Our friend Helmut works for BMW – so a visit to their house was definitely going to include a plant visit. What I didn’t expect to find was an organized touring schedule – replete with packaged video’s, museum quality audio projection system for the tour guide, and naturally – a up close and personal visit with your friendly robots! But BMW sees plant tours as a marketing tour – and packages them accordingly. Unlike Porsche, which wanted over $700 to do a plant tour – the BMW tours are reasonable, which explains why they were complete booked the day we went. Thank goodness for reservations.
Anyway – the tour. You begin at the BMW welt – a specially designed massive building part of which is shaped like 2 stacked cones.
Inside the glass doors are several huge areas devoted to various BMW product lines – there’s a section for the mini, there’s a ‘junior’ world exhibit to keep kids entertained (and informed), and on the 2nd floor – the personal car pick-up zone. If you come to Munich to take possession of your new car – you can expect only the best! A private dining room, your car presented on its own rotating platform, and then a personal ‘road’ out of the Welt and onto the streets of Munich. Nice.
For the average Soup Lady and friends – there’s a cafe offering drinks and light meals, a BMW life-style shop, a motorcycle demo which had the helmeted rider going up and down huge staircases, and the plant tour. The tour starts with a nicely produced video of the history of BMW, including an apology for using forced labor during WWII. Then a quick safety lecture (no walking outside the yellow lines, no pictures, no cell phones, no leaving the group), and we’re off.
The sprawling plant was originally built far from the city center, but the city of Munich has grown around it. There’s now a metro station right at the entrance – and across the street are the left-over buildings of the 1972 Olympics. Surrounded on all sides by housing, shops, and streets, the BMW plant blends into its surroundings, hidden in plain view.
Our tour takes us into the starting point of every BMW vehicle – the press room. Huge automated presses take flat steel and create the frames of the cars. These frames are then transported to huge rooms filled with Robots that pick up each piece, identify the type of car to be built, and then glue or bolt or spot weld the frames together.
The Munich plant only makes 3 types of BMW cars – the 3 series coupe and wagon, and the 4 series coupe. That means only 2 basic body types – but lots of options for paint color, engine, and interior. And every car is pre-sold! So each car – starting at the press room – is already pre-defined for its final look. The task is to make this happen without stopping between the steps.
Once the humanoid acting robots do the spot welding, the frames go to the body shop for their paint jobs. Robot ‘artists’ open the doors, spray on the multiple coats of paint, all while the cars are slowly moving continuously thru the plant. Attached to each frame is a transponder telling the robots what type of car, what color, what finishing needs to be done. The robots just follow the directions.
After painting, the cars spend several hours drying before the electronics, the seats, the dashboards, the chrome is carefully attached. As each car is pulled from the drying room – it joins an endless parade of cars – each being assembled. In the electronics section, there is a human ballet happening. Co-workers are assigned multi-function positions, and they rotate around the cars, standing on the conveyor belt so that they are standing still relative to the moving cars. The gas tanks are added, the padding inserted, the electronics attached. After each group of steps, a photograph is taken, and compared by both human and computer to the ‘model’. Any variation from the model is flagged – and the car removed from the assembly line for ‘repair’. Our guide explains that the system is so good that days can go by without a single car flagged for a ‘fix’.
We couldn’t tour the engine assembly room (the tour section is under renovation), but we did get to watch seats being assembled and put into moving baskets that would join up with the car assembly line just as the car for which they were intended made its appearance. Cool, eh?
It takes approximately 40 hours from rolled steel to finished car – as long as there is no problem on the line. When the cars roll off the line they are either loaded onto a train, or onto a truck for ‘local’ delivery. ‘Local’ includes the personal pick-up – but a truck is required because the cars must cross a road – and there would be too many individual cars.
We end up back where we started – having walked about 3 km around the plant.
Awesome tour – great robots – and naturally – now I really want to buy a BMW. Guess the marketing worked!