The MINI plant in Oxford is a fascinating mix of labour-intensive assembly line and robot-dominated bodyshop. It is a BMW-owned factory in an era of Brexit, Industry 4.0 and skills shortages.
Matt Pulzer sat down with Gunther Boehner, director of assembly at the MINI Oxford plant in Cowley to discuss the new electric MINI and issues facing the wider British automotive sector.
This is a very impressive factory, but looking around the site, and indeed your office, I notice there is absolutely no sign of a link to the prestigious group that owns MINI – BMW. What is the thinking behind this and what does it say about how BMW views MINI?
Gunther Boehner: MINI is a youth brand and we have to retain its unique flavour, but there is no question MINI is within the BMW group.
We use the same platforms, many of the same parts as BMWs and we’ve got the same training courses. We work together as a group, and language aside, workers can easily be employed here or for example in Dingolfing, in Bavaria.
However, we know that a BMW customer is quite different from a MINI customer, so we must give them something different and that is reflected in what you are seeing here.
Leaving aside branding and looking under the bonnet, is a MINI a BMW in terms of its engineering, and how much of a MINI is made in Britain?
Absolutely – we use the same engine as in some BMWs and we use other common platforms. Even the development engineers work in parallel on BMWs and MINIs, so MINI is definitely a BMW product.
Of course, the MINI driving experience is deliberately different to a BMW – more hands-on, but it is a BMW product.
Around 60% of the car comes from the EU. The local content is mainly subassembly parts such as the front end, the seats are locally produced in Banbury, and the engines from Hams Hall in Birmingham. In fact, the BMW engine factory in Birmingham exports to Germany and all the other BMW plants, apart from China.
We have a strategy that ‘production follows the market’. So, we need a lot of engines here for the MINI plant – over 200,000 last year. That’s an enormous amount, so demand for Birmingham-built BMW/MINI engines is high.
Does MINI work with either of the Oxford universities, or any of the industrial research centres, such as Cambridge’s Institute for Manufacturing?
We work with lots of universities around the country – and here in Oxford we have good links with Oxford Brookes University, including through our apprenticeship programme.
Many of them do a degree in tandem with their apprenticeship. So, they’ll come out of a three-to-four-year BMW apprenticeship with a degree, which is a pretty special combination.
We have about 100 apprentices from engineering to IT and logistics, plus of course hands-on jobs like maintenance. It’s been a very successful scheme and mostly local in uptake, with much of recruitment coming from within 50 miles.
They receive a premium education and regularly win prizes. In fact, you could say this is not just a MINI plant, but also an education centre of excellence.
One of the biggest current issues for all car manufacturers is electrification; the Americans and the Chinese are really starting to take the technology seriously. With an electric MINI was recently announced, what is driving MINI to electrification?
It was definitely pull from the market. BMW had great success with the electric i3 and i8 cars, and the market wants more. We’ve built the first prototypes in Munich, and the MINI concept vehicle – a pure electric car – was unveiled at the Frankfort Motor Show in September 2017, where we set a target of 2019 for its official launch.
Where will the motor and the battery come from and has BMW/MINI released figures on the car’s all-important range?
Initially, the motor and battery will be sourced from Dingolfing (Bavaria), which is where BMW’s centre of competence for these technologies is based. It’s a bit too early to quote range figures because we’re still deep in trials, determining what can be achieved.
However, I can tell you that it will definitely not be worse than our competitors; otherwise, it wouldn’t make sense. Can it be compared with a Tesla X or something like that – the larger electric cars? Probably not, because it’s a completely different size; but in comparison with other small cars it will be top of the league for its category.
How has MINI Oxford contributed to the electric MINI?
We, here in Oxford, are the MINI production experts, and we sent our workers to Munich to help the design engineers – who are not production experts – to find some very lean solutions for this car.
They did fantastic work and really impressed BMW. The response was, ‘Wow, Oxford is able to do fancy things, unbelievable! We don’t have to spend hundreds of millions of euros in assembly line investment to implement a new model. They can integrate it into the existing line.’
What this means is that when we start building the electric MINI it will simply be an option – a big option – but not a whole new car needing its own production line.
We just can run it through the current lines and instead of fitting a fuel engine, we’ll fit an electric motor; instead of fitting a tank, we’ll fit a battery; and instead of fitting the fuel pipes, we’re fitting the cables… and so on. The contribution from Oxford has been critical to ensuring it will be built in Oxford.
Each MINI on your line is bespoke and you have a complicated supply chain – Industry 4.0 must be a godsend. How does MINI implement this latest approach to manufacturing?
Everywhere, Industry 4.0 is still just at the start and we mustn’t confuse bringing in robots and big data with ‘Industry 4.0’. It’s much more than that – Industry 4.0 is the interaction between on the one hand data and robot solutions, and on the other hand, humans.
For example, most robots must be fenced off to prevent human access. If you want to do something with robots then you must power them down because if they hit you, you could be killed. But, with Industry 4.0, there will be a completely new generation of possibilities.
You can interact with the robot, you can work hand in hand with a robot, which is something we have started to introduce on the line here in Oxford for small assembly work.
What many people in industry misunderstand is that first you need to streamline, you need to make your process lean and then you can get on with digitalisation and Industry 4.0.
If you have poor, wasteful processes and you digitise them then all you do is make a poor process even more complex. That’s why our approach is to first optimise the process and only then, if Industry 4.0 can help to make it even better – leaner and more efficient – will we use it.
So, how is it used in MINI Oxford?
First, we use it on the shop floor to help people with complex and hard processes. For example, riveting; in the past, people complained about how they had to use a heavy, difficult-to-use rivet pistol, but now a robot does this work.
More complex tasks, such as fitting grommets, must be done by humans. Where we’ll be in three, four, five years I don’t know, but currently a robot can do only the easiest human tasks and the more complex operations still have to do be done by people.
Broadly speaking, that is why the assembly line is always crowded with humans but the body and paint shop is mainly robotic. Remember, robots are stupid – they only do exactly what you tell them to do. A human is much more intelligent and subtle.
If you have a piece of metal that needs a grommet and it’s out of line by a millimetre then the robot will fail – it has no eyes. For a human, correcting this kind of error is second nature. Yes, you can have detection systems for robots, but then the programming time and training period becomes very long.
Perhaps, in the future, things will be different, but for now our strategy is to make the process lean, and where we have really easy, but physically challenging tasks we let a robot do it, leaving more complicated jobs for humans.
Second, there is maintenance. We are working mainly with big data – a big brain that can collect information and tell us how to avoid line down time.
Third, support for quality and general organisation. For example, big data management lets you predict: ‘watch out!’, a car with certain options is coming down the line, so be prepared to have the right parts or an additional person.
Is the MINI’s Industry 4.0 solution something that’s internal to MINI or is it part of the bigger BMW approach?
Both – we are working in a network where there is a constant data exchange with other plants, because we are part of the BMW family. When we have a solution at one plant, we can copy it and roll it out to other plants. But we do have very clever workers on site here who produce marvellous solutions that are transferred from Oxford to other plants.
You’ve been at MINI Oxford for almost four years. What do you see as the future of the UK automotive industry?
If the British car industry keeps its flexibility, then there are very good opportunities. It must find ways to produce new models and be competitive; to be flexible and react to the demands of customers with new variants.
I really don’t think that there is a big gap between the UK and other countries. We’re manufacturing in Western Europe, so what I always say to my people – not only here, but also in Germany – is that the workforce is more expensive than in Eastern Europe and China.
The more we cost, the more effective we must be, the better we must be, and the more flexible we must be. Quality and flexibility is the big advantage of the Western European automotive industry, and in my opinion, there is no lack of opportunities for the British car manufacturing industry.
If you look to the future, what would you say are the things that the British car industry needs to be most careful about, where are the problems?
I have to find the right words. Perhaps, there is a bit of a lack of focus on the sector – and industry in general. Anecdotally, when I talk to younger people and neighbours, I can see there is a pull towards finance, banks and medicine – less to industry. It’s as if industry has a bit of ‘smell’… the false perception of a dirty-hands job.
For me, the biggest challenge for the industry is a lack of people with the right skills necessary to grow the sector. If I could fix one problem, then top of my list for British manufacturing would be more people doing apprenticeships and degrees in engineering.
If you talked to your neighbours in Munich, to their children, would you get the same answer?
It is a bit different. We do tend to have a little more of a technical outlook, but this is also fading in Germany. We face similar problems and if you examine what is being studied in school, then subjects like mathematics, physics and chemistry are down on past years. So overall, my impression is that we are not that different.
It was very encouraging to hear that MINI Oxford will make the electric MINI, but will Brexit be a challenge?
I’m the MINI plant director of assembly, not a BMW strategist, but I can say this. We want to be prepared for all eventualities, we’re not going to just wait and see what happens in March 2019. We’ll do everything we can to be ready – we don’t want any surprises and we’ll create a box of solutions for different scenarios as the negotiations progress.
At the moment, 90% of the parts being assembled in the MINI don’t have to go through a tariff procedure; so, it’s easy to bring parts in and send cars out. This is obviously an advantage, but it’s not just a question of money (the tariffs), it’s also the procedures behind the tariffs.
Once you have paperwork to do, you need to have higher stock levels because of the time it takes to work through bureaucracy. That is just one example, and it’s very important we keep focused on such details.
From your personal experience, what’s it like being a German engineer in a British factory? What are the pluses and what are the challenges?
The real challenge is the football! That aside, what I really like here is the power and the passion, the willingness to change things in a positive way. I’d probably find ‘change’ a bit more difficult in a German plant. Because there, once a process is successful the attitude is, ‘We are successful, why should we change?’. But here, there is openness, ‘Yes, let’s get even better’, which is fantastic to witness. That’s why we are successful here in Oxford, in Britain.