Diary, Technology

Machine works: inside BMW’s motor factory

The first thing that hit me was the smell: the air was acrid and heavy with petrol fumes. It was a calm spring day in Munich, and I was touring BMW’s motor manufacturing plant, an attraction, which according to the Jack Albertson-like tour guide, is more popular than the city’s Bavarian landmarks.

This industrialised German city is the heart of BMW’s global operations. And inside its factory it’s hard not to be impressed by the technical and design excellence that go into making some of the most desirable objects on four wheels.

You’ll have seen clips of car assembly lines with dozens of robotic helpers tirelessly building car after car – well, none of those videos accurately convey just what it’s like to see them with your own eyes. Over 150 robots are clustered among the concrete columns, aluminium pipes and wire meshes that make up the factory’s labyrinthine interior. The precision with which they move is astonishing. Twisting and contorting their arms, these autonomous bots weld, bolt, screw, cut, lift, assemble and paint – all within an accuracy of a 1000th of a millimetre.

Looking down from the observation walkway, a single bot expertly spot-welded a car door faster than any human could, its arm articulating with smooth elegance. Seeing groups of the machines at work was like watching a graceful “ballet of robots”.

Though robots now deal with a large portion of the car production process, much of the fine tuning is still done by skilled human hands. Three thousand people work in the main factory, clad in overalls, jeans and steel toecap boots. Engines are handmade, repaired and tweaked at the Munich site. Such is BMW’s romanticism for cars that it refers to the joining of the engine with the chassis as “the wedding” – imagine what “the honeymoon” must stand for.

Eccentric BMW may be, but the Bavarian manufacturer is as smart as they come. Witnessing the infrared drying process, where negativity-charged paint is attracted to the positivity-charged car body is one example of clean methods that reduce waste.

As if everything so far didn’t amaze enough, the structure of BMW’s Munich plant has forced it to be even more creative about the car assembly process. Since opening in 1972, the plant had spread to five kilometres by the 90s. Having used all available land space, the plant has expanded skywards with five-storeys and an intricate system of mechanical lifts and conveyer belts that ferry car parts to each stage of production.

Going from lumps of unshaped metal to gleaming bodies of automotive art, touring BMW’s manufacturing plant has made me appreciate the science that goes into car production all the more.

Image: Ashley Deacon/Flickr