LEIPZIG, Germany -- BMW's new assembly plant here has become the automaker's most productive after only five months.
The Leipzig plant's productivity is more than 20 percent higher than BMW's other plants, the company says. It reached this performance by using several modern manufacturing strategies.
l Grouping workers into teams. Each member is trained to perform every task in the team's area of responsibility
l Using non-BMW workers to move materials from delivery trucks and storage areas to the assembly line
l Designing the plant so that suppliers deliver their components to the assembly line at the point where they will be installed.
The site also includes a supplier center next to the assembly plant. There, suppliers assemble modules such as the cockpit, seats and front assembly in sequence with the assembly line.
The modules are moved to the line via a conveyor that passes through a 9-meter-high bridge to connect the supplier center and assembly plant.
"We are outsourcing more at Leipzig than BMW has done at its other plants to check out what makes sense," said Nikolaus Bauer, director of logistics and information technology at the plant. "It's the strategy that Leipzig takes the first step and feeds back its experience into the group network."
New plan for teamwork
BMW uses teams of workers in the body shops of its other plants. But workers in the Leipzig body shop, where 500 robots do 97 percent of all the welds on a vehicle, follow a different plan.
In other BMW plants, body shop workers are grouped in teams where each member has a single role. A typical team would include
10 production operators, three quality specialists, three for logistics tasks and six for maintenance jobs.
In Leipzig, all members are trained to perform any of the team's tasks. The result is a considerable improvement in productivity, said Günther Benz, director of body in white.
"In a multidiscipline team, the maintenance specialists have little to do when the equipment is running normally and they are often underemployed," Benz said.
The body shop teams assign responsibilities among themselves.
The plant is now staffed for a capacity of 500 units a day of the 3-series sedan. When output exceeds this level, the plant will hire temporary workers as required, Benz said.
The plant's maximum capacity is 650 units a day or 160,000 a year. BMW expects to reach that level in 2006 or 2007. At that point, the plant will have about 5,500 workers on two shifts. The paint shop would have to run on three shifts to match the assembly line capacity.
Leipzig's body shop is identical to the body shops at BMW's plants in Munich and Regensburg, Germany, which also build the 3 series. Regensburg supplies doors and hoods to Leipzig. Small welded subassemblies come from Munich.
BMW's plants in Munich, Regens-burg and Dingolfing, Germany, supply most of the stampings for production in Leipzig, particularly the major Class A surface panels. The remainder comes from Tower Automotive, which has established a stamping facility nearby in Zwickau, Germany.
The Leipzig plant could have its own stamping shop in the future -- an unused area of land adjacent to the body shop has been earmarked for it.
"With three plants making the same model, we don't need our own press shop at the moment," Benz said.
Suppliers lend a hand
BMW and supplier workers are side by side in Leipzig.
Five suppliers have rented space in two supply centers next to the plant. Modules are assembled in sequence with the assembly line.
For the first time, BMW has contracted out all logistics work at of one of its plants.
Three companies share the task:
Leipzig will have about 160 Schenker employees working in it once full capacity is reached. They work on the assembly line and in the supply centers.
Wearing blue clothes, in contrast to BMW workers' grey uniforms, Schenker employees restock parts bins on the assembly line.
The line runners use an electronic kanban system to track parts. Each worker keeps 20 assembly stations supplied with parts. They use laser pens to scan bar codes on containers to send an order for more parts.
BMW is using a lot of automation to move parts around the plant. A fleet of 74 automated guided vehicles brings containers of parts from storage in the supply centers to the assembly line -- a distance of about 140 meters.
Elevators in the conveyor bridge that connects the supply centers to the assembly plant enable the automated vehicles to make the trip.
BMW does not permit forklifts in the Leipzig assembly plant because they are too loud.
"You can't expect the team members on the line to work with concentration in that kind of environment," says Bauer, the director of logistics.
Bauer said the amount of automation has been a challenge.
"It was quite strenuous to synchronize the automation," he said. "All innovation is difficult because of the risks you take and the need to convince everyone that it is worthwhile to take them."
Some suppliers deliver their components almost directly to the assembly line. The plant was designed with a series of loading docks, so that parts are unloaded no farther than 7 meters from where they are needed.
Designed for growth
The Leipzig plant was designed with flexibility and expansion in mind.
Spare space alongside the body, paint and assembly shop means all could be doubled in size.
On the assembly line, a universal pallet with common location points below and model-specific positioning points above will make it easy to add another model.
That new model is likely to be the 1 series entry-premium car, the vehicle that Leipzig first used to test out its plant before the new 3 series was available. The vehicles share much of their platforms.
Also, Magnetto, an Italian supplier of welded subassemblies, has established a plant close to Leipzig.
That plant builds hoods and deck lids for the 1 series, which is now made in Regensburg alongside the new 3 series.
The 3-series launch at the Leipzig plant has been BMW's best ever, said Gerhard Schlager, director of quality management.
"Compared with other launches, we have achieved 50 percent fewer faults per vehicle and we are recording far better process capability measures than we had in the past," he said.
Schlager credits early simulation of the production processes and more rigid procedures for the improvement.
"In the past, we sometimes allowed problems encountered in development stages to be transferred to manufacturing and then had to solve them during the vehicle launch," Schlager said.
"That cannot happen now," he said. "In every phase of the development process, all the problems have to be solved."
As the Leipzig plant heads toward full capacity, Schlager is focusing on his suppliers.
"They have their own targets, their own financial considerations," he said. "They are improving their processes but not always as we would like to see it from a quality point of view. This is the biggest risk."
In response, Schlager has moved a team of specialized engineers that worked closely with suppliers on product and process issues to the assembly line. Troubles with parts show up quickly on the line.
Schlager said: "If we give assembly this engineering capability, then they can very quickly operate the problem resolution process."