant New Model Project Leader at BMW Group. Image: BMW Group
Tom Festa, Plant New Model Project Leader at BMW Group. Image: BMW Group

Having been on the judging panel for the Product Innovation Award, it was also my first opportunity to talk openly with Tom Festa (Plant New Model Project Leader); to discuss the Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DFMA) which was demonstrated throughout their winning submission for the new Electric MINI.

For this interview, I decided that it was important to be in Cowley. I wanted to immerse myself in the detail, to understand the processes and understand why BMW management believed in the team and signed off on what many considered a radical project.

So, once I’d checked in at Gate 6, we walked directly into the logistics warehouse, then into the plant to observe first-hand the new MINIs being assembled.

“Every 67 seconds a new MINI rolls off the production line”, said Tom with a smile. “That’s the heartbeat of our production plant…and that was the key challenge we had from the start of the project to electrify the MINI,” he added.

“What you have to remember, is BMW created a new purpose-built plant for the i3, as did Tesla for their models. However, at Cowley we’ve never had the luxury of a green-field site, we’ve always had to innovate and adapt what we had within the site foot-print and infrastructure we have.

“Also what you have to remember is the MINI brand is predicated on customers being able to personalise and configure their own car, which means over a billion different combinations.

The Electric MINI at Cowley. Image: BMW Group

“Not only are there three-door, five-door and ‘Clubman’ body options going down the Cowley production line, each car can be configured with different packs, equipment, a range of diesel and petrol engines, and different levels of interior and exterior trim. And now an electric option [currently, only for the three door].”

Given all these limitations, can you please explain the background, the history and why BMW said ‘yes’ to this radical factory and product innovation?

We’ve known for some time that the industry is going to have to respond to the electric revolution and we needed an electric MINI. The question we posed in 2016 was how we leverage the multi-million-euro investments BMW had made in Cowley and compared and contrasted that with a green-field site.

The maths was relatively simple, it costs millions for a new plant, millions for new tooling, millions for a new model and takes at least five years. On the other hand, if we could utilise much of the current plant, many of the same components and the same resources, it would make a much more compelling business model and we could get to market quicker.

So, the business case at a high level was relatively straightforward. And as you know, challenging convention is already part of our innovation heritage and our brand DNA.

This article first appeared in the March/April issue of The Manufacturer magazine. Click here to subscribe

Given you knew that this would be a cost-effective solution, how did you go about getting BMW to sign off?

As you’d imagine, the BMW Group has all manner of internal processes to ensure the business is run efficiently and profitably. In all cases, new designs commence with a concept phase, which is supported by innovation hubs around the world, reviewing everything from battery technology and lightweight materials to the latest production techniques and the standardising of common components and platforms.

In the concept phase we started to lay down the design brief for the new car. For instance, it had to have the MINI DNA, the same handling and performance, and had to be the same price point as the Cooper S.

We know that a large majority of MINIs drive less than 25 miles per day, (from home to work and back) so while range and efficiency is very important, the objective for us was to deliver the highest range possible within the three-door product architecture.

Visualisations of the MINI Electric available from March 2020. Image: BMW Group

The other part of this concept design exercise was to ensure that the factory heartbeat would be maintained, so the vehicle had to be assembled using the existing factory configuration, be built by the same associates, and even tested on the same or similar equipment.

Once we’d had approval of the high-level concept design, the next stage was to reach the target agreement phase, which means we had to design the car, the overall implementation program and build highly detailed timelines, including detailed business investment plans that could be signed off at executive level.

This is where Design Thinking and DFMA comes to the fore. At the start of 2017, we brought the design, engineering and assembly teams together and broke down the new Electric MINI design concept into the components that would need to be designed, re-designed and re-engineered.

We use ‘Hedgehog Diagrams’ to visualise all the sub-components, the likely OEMs, the Tier 1 suppliers, all the new tooling required; in fact, all the tasks and sub-tasks. We used 3D CAD, VR tools and even 3D printed models to visualise potential solutions, knowing at that stage we had to achieve at least a 90% build accuracy to determine the required concepts for delivery.

We also forecast the resource required to deliver, not only in the design and engineering teams, but the implications for the factory. How we would test the new assembly techniques, how weekend working would be required so as to avoid interrupting the current production flow.

Inside the factory in Cowley, Oxford, a MINI is made every 67 seconds. Image BMW Group

As you can imagine this design-and-planning phase/business-modelling phase took nearly a year to complete, but the business case became so compelling that the executive team in Munich were keen to trial this new approach, so gave us the support we needed and a green light to the investment.

So, what were some of the most challenging jobs to be done? 

The whole project was pretty challenging, as we knew that failure wasn’t an option. The reputation of our plant rested in our hands.

Clearly the design and engineering of an electric car is reasonably well understood; however, our project was to transform our existing MINI to be electric, while maintaining as much of the current architecture as possible.

The obvious change was adding the electric motor and associated controls in the current engine bay, which meant using the internal combustion engine mounts, the drive shafts, the crumple zone and the cooling and heating systems. We even had to work around the windscreen washer reservoir.

The final engine solution packages the electric motor, together with the cooling and control systems within a motorbike-style chassis/space frame. This whole electric module is now assembled alongside the petrol and diesel engines, which then seamlessly flows into the production system and is robotically inserted into the vehicle.

The Electric MINI at Cowley. Image: BMW Group

There’s a similar story for the battery. This is designed as a ‘T’, to occupy the space where the centre tunnel ‘fuel’ tank would have been in an open part of the chassis tunnel. This component is delivered sealed and ready to insert into the underbelly of the car and replaces the heat shield, exhaust and the obsolete tank.

Clearly, there are a number of differences between the Electric MINI and its internal combustion engine brothers and sisters, such as the high voltage cables, the charging port, the digital dash board, but during the design phase we were always juggling the product and production challenges and the 67-second heartbeat.

You mentioned a lot about the design of the product, what about the designing? Plus implementation of new jobs on the production line? 

Going back to our process for a minute: once we had achieved sign off of the target agreement, the design of the product and production systems go hand in hand. This we call the ‘industrialisation phase’. It is detailed product and process development where we commit to tooling, jigs and fixtures, which eventually lead to the building of pre-series cars on a prototype line.

Once we’ve got the basic fit and function, and jigs proven, we start the maturation phase, where we work with the teams on the production line to understand the detailed changes in workflow, especially quality control – as not being able to do it right first time is not an option.

What you’ve also got to remember is that much of the plant adaption and early build test work had to be done at the weekend, which meant that after the last Friday shift had finished we started work again. And the reverse on Sunday night, ready for the Monday morning shift. Any delay would mean massive disruption.

The Manufacturer of the Year 2019: BMW Group Plants Oxford and Swindon - image courtesy of The Manufacturer.

Just as we use Design Thinking tools to capture the voice of the customer, we use a similar process to capture the ‘voice of the process’.

There’s a couple of tools we use worthy of mention when thinking about and quantifying future risk, VUCA [volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous] and PFMEA [process failure mode and effects analysis].

We use these tools regularly to ensure that each work station, each process and each team are working in harmony, so the factory heartbeat, the factory quality, and ultimately the MINI brand quality is always maintained.

There’s clearly a number of Electric MINIs going down the production line. Are all these customer orders? And what about electrification of the other models?

The Electric MINI officially launches on 1 March 2020, but I’ve had mine for some weeks now. We’ve also had 200 pre-production cars with customers to gain direct user feedback, just as we’ve had other
vehicles on ALT (accelerated life tests), crash tests and in-market tests.

Most of these cars are, therefore, either customer pre-orders, demo cars or for retail stock (as our customers in the US want to walk, buy and drive away). So ‘yes’, about 10% of all MINIs being produced at Cowley are now electric.

And what about electrification of the other models?

That’s a work in progress, just like the next generation of the engine, the next generation of battery packs …in fact our life never stands still!


This interview captures only a small fraction of the innovation, ingenuity and engineering excellence that Tom and the BMW MINI team have lived through over the past four years.

It’s also a testament to a passion, energy and spirit that the MINI brand exudes. For me, a stand-out example of the MINI spirit was demonstrated during The Manufacturer MX Awards judging, when upon arrival Tom introduced us to leaders of the different teams involved in the project – including apprentices!

BMW MINI is a truly deserving winner of the 2019 The Manufacturer MX Award for Manufacturer of the Year. May this British institution continue to challenge conventional wisdom, deliver extraordinary results and prosper in a post-Brexit world.

Dr Paul Stead - Brewery Group - Design Matters

*All images courtesy of BMW MINI