OXFORD, England - They've been building cars here since 1912, when William Morris first set up shop.
The old English brick and corrugated iron facade at the Cowley plant may have changed since the first Bullnose Morris came off the line, but the plant looks much as it has for the past 20 years - a reminder of the bad old days of Austin Rover.
Inside, however, is the evidence of a busy technical revolution. Rover Oxford, as the plant now is called, used virtual reality to create all the manufacturing processes of the critical new Rover 75, even while the car was being designed.
Storehouses were knocked down and replaced, paint and assembly shops were rebuilt completely - all on screen.
BMW AG, the owner of Rover Group, invested $1 billion in hopes of turning the Rover brand around with a new car produced in a thoroughly modern plant.
Factory within a factory
Rover Oxford has been transformed quietly, taking the best ideas learned from the Japanese during Rover's association with Honda, along with those picked up from new parent BMW.
The transformation for the Rover 75 took place while the plant still was producing the runout 600 and 800 models, building a 'factory within a factory,' according to Paul Chantry, technical director for the body-in-white.
'We literally built a new line while the old one was still in operation,' Chantry said. Production of the 600 and the 800 finished at the end of 1998, and now nothing remains of the old line.
One-third of the $1 billion Rover 75 investment went into Rover Oxford for a new body-in-white facility, paint shop, trim and final assembly area and integrated logistics center.
Where the money went
To provide the required 21,000 sqare meters of working space for the new body-in-white facility, the roof literally was raised, and the floor was relaid.
Sophisticated electronic design methods included ROBCAD simulation and a Technomatix software package. Engineers conducted simulation on the actual welding process at an early stage and used computers to simulate a two-year production run.
Six leading European system suppliers made proposals, and ABB Preciflex SA, the French subsidiary of the Swedish-Swiss group, was chosen to provide the main body-in-white build system. Steelweld BV, a Dutch company, supplied the closures system - hood, doors and trunk lid. Jervis B. Webb Ltd. in the United Kingdom supplied both the 10-kilometer main conveyor line and the transfer line to carry completed bodies into the new paint shop. All subassembly tooling came from Rover's own body plant at Swindon or from BMW.
In total, 157 robots perform 85 percent of the welds on the 75's body. The body-framing weld station transfers subassemblies in, welds them and transfer bodies out, all in 1.52 minutes. The 75 has four body types; the system automatically will make tool changes within this cycle time when other derivatives are added.
A totally new paint shop, built by Durr, contains 5,000 tons of steel held together by a quarter of a million bolts. It took 1 million worker-hours and contains 20 kilometers of conveyors. Modern waterborne paint technology makes the new plant virtually emission-free.
The all-new integrated logistics center supports final assembly. Developed and operated jointly by Rover and Exel Logistics Ltd., the center receives, configures and delivers components directly to each of the 142 line-side assembly stations, in sequence.
An electric railway line links the center to the assembly plant through a 100-meter connecting tunnel. A continual shuttle of tow trains hauls containers of components.
Previously, Rover Oxford had been served by five separate parts storage areas. The new system reduces storage-to-assembly transport time from four hours to one hour.
At the beginning of the trim and final assembly line hangs a giant sign that proclaims the plant is 'building the best front-wheel-drive car in the world.' Rover Oxford has come a long way since the Bullnose Morris. Will the 75 repay BMW's investment?