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BMW Group prioritises factory digitalisation and ergonomics as workforce ages

By Graeme Roberts | 22 March 2016

The chairless chair BMW is currently trialling in Plant Munich assembly sections. It consists of flexible splints which can be locked in different positions and straps to a workers legs and torso

The 'chairless chair' BMW is currently trialling in Plant Munich assembly sections. It consists of flexible splints which can be locked in different positions and straps to a worker's legs and torso

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One of the many things I enjoy about covering BMW's annual financial results press conference (reports here, herehere and here) is the 'show and tell' side trips – such as the Leipzig i3 'factory within a factory' in 2014. This year, rather than travel to the former east Germany, we needed only to cross the road from BMW Welt in the northern outskirts of Munich to the company's oldest factory – built 'out in the country' in 1922 (to make aero engines, with an airport across the road on what became the 1976 Olympics site), and now landlocked by the much-expanded city, requiring ingenious solutions for further expansion, such as the new paint shop (of which more later).

Ageing workforce

BMW has long been mindful of its ageing workforce, noting, in its new, in-house museum's centenary exhibition, that the average age will soon reach 49 but such workers are well worth retaining for their maturity, reliability, extensive knowledge and skills, and will remain productive and happy if given some help with on-the-job aids that make demanding and repetitive assembly line work as easy as possible.

I've seen this enlightened approach by this automaker before. Several years ago, I visited a dashtop trim plant near Munich at which workstations, tools and processes were all designed for older, less mobile workers with operating heights at the optimum, tools and parts bins positioned to minimise bending, turning and stretching and, judging by the cheerful smiles and comments, a resulting happy workforce. In the interim, judging from this week's show and tell, plant ergonomics and logistics developers have not stood still and there have been many more innovations to support such initial steps.

Exoskeleton 'chairless chair'

The development that intrigued me the most was the 'chairless chair' currently being trialled in Plant Munich assembly sections. It consists of flexible splints which can be locked in different positions and it straps to a worker's legs and torso. Demonstrated by an engineer, it reminded me of the leg splints school friends who'd had polio (yes, I'm that old) would wear either for some years, or for life, and the principle is essentially the same – give the old bones that can't cope entirely on their own some help. BMW says this 'exoskeleton' "improves a worker's posture just like a chair and relieves the strain on the body during assembly tasks that have to be carried out bent over or in other unhealthy positions. Even long periods of standing can be transformed into relaxed sitting through this artificial leg support, making working conditions more comfortable and flexible for the people."

Details were a little sketchy but construction is largely using a tough nylon-like plastic, the manufacturer is Swiss and the clever gadget costs about EUR8,000 a shot. Apparently it takes a little familiarisation to learn how best to lock it into seating position and maintain balance but, once learned, is an invaluable aid. We were shown a video of two workers installing parts on each side of an axle sub-assembly; one younger man 'chairless chair'-equipped while his companion (older) worker was not; the contrast in postures and required bending/stretching to install the same parts and fasteners was notable.

ProGloves

BMW is also testing 'ProGloves' in production. Now in at least their 12th iteration, according to a display chart, these portable scanners can be fixed directly to workers' gloves (with a thumb-activated switch aligned with the index finger) to save people unnecessary hand and finger movement. The device can improve and accelerate certain production processes as the scanning of parts is not a separate step in the production process any more, leading to an increase in process quality and work ergonomics.

Previously, the assembly worker would have a separate scanner handy in a pocket or in a holster on the workstation. A sub-assembly would glide into place, worker would pick scanner up, scan assembly, scan and pick parts to attach, receive on-screen confirmation of correct parts picked, put scanner down, grab parts and fixing tools, attach, scan as complete, repeat. With scanner gloves, the scanning is integrated into the workstation process flow and numerous pick-up-and-put-down scanner movements per shift are eliminated.

Ergonomic workwear

BMW supplies its people with workwear that supports human ergonomics. Specifically developed designs for shirts and supportive lower leg-length hosiery  using similar manufacturing techniques as used for medical support hosiery and undergarments "facilitate certain movements and give production workers greater comfort in handling their tasks", the automaker said. The shirts have additional elasticised inserts around the upper arms and shoulders and the hosiery provides additional support for certain leg muscles – all of this developed in conjunction with specialist clothing manufacturers.

As well as constantly improving ergonomics, the automaking group is also developing its production with 'digitalisation' and 'sustainability' - the overall goal being "a production system with stable, efficient and flexible processes and a strong focus on top quality". 

"The application of digital technologies in the BMW Group's production areas helps us improve quality and create a modern work environment. Our employees benefit from digitalisation in many areas as these innovations can relieve the burden on staff and enable them to handle complex tasks. At the same time, we invest in ergonomically optimised workstations and focus strongly on producing sustainably," said production chief Oliver Zipse. 

Digitalisation

For digitalisation, BMW has prioritised four different "promising" fields:

Sustainability 

BMW says it considers environmental aspects early on in investment decision processes and monitors compliance with its "ambitious" targets via key environmental parameters. One example is the e-truck commissioned for the Munich plant last year. This fully electric truck handles the transport of material in public road traffic. Thanks to its alternative drive and the fact that it is only charged with energy from renewable sources, the 40-ton truck causes close-to-zero particle pollution. 

Another example is the new paint shop scheduled to start operations in Munich in mid-2017. This facility - built over multiple floors as the plant 'landlocked' by its suburb cannot be expanded outwards - will meet high standards of profitability and efficient use of resources. Innovative, six-axis robots will offer considerably more leeway when it comes to coating technologies, allowing for greater flexibility in responding to customers' special wishes, such as individual colours or matt paint coats. The facility will apply the highly efficient IPP (Integrated Paint Process) technology, another sustainable technique.

Compared to the current paint shop, natural gas consumption and exhaust emissions at the new facility are expected to decrease by about half (48% each), and energy consumption by over a quarter (27%). Emissions of volatile organic compounds will decrease as well thanks to a greater share of exhaust air to be treated. Some cleaning solvents will also be captured and recycled. BMW previously introduced IPP its vehicle production sites in Oxford, UK, Spartanburg, US, Tiexi, China and Dingolfing, Germany.