Assembling Market-Winning Strategies into Car Production

By T Murrali

 Market is the driver for auto industry. A car is more than a utility. It is also the life style statement of an individual and often of a family. Cost is the deterrent. Combining luxury and style with lower cost has been the never-ending challenge of the car makers. The reach of this challenge, confined earlier to the entry and mid-level cars, is stretching out to the premium segments too. The enormity of the challenge becomes exasperating. Innovative companies like BMW invent strategies, like increasing the local content, to face the challenge and win the race.

 BMW 1Manufacturing is an integral part of the BMW Group Production Network that includes 30 sites in 14 countries on four continents. The integration of production and logistics systems within the individual BMW Group location, to form an international production network, is a strategy in favour of the customer.

The group also operates with Completely Knocked Down (CKD) kits and assemble vehicles using imported and locally- produced components. The Chennai plant of the group is similar to the Rayong plant in Thailand, following CKD path. The group’s plants in Indonesia, Egypt, Russia and Malaysia work in cooperation with external partners.

Here’s the flavour of the Chennai Plant of BMW India. The strategic localisation process was opened by the jewel of Indian cricket, Sachin Tendulkar, recently, by fixing a made-in-India powertrain on to the 5-series car.

The Chennai Plant

BMW Plant Chennai, in a 47-acre plot at Mahindra World City, started its manufacturing operations in March 2007. The plant has grown to a level to make up to eight car models on its two assembly lines. In a year about 14,000 cars are made here with a workforce of 550 people. It has a training centre, a crèche, a fitness centre and a medical centre. At present the BMW 1 Series, the BMW 3 Series, the BMW 3 Series Gran Turismo, the BMW 5 Series, the BMW 7 Series, the BMW X1, the BMW X3 and the BMW X5 are produced here.

The factory follows a well-laid out process adapted by BMW across the globe to ensure quality. However, the process sequence for the Chennai plant is specially designed to suit the models assembled here with the imported shells. The painted body of every model of the car assembled by BMW in Chennai is imported from its global plants.

Rework Facility

Initially, the imported shells reach the rework facility to detect possible paint defects in transit. The rework unit also receives cars from the assembly lines if they have any defect. This facility undertakes re-spraying of paint, spot repairs, touch-up and polishing based on the defects. It uses solid and metallic paints that are sourced from BASF. So far the plant has handled over 40 colours for the two brands, the BMW and the MINI. After inspection the shell is moved to the assembly lines.

3Assembly Lines

The Chennai plant has two identical assembly lines for different models. Both the lines are flexible and can assemble any model made by any BMW plant. Each assembly line has 35 stations with a minimum TAKT time of 30 minutes depending on the models. TAKT is derived from the German word, Taktzeit and TAKT time is the rate at which products or services should be produced to meet the customer demand.

Trim Line

The shells, coming out of the rework facility after thorough inspection, first go to the trim line; and at the first station the VIN – Vehicle Identification Number- is punched. This is followed by adjustment of trunk lid and bonnet. In the following station some major parts are assembled in addition to aligning the sunroof. Later wiring harness is incorporated in the shell. To facilitate putting together of the fuel tank / lines, brake lines and other under- body parts the shell of the car is tilted at the fourth station of the trim line. By this way the system takes care of the ergonomics of the operators.

4At station number five, floor carpet and upholstery are laid. In the next station battery, headliner, sun wiser are assembled. Assembling tail lamp and engine room processing are carried out in the following station. The cockpit that comes from the sub-assembly station, goes into the car at the next station. Centre console and foot wall (controls like clutch/brake/accelerator pedals) panel are assembled before the car goes to the station to get the front and rear windshields assembled.

The second last station gets the rear seats into the car. At the final station of the trim line the front seats and doors that come from sub-assembly area are fixed. While at the trim line the car is moved by a ground-level conveyor, it is taken to the overhead line for assembling different modules under the shell including axles, powertrain, exhaust, front-end module with headlamps, bumper, wheels, under-body covers. Later the car is unloaded to the final line process.

Final Line

At the final line the car is filled with consumables like coolant oil, brake fluid besides, charging air-conditioners. The coding process for all the electronic parts is done here. The final setting of doors, bonnet and trunk lids are done here. Finally the car is sent for wheel alignment.

BMW 2Audit Bay

At the audit bay, auditors look at the select samples of cars that leave the plant for quality aspects and customers’ perspectives. They are trained by experts from Germany, who train auditors at BMW’s plants across the globe. Every year the auditors are certified twice based on their training. The standards that BMW follow are derived from market research and the understanding of the customers’ expectations. The quality of a BMW car made in any plant anywhere in the world will be the same.

At the Chennai plant, BMW makes 40 to 50 cars a day. The audit team takes randomly selected seven to nine cars to the audit bay. Here the cars are assessed on two aspects – aesthetics and functionality; they look for scratches, gap lines, parallelism of panels, flushness and how light shines on the paint work. The car is evaluated for any paint-related potential damage. The auditing of the interiors, including evaluation of the smell in the cabin, which is largely subjective, is considered to be very important. The leather used in the car should have a unique smell. The auditors check whether every car has the same, stipulated smell inside the cabin; they also check if the doors make the same sound when closing and opening.

The defects detected at the audit bay are referred to the problem-solving teams daily. Besides, they are also sent to the ‘quality forum’ that has representatives of the departments responsible for assembling the cars. The auditors also check if there is any repetition of the same issue. These initiatives ensure stability in the quality of the production facility.

5Dynamic Test

Here the auditors look at the water tightness of the car, rattles and squeaks while driving on a corrugated surface or cobble stones. They also check the functionality of the car; all the electrically operated systems in the car is checked. Every model has a tolerance level set by the company and the auditors ensure these are in conformity with the standards. They count the defects and measure their severity.

Once the car is test-driven on the test-track in the factory premises, it goes for water test and to ‘finishing process,’ where the logo is fixed. Every car goes for the final inspection and is moved to Vehicle Despatch Centre to be sent to the dealers.

6Increased Localisation

BMW India recently made a new start in assembling its car in the Chennai plant. The local content of components which was only 22 per cent two years ago in value terms was raised to 50 per cent. The locally-produced components include engine and transmission from Force Motors, axles from ZF Hero Chassis, door panels and wiring harness from Draexlmaier India, exhaust systems from Tenneco Automotive India, Heating, Ventilating, Air-conditioning and Cooling Modules from Valeo India and Mahle Behr, and seats from Lear India.

7Robert Frittrang, Managing Director, BMW Plant Chennai, said, the plant takes pride in producing cars that have the same international quality standards as any of the BMW production and assembly facility worldwide. Highly- skilled employees, advanced manufacturing processes along with state-of-the-art machinery and technology provide all the necessary ingredients to achieve these tough standards. The cars produced here have very strong local content. “We are confident that through our partnerships with the Indian auto component suppliers, we will set even higher benchmarks in quality standards and supply chain management,” he said.

Waste management is a key area at BMW Chennai as 99.5 percent of all the waste generated at the plant during the production process is disposed of in an eco-friendly manner. The plant has solar generators that support about six percent of its energy requirements. It has plans to increase the clean energy sources by installing solar panels on the factory roof.


Slow and Steady Wins the Race


Robert Frittrang, Managing Director, BMW Plant Chennai, in an interaction on the shop floor, explained the thought and technical process that went into the choice of the local vendors. He says the company strategy is to go slow in the local manufacturing of all parts to ensure quality and economies of scale. Excerpts:

Q: What are the criteria to select local vendors?

Frittrang: Our primary criterion in selecting any supplier is quality. Most of the selected suppliers are known to BMW for decades. Force Motors is new. We have been closely observing this supplier from the very beginning. We chose the company for its knowledge and experience in supplying to some of the premium vehicle manufacturers in India. It has in-built competence and quality that are valuable to us. The production facility of Force Motors is just a kilometre away from our plant. The company procures engine kits from Germany and assemble the engines for us.

Q: When will the local manufacturing of engine parts begin?

Frittrang: My experience is that you should never go all steps in one hit as you may fail in terms of quality. We have chosen a secure path. In the first phase, we made Force Motors to assemble the parts sent to them by BMW Germany. In the second phase, some of the parts can be manufactured and procured in India. And this depends on our volumes.

Q: How long was the process to strike the deal with Force Motors?

Frittrang: The whole process took about 18 months until they launched the engine in last January. However, most of their time was spent for getting land and licenses to set up the plant.

Q: What about transmission?  

Frittrang: The transmission sub-assembly is directly delivered by ZF in Germany to Force Motors, which couples it with the engine. At our Chennai facility we carry out the engine dressing, assembly of the front axle and propeller shaft. ZF Hero Chassis at Oragadam supplies axels to us and also to BMW in Thailand and Malaysia.

Q: How did you plan for the exhaust system?

Frittrang: The key process in making the exhaust system is the welding process. The Tenneco plant in Chennai has been given the welding unit by BMW to secure the process. The exhaust system has to be air-tight. We have set up a test unit in our plant to check it.

Q: What about the HVAC?

Frittrang:  As we build globally- built cars at BMW Chennai, there is no deviation in the HVAC system. We use ‘the hot country package,’ which means the cars assembled here have larger cooling system. This is something similar to what BMW cars in Florida have. The only addition that we provide is the under body protection to prevent the impact of bad roads.

Q:  The initiatives on seats?

Frittrang: BMW has been working with Lear for decades and Lear India has a plant close to this facility. We have close connection with them; our quality engineers at Lear India continuously monitor the production process to ensure our quality standards. (END)

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