Monday, 9 June 2008
Factory Fresh: Touring the Mini Plant
I suppose it makes sense that if people want to act like robots, robots might want to act like people. After all, robots are built by people, to do the things that people do, but to do them more precisely, uncomplainingly, and without ever tiring.
That's one of the conclusions I came to after touring the factory where they make the Mini. The human workforce is impressive, of course--some 4,700 "associates" work at the plant in Cowley, south Oxford--but it's the robots that prompt existential thoughts. They seem alive.
The original Mini was born in 1959 and it's been built in Cowley ever since. The iconic design--a low, wide stance that calls to mind a smiling, pop-eyed bulldog--made it the automotive symbol of Swinging '60s Britain, owned by celebrities and immortalized in such films as "The Italian Job." The Mini was never the success in the U.S. that it was in Britain, Americans seeming to prefer the similarly idiosyncratic VW Beetle. There are still plenty on the road here, though, and it's a shock to be reminded how small they are. The "new" Mini--itself a wisp compared to typical Detroit metal--dwarfs the old one.
We own a Mini and thus we had to visit the birthplace of all Minis--at least the ones made since BMW took over the factory in 2001. It's to the Germans that we owe the current Mini gestalt. Mini advertising, Mini showrooms, official Mini souvenirs--all of it is impeccably art directed, right down to the factory itself, the entrance to which features the reversed sans serif lettering of the print ads:
The production area covers 45 hectares, or about 110 acres. It sounds like a lot till you realize that's half as big as it was in the days the old Mini was built there. That's progress for you: the ability to do more with less. Advances in technology means bigger cars can be churned out in a smaller space. And for that we must thank the robots.
Body panels and sub-assemblies come from a plant in Swindon, about 30 miles away. The engines are made in Hams Hall, near Birmingham. It all comes together in Oxford, starting in the "body-in-white" building. When I was there, workers were moving around pallets of panels--"LH Sill Inner Assy," was stenciled on one. Others were feeding the panels to the robots, which would grab them as easily as you or I lift a cafeteria tray. The production line inched along, orange robot arms applying spot welds in a shower of sparks. The robots moved with purpose but also with a kind of grace, never deviating from their programmed path. Some robots did more than one thing: A massive arm would finish a weld then swing over to near where I was standing and dip its "hand" down into a trough, shrugging off whatever tool was at the end of its appendage. It would raise up a few feet then plunge into another trough, where, with the whir of an air ratchet, a different tool would be attached, RoboCop-like.
It wasn't all robots. They're not quite dexterous enough to put the doors on. Two men positioned them with the help of a jig while another welded the hinges on. And then the body rose up into the ceiling to continue its journey.
Odd little enclosed bridges connect the buildings at Cowley. Inside, the aborning Minis trundle along like so many ants. After the bodies have been assembled it's time for painting. As with the difference between a construction worker and a portrait artist, so as between a welding robot and a painting robot. The paintshop has the quiet antisepticism of an operating theater. No percussive thuds or spark eruptions here. Even the robots look more refined, their arms swathed in red fabric, as if Christo had paid a visit:
Each little platform that the cars moved on had a barcode indicating what color the Mini was to get. The robots--their white paintheads looking like cows' udders--would squirt into a chamber to clean themselves then rise, birdlike, and dance over the body. It was altogether less frenetic in the paintshop than the bodyshop. When the robots finished spraying a car they would pull back, appearing to rest as the next Mini moved along. The painted Minis themselves looked like an assortment of gumballs:
The last stop was the assembly building, where the shiny Minis were gripped in yellow metal slings that looked like huge calipers:
The windscreen, the dashboard, the seats, the trim, the electrics, the engine--it's all inserted here. After getting their own paint the doors are re-attached. There was even a point, walking along, when I got a whiff of something familiar and wondered if there was a cylinder marked "New Car Smell" squirting in that unmistakable odor.
This seemed the most human-centric part of the process, or at least human-friendly. (It's all Mini-centric.) Two humans eased in the cockpit, standing on a wooden floor that moved along with the car. Another popped in a headlight. A black ripstop nylon bag was plopped on the floor of each Mini. It looked liked another fashionable Mini accessory--a large cosmetics bag? weekend valise?--but it contained the car's entire wiring harness, soon to be snaked through the body.
The motor, transmission and front axle rolled as one along on a conveyor built and were lifted by two orange robot arms to the waiting body above:
Then, the mating. Two workers on a platform did something--to be honest, I couldn't see what, just heard that blaaat of ratchets--and, engine installed, the car floated to its next stop. Total time to install engine: 55 seconds. I thought of the 12 hours I once spent replacing the clutch on my MGB GT, a process that required removing the engine. When it was over I was as physically spent as it's possible to be.
Not so the robots. They never tired of lifting, welding or screwing, moving with an economy of motion that was simple but balletic. When--tires on, fluids filled, fuel squirted in--it was time to start the car for the first time and drive it away, a buzzer sounded and the line stopped. It was time for the humans to eat.
It takes about 24 hours to build a Mini. They can build up to 800 a day. Every modern Mini you've seen was built in Oxford, its riot of options--body color, roof color, rims and seats--coming together on the high-tech assembly line. It's the latest incarnation of an automotive tradition that dates back to 1913, when a bicycle racer named William Morris built his first car in Oxford. Morris went on to become Lord Nuffield, remembered in Oxford for the hospitals he funded and the college he endowed.
I find it endearing that cars are built in Oxford, this city of dreaming spires and gowned undergraduates. It's as if the Chevrolet assembly line was a stone's throw from Harvard Yard. The Mini plant is open for tours, though you must book well in advance. If you're interested send an e-mail to Oxford.Plant-Tours@mini.com. Or take a virtual tour. My thanks to BMW Group Plant Oxford's Rebecca Baxter for showing My Lovely Wife and me around the factory and for the photos of the assembly process.