Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Take-aways from KIN Innovation site visit to BMW MINI production plant, Oxford

Eleven KIN members had a fascinating visit to the MINI production facility on 24th April.

We had planned to spend about 2 hours on a private tour of the MINI body shell assembly and assembly halls. It was so fascinating and we had so many questions we spent nearly 3 hours! Our guide Leonel was hugely knowledgeable, having worked in almost all areas of the factory. He gave us an insider's perspective about innovation and work practices. Everyone was invited to make a note during the tour of their lightbulb moments on a KIN 'ah-ha' sheet.

The bodyshell assembly hall is 90% automated. Hundreds of huge robots, clustered in protective 'cells' work completely autonomously, welding, pressing and riveting panels. Conveyors pass semi-completed assemblies between cells and overhead to upper floors. Interestingly the line is not linear, allowing flexibility in configuration. It was difficult to get a sense of the production flow by looking at the layout, but it only needs to make sense to the robots, not humans! The robots maintain themselves, with 'slaves' sharpening arc welders, switching tool assemblies and calling for parts refills. The few humans here were driving fork-lift trucks and feeding the robots' insatiable appetite for materials. 

One of the most impressive factors is that the line handles three entirely different model types simultaneously. As all MINIs are all built to order (6 week lead time), no single car is the same. There are hundreds of thousands of model variants. This means that the robot arms switch tools according to whichever model is coming through at that time. We asked Leonel about the ethics of the human jobs that could be created were it not for robotics. He pointed out that when BMW bought MINI, 2000 people were employed at the plant; there are now 5000. This is only possible due to the vast volume increase in production and speed that automation allows. The plant produces 700 vehicles a day, shipped out on 2 trains per day, mainly for export from Southampton. It takes just 36 hours to produce a single vehicle.

They are currently working on incorporating the electric MINI into the production line - a huge change that will require a 4 week downtime over the summer.

The final assembly hall had many more staff, as the fitting of parts is more intricate. Even so, robotics and human assistive automation is still present. For example, worker strain is alleviated by the vehicle being raised or lowered according to which part of the vehicle is being worked on and even the height of the individual. Whilst the workers were very fast, there didn't seem to be any apparent stress. Individuals are moved around the entire facility, working on different aspects of the vehicle assembly on different days. The reasons are:

  • Breaks monotony
  • Flexibility in resource assignment
  • Avoids repetitive strain injury
  • Most importantly, gives a sense of pride in the finished product (continuously working on a single part gives no sense of pride in the product as a whole). 

Interestingly the teams all take their breaks at the same time. As the entire production line comes to a halt, we queried why, as output is significantly affected? The answer is that it's difficult for the teams to talk when on the line, so the social aspects are important. Also keeping the line running during breaks would require another shift. Training takes place in dedicated stations alongside the production like. We saw lots of examples of problem root cause analysis, many using Ishikawa Fish Bone diagrams. One workstation had a process improvement board on which we spotted that the quality target improvement was 0.002%! It was noticeable that there were very few women on the production line. To be honest, the response that most women don't like the shift patterns or take back office roles, was rather unconvincing.

At the end of the tour over lunch, everyone was invited to share their top lightbulb moment from their KIN 'ah-ha' sheets.
Here is a summary:

  • Rotating jobs relieves monotony and improves productivity
  • Live data is displayed on big monitors for everyone to see
  • Every employee is empowered to place a yellow 'fault' sticker on any part of a vehicle at any time if they spot a cosmetic problem (significant or mechanical quality problems are addressed immediately on the line)
  • Standardisation is an evident obsession 
  • As is quality - there was not a speck of dirt anywhere
  • The production process has a distinct 'playlist', but allows significant flexibility
  • The customer comes first and foremost - for example the degree of customisation possible is huge (the antithesis of Henry Ford's 'any colour as long as it's black')
  • Process improvement whiteboards and flipcharts everywhere 
  • Training takes place right alongside the production line
  • Lots of know-how sharing with partners (whilst we were there we saw BMW engineers around and parts suppliers have staff actually in the production area)
  • Difficult for workers to share and communicate, except in breaks, especially in the body shell assembly facility ('where is the heartbeat of the place?')
  • Preventative maintenance, not fix!
  • Attention to detail (eg female ostrich feathers for cleaning, 0.002% targets)
  • A 7 second improvement on the line can mean an extra couple of vehicles per day
  • All assembly line staff take their breaks together - helps team communication and bonding
  • There can be 'too much tech' - the customer is a person not a robot! This came up when Leonel told us that they had experimented with paintwork quality control camera imagery that could spot imperfections that were impossible for the human eye to detect. They took the cameras out.
  • Use of image visualisation for fast identification of parts in bins (eg snowflake or flower)
  • Change and process improvement is not just about productivity, but worker satisfaction
  • Incremental innovation within an overall MINI design ethos. For example, the rear light reflector configuration of the latest MINI has the pattern of half of the Union flag. The brand is very powerful.

You can continue the conversation and feedback on the KIN LinkedIn group here.

For more on what really motivates workers, listen to this recent TED Radio Hour podcast. Highly recommended!

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