Advancing the Production Line

Advanced manufacturing helps speed up production of the X models at BMW’s Plant Spartanburg in South Carolina.

The 5 millionth vehicle produced at BMW Plant Spartanburg, an X5 M Competition, on the line at the tire assembly area. Photo courtesy of Fred Rollison/BMW

BMW Manufacturing in South Carolina reached a milestone when it produced the German automaker’s 5 millionth BMW vehicle built in the United States. The Toronto Red Metallic X5 M Competition rolled off the line in June, shortly after the plant reopened following a COVID-19 shutdown that spanned from March to May. The vehicle will remain at the factory and become part of the BMW historic collection. BMW attributes the achievement in large part to dedicated associates and a major commitment to advanced manufacturing, innovation and demand for the automaker’s X models.

Plant Spartanburg, in Greer, South Carolina, manufactures BMW X3, X4, X5, X6 and X7 models for the U.S. market and around the world. More than 11,000 people work at the site and half of all BMWs sold in the U.S. are built there. The automaker’s commitment to the facility is evident in the $10.6 billion invested at the plant since 1992, when BMW Group announced that South Carolina would be home to its first factory outside of Germany. Plant Spartanburg has been expanded six times and spans more than 7 million square feet.

Advanced manufacturing, innovation, flexibility and a skilled workforce help Plant Spartanburg meet production goals and reach milestones.

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In 2019, the last year for which figures are available, Plant Spartanburg led the nation in automotive exports by value for the sixth consecutive year, with a total export value of approximately $9.6 billion. Nearly 70 percent of the plant’s total production was exported from 2010-2019.

“BMW’s culture of innovation and the desire to satisfy our customers have been driving forces in the success of Plant Spartanburg,” says Sherry McCraw, vice president of assembly, BMW Manufacturing. “Over our plant’s 26 years, we have created an environment of collaboration where diverse teams of associates and suppliers can work together to develop and implement new ideas.”

Advanced manufacturing used throughout BMW’s Plant Spartanburg increases efficiency, helps provide a quality product and reduces physical labor required of workers. The South Carolina plant was the first in the world to use an exoskeleton for overhead work, and it is one of a few automotive plants using Titan robots, the company says.

Among the advancements at the plant are:

Artificial intelligence

Artificial intelligence is used in assembly to measure and detect irregularities on the exterior body of the X3 and X4 models. Ten high-resolution cameras surround each vehicle from the top and sides. As vehicles move through the area, computers process about 1,000 images of each car. The system can detect and measure gaps, ensure specific parts have been installed, verify a part’s style and inspect for scratches or color mismatches. The computer learns the appearance of parts and defects similar to how people learn, from experience and seeing many examples.

3-D Printing

The Body Shop Central Maintenance department uses 3D printing to create spare parts for robots. The team has successfully printed a wheelhouse gripper and uses it on the production line. The parts are made from reinforced carbon fiber, which is stronger and much lighter than metal. Plant Spartanburg is the first BMW plant to use 3D printing in an automotive production environment.

Exoskeleton Vests

Plant Spartanburg was the first automotive plant in the world to use an exoskeleton for overhead work, the company says. The exoskeleton is a wearable vest that helps reduce stress and fatigue. The vest is custom-fitted to each associate and transfers the weight of the arms to the body’s core, which helps evenly distribute the load to reduce stress. The vest also helps elevate and support the arms. The associate maintains freedom of motion while working. There are several exoskeletons being tried throughout the plant. BMW is a leader in this field, the company says.

Plug Robots 

When a vehicle goes through the paint shop, there are dozens of holes on the underbody that allow paint to escape during the e-coat/phosphate bath. Prior to the assembly process the holes are plugged. Robots install plugs in 80% to 95% of the holes on each vehicle.

Scanner Gloves 

BMW worked with a German startup to develop a scanner glove to replace scanning guns. The glove has a barcode scanner that attaches to the back of the hand and enables associates to have both hands free. The gloves are worn by hundreds of associates in assembly and logistics and make work faster, more efficient and more ergonomic.

Titan Robots 

More than 2,000 Titan robots are used in BMW Spartanburg’s body shop. The six-axis heavy-duty robots are made by German manufacturer Kuka. They can handle 2,200 pounds (1,000 kilograms) of payload and eliminate the need for a conveyor system in a process area. A Titan lifts the underbody of a vehicle and places it in a fixture so studs can be welded on. Once the process is complete, the Titan moves the underbody from station to station until all studs are in place. The underbody process is faster and more flexible with the Titans.

BMW also emphasizes the importance of maintaining a skilled workforce to make the most of innovation and technology.

“An essential element of innovation is developing a workforce that is highly-skilled and technically savvy in all areas of manufacturing,” says Paul Sinanian, manager of talent programs and training, BMW Manufacturing. “We have invested significantly in workforce development through our BMW Scholars apprenticeship program. This allows us to build the skilled workforce we need in areas like mechatronics, supply chain management, automotive technology and computer technology.”

Carla Cardwell is a freelance contributor to Southern Automotive Alliance. She is based in Georgia. This article appeared in the 2020 annual issue of Southern Automotive Alliance magazine.

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