MUNICH - With a new leadership team in place at BMW AG, it has become clear what the automaker's Rover Group subsidiary needs to do to survive: adopt the parent's flexible manufacturing system.
Rover has struggled under BMW since being acquired five years ago.
During a recent meeting with reporters, Ernst Baumann, head of BMW's medium- and large-car production, stressed that Rover in general, and the Longbridge, England, plant in particular, need to adopt the parent's flexible-assembly production system.
At the heart of BMW's system: flexible production schedules, mobility of labor and models between plants, and flexible work time.
Each BMW plant builds at least two models, making it easy to transfer capacity between the plants and adjust model volumes.
In contrast, each of Rover's two car plants - at Oxford and Longbridge - builds only one model. The Land Rover plant at Solihull, England, produces four models, but not all on the same line.
At BMW's Dingolfing plant outside Munich, several different models, including wagons and special one-offs such as armored vehicles, are built on a single line. The plant builds the 3-series, 5-series and 7-series sedans, the 850i coupe and the 5-series wagon.
BMW production rose 4 percent last year to a record 700,000 vehicles.
'Examples of the efficient use of this principle are the start-up of the Z3 in Spartanburg (S.C.) in 1996, and of the new 3-series sedan in 1998 at the German sites,' Baumann said.
'When it became clear that demand for the roadster was far greater than planned capacity, we increased roadster capacity by about 25 percent within four to five months by shifting production of the old 3-series sedan from Spartanburg to Germany.'
Working to meet the need
The next level of flexibility is the transfer of working time. BMW has 300 flexible work-time programs that workers schedule themselves, adapting to the needs of the plant and their own requirements.
'Unlike some other manufacturers, we have obtained positive results from our working-time schemes and will be extending them,' Baumann said. 'Our intention is to apply them to Rover to achieve corresponding savings.'
Under the flexible system, workers can be transferred among BMW's three German car plants, which are only 50 kilometers apart, according to production demands.
Buses shuttle workers between plants. For the Dingolfing plant alone, 250 buses carry 15,000 employees every day.
For the start up of 5-series production in 1996, 1,000 workers from Munich and Regensburg were shifted to Dingolfing, and then back to their plants for the start of 3-series production in 1998. This model also extends to factories overseas; 90 employees from Dingolfing will be sent to Spartanburg to help with the ramp-up of X5 production.
To improve flexibility, or 'agility' as Baumann described it, BMW has introduced online ordering to make it possible for dealers to place specific customer orders.
The principle is that the vehicle ordered by the customer determines the production process, rather than a predetermined production plan by BMW.
Production then can see what customers are demanding earlier, allowing the plant and purchasing to respond as quickly as possible.
Former BMW Chairman Bernd Pischetsrieder was a champion of investing in Rover to try to turn the company around, but the views of the new CEO, Joachim Milberg, are not known.
But as a production specialist - Milberg is a former professor of manufacturing techniques who joined BMW in 1993 as head of production - he may be the right man at the right time to turn Rover around, company insiders say.
He has made a name inside BMW as an innovator, focusing on transferring technology breakthroughs into the marketplace.
On the other hand, insiders point out, Milberg seems equally qualified to be able to determine that Rover is beyond salvage.