Sunday 9 February 2014

BMW to set up UK design base?

How soon before BMW sets up a London design office?

With Nissan already firmly established for years in its London design centre and its Infiniti brand soon to follow, London has become a centre of excellence in terms of vehicle design.

Also, with most Mini production based in Plant Oxford, with its sub hubs of Plant Swindon and engine manufacture at Hams Hall in the West Midlands, the company is already firmly established in the UK.

With the third generation Mini now launched, BMW executives are well on their way to evolving the fourth generation, which could mark a turning point for the brand.

The Mini brand has covered a lot of ground since BMW acquired Roger Group, as with each model change the vehicle has become larger posing new challenges for the body-in-white lines at Plant Oxford.

Some may feel that with the evolution of the design there may be room for a new smaller car. But whatever happens, Plant Oxford is likely to remain a cathedral of manufacturing technology, a showcase for German manufacturing expertise.

German equipment dominates the plant with KUKA still a dominant factor in body assembly technology.

It is 40 years since the first industrial robots (or universal arms as they were known) entered car production and their place has become ever crucial, not only for spot welding, but for parts handling and component assembly.

Reliability has improved and programming reached new standards. Even more, they have become an accepted member of the production team, no different to any other piece of mechanisation. Blue tooth technology using ipads will become the ‘norm’ to monitor and adjust quality, timing and production output.

Where once their presence was ‘feared’ by operatives on the shop floor, being seen as potential replacements for the human being, their role is now vital for the level of precision required of present day ‘fit and finish’ requirements. Robots now handle heavy tooling, self-piercing rivet guns and wealdy components with the dexterity and precision of a ballet dancer; heavy and bulky items no human being could handle hour in, hour out.

BMW, Honda, JaguarLandRover (JLR), Nissan and Vauxhall have all demonstrated that Britain can be the workshop of the car manufacturing world. Added to which, Nissan makes great use of its European Technical centre at Cranfield to engineers up and coming vehicles, with JLR’s based at Gaydon and Whitely. Significantly, only Ford Motor Company – of the major players – has abdicated and moved its vehicle building activities to other parts of the world. The Ford Transit, which with be 50 next year, was the last Ford vehicle product to leave the UK with the closure of Southampton and production switched to Turkey.

What is it that other car/van makers have discovered about Britain that Ford failed to unleash, leaving behind only its engine manufacture in Bridgend and Dagenham? For even in the antiquated and least-likely surroundings of the Luton van plant, Vauxhall/Opel is about to relaunch yet another generation of the Vivaro, suggesting that all things are possible.

Or was it that for some reason Ford management did not have the foresight to appreciate the potential that could be tapped with a little imagination and determination?    

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