BMW plan: Few bodies, less waiting

More nimble
  • Current stats: BMW’s Z series is built on 16 global body variations. U.S. retailers can’t change factory orders once a car is closer than 28 to 32 days from delivery.

  • New plan: The new Z3 will have only two variations next year. Dealers can change orders as late as 10 days before delivery.

  • BMW AG is reducing the number of body variations on upcoming models in an effort to get cars to customers faster.

    At its U.S. factory outside Spartanburg, S.C., engineers are planning to slice the number of Z-platform bodies from 16 to two for the next-generation Z3. The automaker’s new 7 series is going on sale in Europe in November with fewer body variations than its predecessor.

    Under a concept BMW calls the unibody, the body choices on the Z3 will be either “with sunroof or without,” says Dieter Lauterwasser, vice president of manufacturing for painted body at BMW Manufacturing Corp.

    All other variations within the model, from engines to international specifications, will fit in the same bodies. Once the designs are in place, left-hand-drive and right-hand-drive versions will use the same bodies.

    BMW’s objective is to trim the time it takes a retailer to get an ordered car.

    BMW dealers now wait about 100 days for a special-order car from Germany and about 45 days for one from South Carolina. If they manage to catch an order that already has been sequenced for U.S. production, they can make changes to it only 28 to 32 days before its scheduled delivery.

    Under the unibody approach, BMW dealers could change all options on the order at the Spartanburg plant as late as 10 days before delivery.

    The variation blizzard

    The issue is acute for BMW because so many customers order cars from dealers rather than select them from showroom inventory. The company estimates that 60 percent of its U.S. volume is built to customer order. In Germany, according to the company, that number is 98 percent.

    That results in a blizzard of possible variations for BMW’s production planners. At the Dingolfing, Germany plant, BMW says the possible range of variations on the 7 series is 10 to the 27th power.

    The automaker intends to limit variations in the future, Lauterwasser said. But for now the solution is to simplify manufacturing.

    Reducing the body variations is virtually invisible to the customer. Customer orders tend to focus on issues such as engine packages, trim, paint color, seating and interior components.

    50-50 chance

    By limiting the number of bodies, factory planners have a better chance of finding an available car, already welded, to fit a customer order. In the case of the Z3, there will be at least a 50-50 chance that the next vehicle waiting to be painted will fit an incoming order.

    Production scheduling tends to be more challenging at BMW factories because they produce for world export. Half of Spartanburg’s production is exported out of North America.

    “Most of our customers are pretty patient,” says Pete Cunningham, manager of Don Mackey BMW in Tucson, Ariz. “But I tell my people all the time this is a today business. If a customer wants something, let’s make sure he gets it. We already have pretty good luck getting the car we want from the factory. Anything BMW can do to make things happen even faster will be great.”

    You can reach Lindsay Chappell at lchappell@crain.com

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