The Grand Tour of German Automotive—BMW Munich

BMW Munich from TV Tower
BMW Munich plant surrounded by Munich

The Bayerische Motoren Werke AG, or short BMW, is a maker of luxury vehicles, sport cars, and motorcycles. As part of my Grand Tour of German Automotive I visited their plants in Munich and Leipzig, and was quite impressed. In my view, it these are the best-performing automotive plants in Germany, and close to the performance of Toyota in Japan. I also visited their motorbike plant in Berlin, which was a bit different. Let me show you what I saw, starting with Munich.

Disclaimer: The following are based on my personal observations and opinions and may not be accurate or correct. It is based on publicly available information and what I observed during public tours, and when I observed it. The observations may differ at a different time and place.

BMW in General

BMW LogoBMW was founded in 1916 as a reorganization of an older company as a maker of airplane engines. They started making cars in 1928. With around 2.3 million cars produced per year, they are the fourteenth largest car maker in the world as of 2023.

BMW Plant Munich

BMW München BMW Welt
BMW World Munich

The BMW plant in Munich is the headquarters location of BMW. Around 7800 employees produce around 1000 cars per day in two shifts. Even though there was major construction going on (they are building a new paint shop and tearing down another building), the plant was the cleanest I have seen besides its sister plant in Leipzig and the Porsche plants. Even the potentially messier places like the body shop, with lots of welding robots, was very clean.

BMW München BMW Welt Inside
BMW World Inside

The plant has been in its current location since 1922, when the area was far from the city. Since then, the city has grown, and the plant is now surrounded by the most expensive city in Germany. Hence, they have no space for expansion and are a bit cramped. Production is often on multiple floors on top of each other. One interesting tidbit: it is one of the few German car makers that makes its own seats. Although, curiously, some headrests are supplied externally.

The Press Shop

Press shop stock image (not BMW)

They have five large presses for drawing, trimming, edge bending, final shape trimming, and punching. Since they are in the middle of the city, they also have to be considerate of their residential neighbors, and for example the press shop is placed on huge (and expensive) springs so the people living next to it don’t have ripples in their coffee.

What I found impressive was that they can change their large, very heavy tools in their presses within three minutes, plus one minute ramp-up. This is very fast, comparable to the speeds of Toyota. Other still good makers need fifteen minutes for a tool change.

The Body Shop

BMW Leipzig Body Shop
BMW Leipzig body shop

Like most other German car makers (or generally high labor cost automotive production), the body shop is highly automated. Of the 1500 robots in the plant, 1200 work in the body shop, which has almost 100% automation. Like Toyota they use some large triangular tools that can be rotated, so the proper fixtures for different models can be changed quickly simply by rotating the tools. While the press shop works in lot sizes larger than one (since a three-minute changeover is still not compatible for a lot size of one), the body shop has a lot size of one, making bodies specifically for one customer. They also maintain the sequence, and if you order first you get first in the line. Like all german car makers they also have an obsession with the gaps between the panels (the “Spaltmass”), checking them four times throughout production.

The Paint Shop

It is rare to see a paint shop as a normal visitor. And BMW did not disappoint. The paint shop is rather new, from 2017, and has two paint lines. In the previous paint shop, the paint came through tubes, which required a lot of cleaning between colors, leading to larger lot sizes.

Not at BMW…

The new paint shop uses cartridges, where one cartridge is in use, and the other one is cleaned and refilled. This allows a lot size of one, and a white car can be painted next to a black one without looking like a dalmatian.They currently offer a whopping 180 different colors (and more if you pay for it). Anything goes as long as it is safe and with acceptable quality. The second color coat is sprayed directly on the first one without drying, or wet-in-wet. The final clear or matte coats do not need to switch and hence don’t use cartridges.

Some BMW models have by default a different colored roof. After painting the car (except the roof), the car is wrapped in plastic (except the roof) and goes through the paint shop again. This is one of the few occasions where the sequence of the cars can change. The cars are then stored in a special warehouse that has only 2% oxygen to reduce the risk of fires. Obviously, no workers (or visitors) in there.

Final Assembly

BMW Leipzig Assembly Line
BMW Leipzig assembly line

At BMW Munich (and Leipzig), there is only a single final assembly line. Around 1000 cars are produced at a rather fast takt of 63 seconds per car. In Munich, they produce all types of the 3 series, the 4 series coupe and electric, and the M3 models. Hence, they have gasoline, diesel, hybrid, and electric power trains to install. Their assembly groups consist of thirty people with one Meister and one supervisor.

I always like to estimate the percentage of the time the worker adds value to the car (rather than waiting, walking, transporting, searching, …). They had a highly impressive 67% value adding time, which puts it on the same level as Toyota (52–79%), and only a sliver behind its sister plant Leipzig with 68%. No other German car maker is as good, and only one Porsche line came close. In my next post I will look at the even better performing BMW plant in Leipzig. Now, go out, study good plants (and bad ones) to make yours even better and organize your industry!

If You Want to Follow in My Footsteps

BMW offers tours to the general public in Munich, Leipzig, and Berlin (their motorbike plant). Tours in Leipzig can be booked here, with the option of a basic (90 min), extended (120 min), or school tour. Both tours in Munich and Leipzig were very good and the guides were very informative. You also see some fancy architecture.

PS: Many thanks to BMW for offering tours through their plants to the public!

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