Occasionally I do something that I do not think that I can convey the awesomeness of through my words alone. A trip to the Mini factory in Oxford is one such trip. Nevertheless I am going to give it a go.
The tour is made up of small groups of no more than 15 people. This means that there aren’t people standing in your way when you go round. It also means that when you enter the first port of call – where the body is welded together or “body in white” as it is called – our group probably doubled the number of people In there. The plant employs 5,000 people but I have no idea where as we saw so few of them.
The reason there are so few in “body in white” is because the work here is done by an army of 1,200 robots similar to the one shown at the top of the post. Each one of these robots costs £10,000 without any of the useful bits that they need to perform their duties which might be a glue gun, welding arc or a simple gripper.
For those concerned about the robots getting sentient and taking over the world needn’t worry as they were all heavily bolted down to the ground.
The plant turns out 1,000 new Minis every weekday – one every 68 seconds (there’s no production at the weekend as that’s used for maintenance of the robots). This means that every action carried out has to take 68 seconds or less. It turns out that even the robots are subject to time constraints too but they have only 52 seconds to complete their work before passing it to the next station.
If there is a failure in any of the stations and it isn’t rectified quickly it is like a creeping death through the rest of the process as each station that is fed from the previous runs out of work to do. We saw evidence of this as the very first station we stood in front of stopped and was quickly followed by those further along.
You can have whatever model you want
The reason this timing is so critical is because the factory works on a “just in time, just in schedule” basis. Gone are the days when the line would produce a single model. Now each car is built to order and a three door petrol Cooper could be followed by a five door diesel Clubman followed by an electric Cooper. This means that parts must not only be delivered “just in time” but also in the production order too.
There are literally thousands of different variants for each car. For example, in addition to the three engine types there are also 44 different types of wheel that can selected. The mind boggles.
It was incredibly impressive to see the robots changing their own tools in order to be able to adapt for the next car that they would be working on and all within the 52 seconds. It was like a little ballet playing out in front of your eyes. I just loved standing and watch the robots work – I was absolutely mesmerised.
Nice Paint Job
When the body is completed in “body in white” it is then sent on to the next building for painting. We weren’t taken there but given the facts and figures by our very knowledgeable guide.
Each car is given up to five “coats”. The first is a rust proof coating. This is then followed by a coating of static electricity which helps attract the paint to the body and stop it dripping and there being wastage. Next is the metallic partials if this finish has been ordered before finally a protective layer. On average a car needs only four litres of paint.
After drying the car is polished – using ostrich feathers as they are incredibly soft. One imagines that somewhere in the world there is an ostrich farm breeding birds solely for feathers for the car market. Once again, the mind boggles.
Finally we (and the cars) are taken to the last building where the bodies arrive and are assembled with their constituent parts. This is mainly done by hand but there were a few new robots being tested which have fine motor skills and an £100K each price tag.
Again the cars arrive in the schedule order and so each station needs to be able to cope with fitting whatever might be needed be that the exhaust unit or batteries that sit in the same space on the electric variant.
3km of wiring is used in each car arriving in a brown bag from a German supplier. The bag is heated just prior to it being needed to ensure that the cables are malleable enough to quickly fix. It is little things like this that that show the thought that has gone into the whole process and shows why it can cost billions to bring a new model to market.
On the way out there was a reminder of another reason why automation is popular. On the door to the gents toilet there had been pinned a sign from management about vandalism of said toilets. You only get that sort of issue with a Robert and not a Robot.
The Finish Line
Having been through three buildings the completed car finally reaches the last few yards of the production line – quality control. This (bar the sounding of the horn) is a completely automated process being controlled by a computer over Bluetooth. It was very odd to see cars move slowly along the conveyer belt while the windows are going up and down, the air conditioning blows and nobody in the drivers seat.
As it reaches the end of the line someone jumps in the drivers seat and drives it the short distance to another belt, sounding the horn on the way, before it is shipped to its lucky owner.
This was also the finish line for our tour which I’d throughly enjoyed. To give you an idea of just how enamoured I was with my trip round the plant here are two pieces of evidence to consider. Firstly both my Dad and I came away wanting to buy a Mini and secondly this is the text message I sent my wife on exiting!
If you love cars, process, mechanics then I would suggest you book your place on the tour as soon as you possibly can. You won’t regret it.