For as much BMW as there is in the MINI, there is an undeniably strong English influence. This influence is imbued in each and every car by the hard working staff at BMW Plant Oxford, the manufacturing facility for all MINIs save for the Countryman (produced by Magna-Steyr in Austria) and the limited edition 2006 JCW GP (Assembled from Oxford-made bodies by Bertone in Italy). Located a short distance from Oxford proper in Cowley, this facility has a long history of manufacturing.
I arrived about a half-hour early for the factory tour. According to directions sent me by MINI, it was but a bus ride away from the town center of Oxford. Waiting at the visitor center in a large brick building was our guide, John Strange. John was an extremely knowledgable guide who wasn’t afraid to answer any and all questions. As our tour group trickled in, we all donned small radios to hear John’s narration, black waistcoats bearing the MINI logo and safety goggles. Unfortunately for me, photography was strictly prohibited and so I stowed my camera in a locker. A quick show of hands revealed that about one half of the tour was made up of MINI owners. The tour officially started at 6 PM.
Once we were all suited and ready to go, we boarded a small bus for a quick jaunt to the assembly line building. One the way, John informed us that the plant was something of a ‘MINI village’, with its own fire department and doctor’s office. Popping off the bus, we were led into the belly of the beast. The first thing that I was confronted with was a large diagram of the assembly line to the right and the rotary sling system to the left. It took a second for it to set in that this is someone’s MINI going by, and this is where my car was made!
John stressed that the main job of the equipment in the assembly line is to take stress off of the human employees. This emphasis on ergonomics became clear when we made our way to the line where wiring harnesses, sunroofs and dashboard assemblies were being installed in painted cars. It is because of the assistance of machinery that the assembly line workers are able to complete around 53 cars per hour. The running tally was kept in the building on a LED sign mounted to the ceiling. The assembly line employees, John noted, run shifts of 11 hours. We were watching the 5 PM to 4 AM shift. In order to make the job less tedious, each employee works in a small team and is trained to do 6 different jobs. The tremendous demand for MINI R56 vehicles means that the regular 5-day workweek just won’t cut it and workers receive overtime for working Saturdays.
The workers skillfully went about their jobs but a few feet from where I was standing. This was no Universal Studios-type tour with a safe margin between those on the tour and the action but instead we were mere feet away from cars set to be shipped to one of MINI’s 84 countries. Each vehicle is tracked throughout the process with a bright-orange transponder stuck to the hood and a build label. The wooden floor on this assembly line, John said, was in order to diffuse stress on the employees’ lower bodies as they walk back and forth for hours on end. Additionally, part-filled ‘supermarket trolleys’ were wheeled from car to car in order to cut down on walking off of the assembly line retrieve parts.
An essential part of the MINI experience is the customization aspect. With cars being made to order, no car is just an ordinary MINI. This requires a large amount of logistics, taken care of by logistics experts Rudolph & Hellman. It is because of their input that cars are matched up with the right body kit, engine, interior options etc. And given the diverse sources of parts that go into any given MINI it’s important that everything is sorted properly before assembly.
John was eager to show us how a sunroof is installed in a car. Complex robots designed by Grohmann use a series of optical sensors to line up and install the sunroof unit, mating up 18 bolts simultaneously with the body. The entire operation takes around 45 seconds. A second, similar looking robot checks tolerances to make sure the sunroof was properly installed.
The last area of the assembly line we checked out was seat installation, wheel installation and final QA check. The cars are driven off of the line under their own power. Diesel cars (around 25% of the cars sold today) are primed before they are started. 10% of cars are randomly selected for a quick test drive either on the adjoining test track or around Oxford. As we left the plant, I noted a pair of camouflaged facelift cars, identifiable due to their unique side strakes. Also, as we were leaving, I spotted a trolley full of LED taillights heading somewhere. Given this was in July, preparations were obviously being made for the changed cars’ production.
Next on the tour, we were taken to the body shop. The body shop runs 24/7 because it is primarily full of robots. However, robots need r&r occasionally, too. The large building houses 600 robots, with 90 human employees responsible for loading and performing the critical maintenance of the robotic workers at regular intervals. One fact that boggled my mind is that the details of each vehicle are known even at pressing. That means that every car is specced and built custom with a certain destination in mind not just at time of painting but even before the sheet metal takes shape. Astounding.
Just like the tour of the assembly line, we were right there next to the action. Sparks were flying, robots were quickly making spot welds and crimps in metal, swiveling every which way but loose. In a large cage inside the body shop are the master copies of each vehicle model. These are the cars to which all other cars are held to. If there is any disagreement of how a certain body panel or stamping was supposed to look, it’s compared to these master copies. Because of its longer wheelbase and unique rear doors and roof, the Clubman has its own line in the body shop where around 120 cars per day are put out.
And with that, our tour was over. But, before we left, I had a chance to ask about the future plans for the plant. According to a few helpful employees, the next change happening in the factory is preparation for ‘Project Gambia’– the arrival of the CoupÃ© and Roadster twins. The main change being to the auto-glazing machine (the robots which install the windshields) due to the increased rake on these unique models. A disused line in the body shop was already shut down and awaiting retrofit for the twins come the 3-week break during the holiday season. Next up is an expansion of the body shop in 2013/14, and a new press shop perhaps being built in 2014.
With the length of the tour being nearly 3 hours, I could practically write a book from the notes I took. However, this is an experience not to be missed by anyone who loves automobiles. To book your Plant Oxford tour, send an email to their tour department. And, please say ‘hi’ to John Strange if you are so lucky to have him as your host.