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From Design to Production

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The Mini Cooper was the "jewel in the box" that BMW bought when it paid 800 million pounds for Britain's Rover Group, in February 1994.

From Design to Production

As BMW moved into production of the Mini last year in Oxford, England, engineers upgraded to IBM's CATIA V5, and used software from Dessault Systemes for product lifecycle management.

Design teams gathered data from many sources after discovering that consumers in market research often described the car as "cute." Van Hooydonk said they had to develop a language to translate what "cute" meant.

The greater challenge was cramming the modern Mini with an array of electronic features like "Flat Tire," which monitors wheel speed and flashes a warning to drivers when one tire is turning faster than the others—indicating low tire pressure.

Airbags also had to fit, as did exhaust systems reconfigured for emissions control, and re-engineered with a heat shield to remove annoying excess temperature in the floorboards.

That's the kind of engineering challenge that BMW tends to rise to, said Kevin Prouty, automotive expert with AMR Research.

"BMW is all about the driving machine, well-engineered," he said.

The company applies the same precision to its collaboration with suppliers, Prouty said. Evidence is seen in the relationship between BMW and Intier Automotive, which builds the cockpit for the new Mini in Redditch, England.

The BMW contract prompted 250 new hires and 2,000 tooling modifications, says Intier plant manager Norman Taylor. Taylor says BMW's digital communications system allows "real-time changes on orders within a seven-hour build window."

The 30 cockpit modules they produce per day include airbags, wiring harnesses and an instrumentation package centered on the distinctive round speedometer that dominates the Mini's dash.

Andrew Cutler, a communications manager with the MiniUSA Division, said the long gestation of the Mini—from final redesign in 1997 to production in 2001—was filled with challenges beyond the technology being used.

One was BMW's divestiture of Rover Group in 2000, after it had started construction of the Mini assembly plant in Longbridge, England. The sale prompted the dismantling of that plant and its reassembly in Oxford.

That affected software suppliers like GE Fanuc, whose production line technology, Cimplicity Plant Edition Version 3.2, controls the Mini's paint shop. But it also allowed an upgrade to Cimplicity's Version 5.0, enabling data from the 13 different processes used to paint the Mini to be analyzed in real time, rather than historically.

Long before paint was applied to steel, Van Hooydonk and other designers had resolved a more central problem: upgrading the classic car to modern standards while still getting four adults into the cockpit.

"We all knew from the outset that it was impossible to … package today's people into this body shape that was made in the '60s. But, would people be prepared to accept a slightly bigger car, and still call it Mini?" Van Hooydonk asked.

His designers used Silicon Graphics' Alias/Wavefront AutoStudio software to visualize, in three dimensions, how much room there was for human cargo.

"To evaluate ergonomics," Van Hooydonk recalled, "you need to digitize it. You need to evaluate viewing angles, clearances—stuff like that."

That could not be done in clay, and it was essential before a prototype could be produced. By electronic modeling through Alias, the team answered the big question: whether anyone Van Hooydonk's size could sit comfortably in a modern Mini.

The final configuration seems to have worked, the company says. Since its release in the U.S. in May, orders here have topped 40,000—double BMW's marketing expectations.

This article was originally published on 2002-11-01
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