Following BMW’s disposal of the Rover Group in 2000, production of the then-new 75 needed moving from Cowley to Longbridge.
Here’s the story, as recounted by Ian Elliott back in 2000, and produced for the then fledgling MG Rover PR Department. It makes fascinating reading to this day and shows just how seemingly insurmountable logistical mountains can be climbed.
Moving Heaven and Earth for the Rover 75
During the tumultuous days leading up to the sale of Rover to the Phoenix consortium in May, 2000, the manufacturing and logistics staff at Longbridge were suddenly given 48 hours to answer the most extraordinary question they had ever been asked. ‘Can we move Rover 75 production from Cowley to Longbridge?’
The subsidiary questions being : ‘If so, can sales be sustained during the changeover, and can product quality of at least the high level already achieved at Cowley be assured from Longbridge?’
A further factor to consider was that, in parallel with the 75 moving to Longbridge, the build facilities for the new MINI, (then in the early commissioning stages at Longbridge), would have to be transferred the other way to Cowley.
No group of people in the world motor industry were better qualified, by experience and motivation, to answer such a momentous question in such a short time. Longbridge, over the years, has achieved some remarkable feats of new model introduction under difficult circumstances, a fairly recent example being the production launches of the 200, 400 and MGF models during a single 12 month period. Nevertheless, such previous exercises had at least been planned over many months. This ‘bolt from the blue’ proposal would mean that the massively complex process would have to start from scratch literally within hours of the deal being signed.
The Production Engineers would have been fully justified in quoting that familiar phrase: ‘The impossible we achieve today ; miracles take a little longer.’ But they didn’t say that. In their view, all they had to do in 48 hours was to establish that it wasn’t actually impossible. Having committed themselves to a ‘yes’, they reasoned, they could then get down to working out the best way to successfully achieve the huge task.
Following the successful completion of the sale to Phoenix, immediate steps had to be taken to protect the continuity of Rover 75 supply during the changeover period. It was calculated that the minimum possible gap between production stopping at Cowley and the first cars coming off a Longbridge assembly line was 11 weeks. Transfer and re-commissioning of the extensive and complex bodyshell production equipment would inevitably take several weeks longer.
Cowley and all the Rover 75 suppliers were therefore asked to begin working at full capacity to build up buffer stocks of complete cars and electro-primed bodyshells. The stock of bodyshells would enable paint, trim and final assembly to begin at Longbridge well in advance of re-starting bodyshell production there ; the built-up cars would keep the UK and export sales networks working during the period covering the transfer and the careful ramp-up of production at Longbridge.
Within a week of the Phoenix deal, deliveries of bodyshells to Longbridge began. In those few days, special transit/storage frames had been designed, and the first batch made, to allow bodyshells to be transported six at a time on flat bed trucks. During those early days, huge amounts of brainstorming and lateral thinking went on at Longbridge to thrash out the optimum plan for the entire MG Rover supply chain. For it was well understood that any serious disruptions to production of any of the models had serious implications not only for the new business, but also for suppliers and dealers, worldwide.
The ‘easy’ way out would have been to establish the 75 assembly line in the newly-expanded and re-built CAB (Car Assembly Building) 2, which had been under preparation for new Mini production. This would have allowed existing production facilities in CAB 1 to carry on building the Rover 25, Rover 45, Classic Mini and MGF with little disruption during the transfer.
However attractive this route may have seemed in the short term, it was rejected immediately on the grounds that the new CAB 2 capacity was too high for a medium-volume car like the 75. Even more importantly, MG Rover needed the new high-volume CAB 2 facility as a centre-plank of its future model strategy. A further, immediate benefit of keeping CAB 2 empty at this stage was that it provided a large amount of the covered storage space needed for the temporary buffer stock of Rover 75 bodyshells. (The other covered area adapted for bodyshell storage was the well-known multi-storey car park).
While the bodyshell steel was well protected by the phosphate pre-treatment and cathodic electrocoat primer applied at Cowley, it was important to protect the primer coat itself from degradation by UV rays. Special UV- filter plastic film was therefore used to wrap the shells, like large sweets.
Having established that Rover 75 would be assembled in CAB 1, evaluation of various ways of doing this was carried out with some urgency. The starting point was that the 25 and the 45 each had their own dedicated tracks, while a single mixed-build track produced the MGF and Classic Mini. Because Longbridge had for decades been designated as a small and medium car plant, no-one had remotely considered a contingency plan for building an executive size car here.
However, one contingency that had already been proven in outline was the possibility of running the 45 and the 25 together on the 25 track, should this ever have been necessary for capacity reasons. Now there was a very different reason for doing this – and the foreknowledge that it was feasible saved vital planning time. In itself, the transfer of the 45 to the 25 line was a major engineering, logistics and associated training exercise, and it had to be accepted that some loss of production would be inevitable while it took place. The firm deadline for completing this first stage of the project was the beginning of the Summer shutdown, which was extended from two to three weeks to accommodate the really heavy work of installing a 75 assembly line where the 45 line had once been.
Up went the sheeting to seal off and protect the production areas either side of the construction site, and in came the drills and excavators. Laying on civil engineering capacity of this magnitude at short notice was by no means easy, as the summer months are always the busiest times for such work and, in addition, considerable capacity was already tied up in major projects such as the ‘Ford to Jaguar’ conversion taking place at Halewood. Nevertheless, all the gigantic holes needed for the major items of new plant, (such as the robotic glazing station and the three laser dynamic suspension alignment stations) were duly dug, equipped with the necessary framing and services and concreted ready to accept the transferred machinery, all within the tight timescale.
An excellent working relationship was maintained with the Cowley plant in co-ordinating the wholesale ‘swap’ of production facilities. As a matter of deliberate policy, Longbridge Engineers carried out the dismantling work on the Rover 75 facilities at Cowley as part of the process of learning how the entire ‘jigsaw puzzle’ went together, and to build their sense of ownership of the new plant.
Amongst the equipment transferred to Longbridge were 40 assistors – machines which carry the weight of heavier components such as seats as they are positioned for assembly – and all the advanced electronic testing stations for the sophisticated multiplex systems of the Rover 75. Certain of the existing Longbridge facilities, such as the rolling roads used for emission and other tests, were capable of being adjusted (or ‘modelised’ as the Engineers put it) to suit the longer wheelbase and other differences of the 75.
In re-establishing 75 trim and assembly at Longbridge, several changes were made to the build process to suit the new location and to meet the new requirements of MG Rover in terms of cost control and efficiency. At Cowley, there had been extensive use of inter-process buffer stations, and a BMW-influenced approach to manufacture, where the car is built first and then ‘finessed’ or rectified.
The Longbridge people wanted to develop the philosophy they had established when working with Honda, which was to put the emphasis, Japanese-style, on ‘Right First Time’. This is an inherently more efficient, lower cost route that ultimately delivers better quality, because it involves less handling and re-working of the product. Advantage was taken of the quality learning that had already been achieved during the first year’s volume production at Cowley, and special attention was paid to feedback of customer satisfaction issues from vehicles in service, so that the re-born facility could start on the best possible quality platform.
People outside the industry might be surprised to hear that several senior members of the Longbridge Rover 75 team spent some time with their opposite numbers in the Jaguar S-TYPE factory at Castle Bromwich, studying the build processes used there. Such co-operation between rival car companies is quite normal.
Paint Shop Preparation
In parallel with the re-organisation of CAB1, changes had to be made to the painting facilities to accommodate the new car. First, the Rover 45 bodyshells were transferred from the No. 2 Paint Shop to No.3. This cleared the No.2 Shop for conversion to Rover 75 painting, and it was shut down for eight weeks for the work to be carried out. Although this didn’t involve the kind of deep excavations that were needed in CAB1, it was still a major re-tooling programme with modifications being carried out to body slings and conveyors, and re-programming of robotic sprayers, plus changes to the paint colour ranges and the addition of a new anti-corrosion waxing booth.
While all this was going on, the people who normally painted cars in No 2 Shop were given useful employment preparing and painting their own workplace, so that it would be a lighter, cleaner working environment in which to produce the highest standards of finish on Rover 75s. The intensive effort was rewarded when the first Rover 75 bodyshells came out of the updated shop clean and gleaming.
Hands, hearts and minds
Transferring a production line isn’t just about civil engineering and production hardware – it is also very much about the people who will operate and maintain it. Many Longbridge people had already worked on the Rover 75 at Cowley following the run-out of the Rover 100 Series, and, wherever possible, this experience was fed into the new assembly line project.
Over 400 people who had been working on the previous Rover 45 line underwent a nine-week training programme, which included a three-week spell for each of them working on the Rover 75 line at Cowley before it shut down. A core group of 25 skills trainers were themselves trained at Cowley so that they could then run training sessions at Longbridge. A ‘pilot production’ facility in the Longbridge Methods Build Department was used for intensive five-day ‘hands-on’ training modules. These included a full strip-down and re-build of a Rover 75, familiarising each associate with the advanced components, processes and tools used to build the car. Broader issues were also covered, with safety, housekeeping and quality given special emphasis.
The importance of a customer focus was stressed throughout, with presentations of data from warranty analysis and consumer surveys such as those run by J D Power. MG Rover’s business needs were explained – quality levels at least as high as those established at Cowley, with higher levels of efficiency based on ‘Right First Time’. The new assembly line features the ‘Andon’ system, whereby anyone who is unhappy with the operation they have carried out, or who spots a problem with a previous operation, can stop the track for the item to be resolved before it goes any further. This system, as can be imagined, creates a high-pressure discipline for effective problem resolution – it was essential that all involved understood their role in using and responding to it.
Another facet covered in the Rover 75 training programme was multi-skilled maintenance for the high technology production equipment. With the assistance of Dudley College, an established training partner for Longbridge, NVQ-level maintenance courses have been held on site.
Just as important as technical proficiency, in MG Rover’s view, is enthusiasm and motivation. Every Rover 75 build associate participated in ride and drive exercises with the 75 range of models, followed by static evaluations and discussions from a customer viewpoint. Everyone could then understand what was so special about the car and be enthusiastic about building it with care and commitment.
While Rover 75 moved to Longbridge, MINI went the other way to Cowley
One of the most complex aspects of the transfer was the re-organisation of the component supply logistics, especially during the changeover period. Even the transfer of Rover 45 to a common assembly line with Rover 25 involved an extensive logistics change programme. At first sight, it would have been simpler to stop 45 production while the 75 started up, but it was quickly realised that many suppliers to the 45 could not have sustained such a gap in their revenue, and a way had to be found to minimise loss of production and consequent impact on suppliers. By dint of close teamwork between Longbridge and the suppliers, this initial phase of the overall project was achieved with as few business difficulties as possible.
The next stage was to replicate the component feed arrangement that had been established for the 75 at Cowley. This was a huge task, involving some 2500 individual components or sub-assemblies and 70 suppliers which were all entirely new to Longbridge. In addition, the BOM (Bill of Material) IT systems used at Cowley, having been originated from scratch for the 75, were different to those established at Longbridge, and there certainly was not time or resource available to change the Longbridge systems during the transfer. Further complications surrounded the suppliers who were actually based on site at Cowley, carrying out late configuration work on sub-assemblies such as bumpers, fascias and headlinings. Ways had to be found to have this work done elsewhere, and also to re-allocate any third-party component sequencing work needed to match component supply to vehicle build schedules.
At the shutdown of 75 production at Cowley, arrangements had to be made for the collection and storage of all the special containers (trolleys, stillages, racks etc.) used to transport components to the assembly line, and the subsequent re-issuing of the containers to the respective suppliers before 75 production started at Longbridge. Because of the lead time needed to refill the supply chain, Longbridge logistics staff had to inform suppliers in June what the build programme would be on start up in October. This was done via the Cowley order system, controlled from Longbridge, while a similar co-operative exercise was taking place to build up component orders for the new MINI at Cowley.
As the geography of Longbridge is very different to that created for the 75 at Cowley, some changes had to be made to the lineside delivery procedures, with in-plant lorry movements being required to feed components to CAB 1 from interim distribution centres on site. As far as possible, however, the Cowley-style trolley containers have been retained for conveying parts within CAB 1, so that no fork lift truck work is needed.
One vital aspect of this exercise was to convince all suppliers that Longbridge would achieve its ambitious timing for restart of 75 production. Quite understandably, many suppliers may have had their doubts. Over a two week period, therefore, all suppliers were invited to attend a seminar at Longbridge, at which the new supply strategies were presented and discussed. Suppliers were very clearly instructed not to ‘second-guess’ the timing plan, as it would obviously be jeopardised if any components were absent at the critical time.
By the early October deadline, the first Longbridge-built Rover 75s started to roll off the assembly line. There were still some interim working arrangements in place at this stage, as some of the final facility installation work had been planned for the one-week Autumn shutdown at the end of October, but the gradual build-up of production volumes was under way, and on time.
Over in Longbridge West Works, the bodyshell multiwelders and welding robots were being moved into place, with the Body-in-White Engineers working to a schedule that will see Rover 75 bodyshells going into volume production here early in 2001. As with all the work at Longbridge on this extraordinary project, provision is being made to accommodate the Rover 75 Estate model, planned for production in mid-2001.
Even the most battle-hardened manufacturing experts at Longbridge admit that the past few months have been completely unprecedented for the sheer intensity and difficulty of the work they had to do. For most of them, it has been a matter of seven-day weeks and much midnight oil, but one theme comes out loud and clear: they enjoyed taking on and mastering this massive challenge as a team. They were refreshed by the empowerment that came from MG Rover’s drastically-shortened lines of command.
Although BMW required careful budgetary control of the work as it progressed, the ‘what’ and ‘how’ decisions were taken quickly and on the spot. Although no one has any illusions about the work that lies ahead, there is a quiet confidence and determination at Longbridge, and a willingness to go on working miracles.
The end of the Mini at Longbridge was used to usher in the beginning of the
Rover 75… (Picture: Ian Nicholls)
Thanks to Ian Elliott first published in 2000
Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...
Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.