Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Industrial Visit - BMW, Munich

BMW (Bayerische Motoren Werke AG) is one of the leading German manufacturers of automobiles and motorcycles. BMW also owns the Mini and Rolls-Royce car brands. It has its beginnings in 1913 and was also involved with building airplane engines during the World Wars.
BMW is one of the best known car brands in the world known for their high quality and safety standards. Hence, they are able to afford a delivery time of 4-8 weeks in this competitive world and even use it as a marketing tool to showcase their brand value.
The Munich plant is one of BMW’s oldest and is right across the road from its corporate headquarters. As part of our industrial visit, we were taken many shops including welding, painting and assembly. All the shops except the final assembly were heavily automated. The level of automation reached by the BMW plant is mind-boggling. BMW customers are allowed to customize their products over the internet or through dealers. This means that every car in the BMW assembly line could be different from the next one. BMW is able use techniques of mass production with the help of RFID tags. These tags communicate with the machines in all the shops and inform them how exactly it has to be processed.
It all starts with rolls of steel sheets being brought in from the suppliers. These sheets are cut and bent into various parts of the car’s body. These parts are placed together and welded almost completely by robots with workers needed mainly to overlook the process.
The body frame is then passed through the painting shop. Each car goes through four rounds of painting. The frame is first immersed into a tank of paint which acts as an anti-oxidant. The second coating consists of a base color over which the actual color is sprayed. The last coating of paint is the one which gives the cars their glossy shine. The body has to spend quite a while in the paint shop as it takes time to dry.
Parallely, the engine is machined and assembled in the engine shop. It is then tested at no-load and full-load and boarded onto the respective chassis. In the final assembly shop, the chassis is then matched to its body frame using RFID tags and fastened together.
After the assembly, the cars are pretty much read for the road. But the vehicle is driven for an equivalent of 3000 km in order to test it thoroughly and also to ensure smoother driving for the customer.
An important aspect that was visible in Europe in general and BMW in particular was the importance given to human capital management. BMW makes all possible effort to reduce any physical or mental stress on the employees. The employees are rotated from job to another in order to remove monotony. All automations are designed by keeping in mind the comfort of the employee. For example, the entire vehicle is upturned during some sections of the final assembly so that the employee can work in a more ergonomic position. All such measures do tend to keep job satisfaction high. And besides that, it also ensures that the product is of higher quality and there are lesser chances of failure or rejections. This, according to the BMW management, makes all such measures worthwhile in the long run.
One of BMW’s competitive advantages is its very strong research and design focus. Besides designing the cars, they also come up with important innovations in production techniques (some of which have come up in collaboration with Japanese companies) which have enabled them to maintain their premium quality

Based on an industrial visit to BMW, Munich by Charan Nallapa Reddy, PGP22, IIM Lucknow, as part of his Exchange programme to the University of St. Gallen, Switzerland

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