Handling 30 million parts and producing 9,000 vehicles a day, it’s little wonder that logistics sits at the centre of BMW Group’s globe-spanning operation. Jonny Williamson reports.
Listening to senior executives speak at a recent press conference, it was made clear that the vision BMW Group has for the future of logistics absolutely centres on the convergence of digitalisation and advanced technology.
The marque has experienced considerable growth over the past decade, posting record annual sales in 2015 for the fifth consecutive year. Yet, with sustainability and efficiency being front-of-mind for all businesses, how BMW scales its logistics operation to match its continued global expansion is no easy task.
So how will BMW address the challenge? As with almost every other facet of business, the ongoing advancement of technology will certainly help, coupled with its inherently proactive attitude to innovation.
At its Munich-Garching vehicle preparation site in Germany, I was presented with five core aspects to what BMW Group describes as its “vision for the logistics of the future”, all of which complement and support one another. They included:
- transparent supply chain
- autonomous robots & vehicles
- logistics collaborative robots (‘cobots’)
- augmented reality (AR) & mobile devices
According to Jürgen Maidl, head of logistics for the BMW Group production network, logistics lies at the heart of the BMW production system, and the use of innovative and digital technologies will become a key factor in its complex logistics processes.
He added, “For BMW, the question is currently how can we use advanced technologies associated with Industry 4.0 to bring greater efficiency, evenness and flow into logistics. This won’t represent a revolution in the model itself, so you couldn’t call it a game change, but it will fundamentally modify what we are doing.”
Crucially, Maidl continued, these technologies and concepts are not sat on an engineer’s drawing board, they are already being assessed in a number of pilot projects across BMW’s global network – though no one site is currently exploring all five.
“Our vision looks quite futuristic overall, but many of the elements are being utilised today, either in full or a simplified version,” he added.
I asked Maidl when we might see similar or associated pilot projects at any of the sites BMW Group has in the UK, at Oxford, Swindon and Hams Hall near Birmingham.
He explained, “That would be instigated by either the typical development of the site, or when bringing in the production of new models because we don’t want to disrupt the running assembly system with significant changes. That is true for all of our sites, not just the UK. As we do not communicate when and where our new cars will be manufactured, we do not communicate when new pilot technologies will arrive.”
BMW Group: vision for logistics of the future
Transparent supply chain:
According to several of the executives I spoke with, transparency equals efficiency and security. Much of BMW’s parts and vehicles are shipped via sea, however, that aspect of its global logistics operation currently represents a ‘black box’ thanks to inaccurate and/or untimely status updates. This lack of awareness creates a far greater workload in terms of supply chain management.
Similarly, there are various elements to road freight that are out of an organisation’s control, i.e. traffic congestion, accidents and infrastructure failures. These also represent an additional burden on supply chain management.
To alleviate these strains, BMW has put forward four steps to create a fully transparent supply chain: obtain & record data; analyse & control; analyse & improve, and automate & forecast. Some of these processes have already started in certain sites, with the expectation that far more will be launched during 2017.
Data will be gathered from sensors located on trucks and containers all the way down to individual parts themselves, and should allow BMW to respond to any delays in real-time. Actions may include rerouting, employing alternative shipping methods or requesting additional orders to cover any expected losses.
Autonomous robots & vehicles:
As much as autonomous driving is tipped to revolutionise our everyday lives, driverless vehicles could play an equally transformational role within logistics. An initial fleet of 10 self-driving ‘Smart Transport Robots’ (STR) are already transporting components through logistics at BMW’s Bavarian Innovation Park in Wackersdorf.
Capable of ferrying containers weighing up to 500kg and powered by pre-used BMW i3 batteries, the STRs calculate the distance to wireless transmitters to verify their exact position and route, rather than relying on navigational induction loops embedded in the floor.
Currently equipped with an array of sensors in order to identify and react to any potential collisions, future STRs are expected to utilise an intelligent 3D camera system to enable even more precise and independent operation.
Elsewhere, self-navigating tugger trains are being piloted to narrow the gap between individual warehouses and assembly areas at BMW Dingolfing (Southern Bavaria). The programme is an attempt to balance the equation of lean manufacturing commonly resulting in inventory-heavy – ‘fat’ – logistics by utilising ‘warehouses on wheels’, each carrying an easily-accessible ‘working’ inventory which arrives when required.
Future developments within this space could see the concepts of STRs and tugger trains deployed externally, with autonomous trucks ferrying goods across the worlds highways and byways.
Logistics collaborative robots:
There is a strong belief within BMW that the logistics centre of the future will still employ human workers, however, as time progresses these workers will be increasingly supported by technology. One way technology is – quite literally – lending a hand is through ‘cobots’, advanced collaborative robots which can work safely alongside human operators without the need for safety cages or barriers.
The cobot I witnessed in action was sorting empty plastic component boxes, employing its 3D camera to aid coordination and a mobile vacuum pump to grip and flip the boxes. Interestingly, the cobot didn’t follow a fixed route. It understood the start and end points, alongside any ‘no-go’ zones, and determined its own optimised path accordingly.
The automotive sector has long been proponents of industrial automation, but historically of large welding rigs, heavy weight carriers and loading units. How the industry employs smaller, flexible and more intelligent cobots will be an interesting space to watch over the coming months, with BMW aiming to become one of the frontrunners.
Augmented reality & mobile devices:
Augmented reality (AR) – information superimposed over someone’s real view of the world via an optical device – isn’t new thanks to the likes of Google Glass and Microsoft HoloLens. BMW is looking to use its in-house developed ‘data goggles’ to support logistics staff to ensure the right place is selected, sorted and/or positioned.
Each part is quality assessed and simultaneously compared against a digital database to ensure no defects are present. Through artificial intelligence, the device is able to recognise different categories of defects independently, and being built into a mobile device rather than a stationary system, helps promote a paperless working environment.
Environmental impact is a key area for BMW, with every aspect of its vision for logistics of the future helping to reduce its CO2 emissions either directly or indirectly. The organisation is increasingly favouring rail transportation over air or even road, with more than 60% of all new vehicles leaving its production plants on rails.
By leveraging a more transparent, connected supply chain, the distribution of critical parts can be pre-empted much earlier and be sent via rail or sea, rather than relying on air freight and its high-level of CO2 emissions. Equally, there are similar transitions afoot as diesel trains and road vehicles are substituted for alternatively sourced electric equivalents.
The other benefit rail offers is time. Twice a week, for example, a train with vehicle parts leaves Regensburg and Leipzig (Germany) and takes the Trans-Siberian Railway all the way to Shenyang (North China) almost 11,000 km away. With a transit time of less than 20 days, these direct trains are reportedly more than twice as fast as the combination of sea freight and transportation through the Chinese interior, with roughly the same CO2 emission.