Watching the robots: an inspiring visit to the BMW Mini-Factory
The pandemic has impacted many aspects of our lives and I can’t wait for the eventual return to some kind of normality when we can once again do those things we miss. I’m particularly looking forward to being able to go out and about and visit interesting places – the time when we could do this seems like a very long time ago.
Just before lockdown hit, one of the best things I did was take a guided tour of the BMW Mini factory near Oxford in the UK. Here, BMW produces models of the Mini car in a very high-tech environment; you get to walk around the whole factory for a couple of hours, witnessing the mind-boggling automation and fascinating robotics in action. This trip also made me reflect on some of the differences between factory automation and the digital workplace focused on collaboration.
The mysterious production line
The factory holds special significance for me. As a child we used to drive up to my aunt’s house from London to Abingdon and would pass under a mysterious bridge over the road that connected parts of the factory and silhouetted the production line; a line of indistinct shadows that may or may not have been cars. Perhaps the extent of my curiosity wasn’t quite up to that of Charlie’s with the chocolate factory, but I was always very intrigued. What did that production line look like? Were there really robots?
There is something fascinating about seeing factory automation in process. It is genuinely exciting to see 1,200 robots working over two different levels in a hangar roughly 17 times the size of a football pitch.
A robot next to you moves gracefully as it welds two parts of a chassis together, occasionally causing a flurry of sparks. A line of cars-in-progress travels directly above you, while another line of parts rise from floor to ceiling across the way. A robot arm moves and turns at breakneck speed and then suddenly switches to perform a delicate twist of the arm, gently and slowly, then repeats the same operation – again and again and again. Fast to slow. Twist. Sparks. Fast to slow. Twist. Sparks. A parade of small semi-autonomous vehicles buzz around, eagerly delivering spare parts to the appropriate part of the factory. There are things happening above you, next to you and sometimes below you; it is a truly mesmerizing experience.
While the core automation and robots deal more with building the chassis and body of the car, in the second half of the tour you see the final stages of the production line, where adding different parts to the car is far more intricate, involving many more humans. Here, people and machinery work together until eventually each car reaches the chequered flag that humorously marks the end of the production line; that car has made it to the end of the production race, ready to be driven away to its new home.
Image courtesy of BMW Group: Human-robot collaboration in the axle drive assembly, BMW Group Plant Dingolfing
The tour is also of interest from a professional perspective and, with my “DWG” hat on, it made me reflect on how different the world of factory automation is to that of the digital workplace. The evening after the tour, I scribbled down a few observations and this article is based on those.
1. Factory automation and the digital workplace require a completely different mindset
On the tour it consistently struck me how factory automation is such a very different beast to the digital workplace. In the factory, everything must work seamlessly together in a coordinated fashion – it is fundamentally a machine, a system – while the digital workplace involves overlapping functionality and often rather vague processes. In the factory, every possible redundancy is removed and efficiency maximized, but the “human” factor in the digital workplace means there is choice and this always presents a potentially complicating factor when it comes to productivity. Is there room to apply more of the factory mindset to the digital workplace? And if so, would we want to do that?
2. There is testing everywhere
At multiple stages of the processes within the factory, detailed testing takes place to ensure product safety and quality; this is a key part of the production process. When you see yet another piece of machinery swing into action to perform its specific test on a sample of the car bodies progressing through the production line, it strikes you that this is an approach that is not always applied to digital workplace processes – although we do have people approving things and spellcheckers. Is there any way we could use automation to test different elements of digital workplace processes or samples of output that would be more efficient than, say, human-driven approvals and workflows?
3. There is contingency everywhere
The whole of the factory production process is built around making sure there is absolute continuity, with contingency built in at every stage to ensure that if a part of the production process breaks down due to machine failure it doesn’t mean the rest of the production line grinds to a halt. This enables productivity to remain at optimum levels.
For example, there is a surplus of the cars-in-progress at each stage of the process, waiting to move on to the next stage of production. These are used up if the previous part of the process fails, helping to ensure that everything keeps moving and the output is not impacted. Even if the whole of the fully automated part of the production plant were to fail during the day, there would still be enough cars to move to the paint shop and the latter parts of the process, and the factory would stay productive for that full day.
This relentless approach to efficiency and keeping operations going is rarely seen in the digital workplace, where bottlenecks in workflow are commonplace. Nobody approaches digital workplace processes with contingency in mind, although employees will always have other things they can get on with.
4. There is no stock and the assembly line handles all the variation
One amazing element of the factory is that everything is made to order. There is no stockpile of cars that have been manufactured. Every car created on the production line already has a destination and a place to go. This is enabled by the way the production line and the robots can seamlessly handle all the variations in models and market requirements, meaning the factory is incredibly efficient in its operations.
Other factories, for example, often produce different model variations in batches – for example, automatic vs manual, left hand vs right hand drive, five-seater vs seven-seater, even electric and non-electric – and then need a place to park the stock. But at the BMW factory, each variation is handled by the automation, so a blue automatic model with a particular set of wheels intended for the US market may be directly followed by a green electric car destined for the UK. The robots even pick up the right tool for whatever is the next car on the production line, and the people involved also need to add the right parts as well.
To me this is pretty amazing. When we design digital workplace processes and workflows, do we ever think about the variations we need and build them into the way we design the process?
5. In the people section there are efficiency reminders everywhere
In the second part of the factory tour, there are fewer robots and more people working on the production line. Some of the work is quite manual, involving fetching parts and fitting them to the cars as they pass through the production line. It was interesting to see posters, charts and whiteboards all around the place, with efficiency reminders relating to KPIs, process efficiency, and more. Health and safety is also very prevalent. With perhaps the exception of a call centre, you would rarely see reminders in an office telling people to be more productive in this way.
6. There are interesting visual cues
Another thing I was particularly impressed to notice is that, despite all the high tech around, there were also some very simple low-tech practices to help drive efficiency on the production line.
One of these was the use of simple pictorial clues to indicate which part a person needs to select to add to the next car; these parts vary from car to car as each model is slightly different as explained above. A digital sign indicates the model and type of car that is coming up next, displaying a picture of maybe an animal, vegetable or object to indicate the correct part to be used. The person can then pick up the part marked with the corresponding image from the shelf.
An even more low-tech approach was using what looked like a large yellow post-it note to notify where an issue on a car had been spotted and needed addressing further down the production line. It seems that sometimes simple visual clues and approaches work best.
7. People get moved around different parts of the factory
Another interesting aside learned on the tour was that people on the production line get moved around the various parts of the factory. If I remember correctly, this serves a number of different purposes including making for a more interesting working day, ensuring there are experienced people who can fulfil a role or answer questions, and so on.
8. Everything has to work like clockwork
As we progressed along the tour, it was quite striking to witness the extent to which everything just works like clockwork. Some parts that are specific to each individual model are produced outside the factory and we watched as these duly arrived on a delivery vehicle at exactly the right time to be ready for each specific area of the product line. Again, this provides a very different perspective on the power of automation and the logistics involved when everything is connected into one system.
9. The robots that interact with humans are the most expensive
Even though there are more than 1,000 robots, most of them are actually the same model, just programmed to do different things. In addition, there are some more experimental robots that interact with the humans, working alongside them on the same tasks. Here, the actions of the robot may be dependent on actions of the human. This is an area where BMW was experimenting and I found it surprising that, even though the robots involved were much smaller and looked less sophisticated than their bigger factory-floor cousins, they were considerably more expensive. It feels as if the interaction between robot and human in the workplace is going to be a topic we will be exploring more and more, based on these experiments already happening in factories.
Visiting the factory
I loved my factory visit. Unfortunately, the tours are currently on hold because of the current situation relating to COVID-19 but I hope they will resume at some stage. Recommended!
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Categorised in: Artificial intelligence and automation, Future of work